“Dumbo” is a beloved classic, but it was probably the most problematic in regards to Disney’s relentless attempt to create live-action remakes of all of their animated films.
Made in 1941, it is certainly a movie of its time. It’s barely an hour long, it features a pack of crows that are culturally insensitive at best and its two main characters accidentally get drunk and hallucinate pink elephants on parade in one of the weirdest, wonderful, and slightly disturbing sequences Disney has ever produced.
Family entertainment during wartime got a little intense.
So, to handle this oddity about a baby elephant with oversized ears that make him fly, Disney decided to chuck it at Tim Burton and hope for the best.
The results are mixed, as Burton nails the wonder and the moral of the story, but struggles to find the heart that has carried this tale throughout the generations.
Stretching out the plot into a feature-length screenplay is Ehren Kruker, whose list of credits is, well, not great. They include three of the “Transformers” movies I was shocked to learn even had a writer, as I assumed the screenplays came from a team of chimps banging on a keyboard with rocks.
But back to “Dumbo,” wherein place of talking animals we get talking humans; a group of performers in the low-rent Medici Bros. Circus touring the country at the end of World War I.
Returning from the war minus an arm is former trick rider Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell), who comes back to the circus to find his wife has died from Spanish Flu and his children Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins) are a little standoffish.
Struggling to keep his circus afloat, ringmaster Max Medici (Danny DeVito, who is great and just might be the best thing about this movie) purchases a pregnant elephant with hopes an adorable baby will draw crowds.
Unfortunately, that baby is born with massive ears that make him a pariah, beloved only by Holt, Milly and Joe; that is, until he learns those massive ears can also double as wings.
Dumbo is instantly famous and draws the interest of polished showman V.A. Vandevere (a silver-haired Michael Keaton), the proprietor of a high-end, art-deco-infused, Coney Island-type destination called Dreamland.
Vandevere envisions Dumbo as a feature attraction to pair with his paramour and star trapeze artist Colette Marchant (Eva Green). Of course, fame and fortune are not all they are cracked up to be as, more than anything, Dumbo wants to be reunited with his tormented and misunderstood mother.
Burton clearly has a lot to say about commodifying wonder and the corporatization of art and imagination, taking several not-so-veiled shots at his employer as you don’t have to squint very hard to see Dreamland as a proto-Disneyland. Of course, Disney packaging and selling that criticism results in a Mobius strip of subtext that makes it impossible to tell who is getting the last laugh here.
In the end, it’s nice to see all the misfits in this movie find their place in the world free of exploitation, but you’ll find your heartstrings remain mostly un-tugged.
It’s fun to see an elephant fly, but “Dumbo” never truly soars.
“Dubmo” is rated PG for peril/action, some thematic events, and brief mild language.