Film review, by Jason Day, of Dumbo, the live-action remake of the classic Disney fantasy about a baby elephant born with huge ears that enable it to fly. Starring Colin Farrell and Michael Keaton.
Born to a circus performing mother, little Asiatic Elephant ‘Baby Jumbo’ has extra large ears. So large are they he is able to fly, much to the delight of struggling circus owner Max (Danny DeVito) who spots a PR opportunity to reinvigorate his loyal but finance-strapped troupe.
Separated from his mother, the baby is outwardly glum and ungainly when walking and is quickly nicknamed Dumbo.
When the more successful theme park owner V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton) see Dumbo in the air, he quickly makes Max an offer he can’t refuse and buys him out, merging the two companies.
Dumbo is teamed with beautiful French high-wire act Colette (Eva Green), but as he becomes more comfortable with his human owners, his longing for his mother increases and the humans must team up to reunite them.
Review, by @Reelreviewer
Taking on a remake of a Disney classic is not a project a director undertakes without deep second thought and more than a dash of bravery.
When that classic is the revered, deeply moving and much-loved animation Dumbo (1941) add ‘big balls’ to that description.
Is it bravery though or cinematic arrogance that compels directors to ‘best’ the classics? It certainly takes someone who is sure of themselves and that their talent is up to the job – maybe confidence is the word I’m looking for.
Tim Burton has a towering reputation for turning out quality fantasy movies that in and of themselves are classics. From Beetlejuice (1988) to Edward Scissorhands (1990) and the deliriously bloody Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007), he would be quite justified in happily casting aside any thoughts of professional suicide as they stepped behind the cameras for Dumbo.
Interesting to note then that no directors have attempted to stomp across his classics, apart from the man himself, who has given us a remake of his short Frankenweenie and – if the rumours are true – will give us a Beetlejuice sequel next year.
Burton also has a knack for cranking out comparatively poor movies, Not bad, but productions that pale in comparison to his greatest work. Since Beetlejuice, he has churned out a film roughly every two-three years, an astonishing output but he needs to down megaphone and give his clapperboard a rest if Planet of the Apes (2001) and Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2016) are anything to go by. They seem so desperate to entertain, affected and overdone catalogues of oddness strung together with uninvolving narratives and pallid characters.
I thought that Dumbo would fall into that latter category. I’m happy to report that whilst never once approaching the lyrical fantasy of Disney’s version, the remake has a lot to recommend.
Firstly, the production design is incomparably beautiful. Burton has in all of his films worked closely with a series of esteemed and talented production designers to give his films a detailed look, a hyper anti-realistic gorgeousness.
Most often, his com padre has been Rick Heinrichs and it’s his hands and eyes that are behind the staggeringly realised circus worlds of Dumbo, all gaudy Georgian Big Top/Music Hall colour and in particular the small city-sized Dreamland.
The design means that the other artistic personnel are able to get their creative juices flowing. Cameraman Ben Davis delivers the sumptuous colour palette in the cinematography and thankfully ensures that the unexciting 3D doesn’t ruin the look of the movie. Colleen Attwood’s marvelous costuming is, as you’d expect, nothing less than perfection from a four-time Oscar winner. She really goes to town with Green’s peacock and blood red dresses.
Where Dumbo suffers is in the reinterpretation of key moments that made the first film work in order to suitably differentiate it from the parent product. At times, this just about works, take the Pink Elephant sequence. This is brought wonderfully to life in the first film with creepy music and hallucinogenic visuals after Dumbo gets drunk. Here, Burton uses dancers from an impressive Busby Berkeley number as they make pachyderms out of huge bubbles. The music, shorn of lyrics, is included and the scene is genuinely good.
But the sense of magic in the air from the first film is completely eradicated in the remainder of the film. Yes, we swoon when Dumbo takes to the air, but momentarily only.
The accent on humans rather than animals, with Dumbo and his mother relegated to being merely incidental characters, renders their interactions – genuinely heart-breaking in the original movie – pedestrian and disposable. Now the script concentrates on lovely, friendly people, that devastating emotional punch is gone.
Keaton and DeVito – both Burton alumni – have fun in broad panto-turns that reflect the lack of subtlety in their characters but talented Farrell and Green are neglected as the beautiful people finding love.
Quite why the half-French Green forces out an exaggerated Gallic accent is another matter, but forget this, prepare to not see a remake that is as illustrious as its predecessor and you will be entertained.
FYI: in an inspired piece of cameo casting Michael Buffer, the legendary US boxing and wrestling ring announcer, here plays the circus MC ‘Baritone Bates’, adapting his famous catchphrase to “Let’s get ready to Dumbo!”
For more, see the official Disney website.
Cast & credits
Director: Tim Burton. 1hr 52 mins (112mins). Walt Disney Pictures/Tim Burton Productions/Infinite Detective/Secret Machine Entertainment/MPC. (PG)
Producers: Katterli Frauenfelder, Derek Frey, Ehren Kruger, Justin Springer.
Writer: Ehren Kruger.
Camera: Ben Davis.
Music: Danny Elfman.
Sets: Rick Heinrichs.
Colin Farrell, Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Eva Green, Alan Arkin, Nico Parker, Finley Hobbins, Roshan Seth, Lars Eidinger, Deobia Operai, Joseph Gatt.