Based on the 1941 sad elephant circus story, Dumbo hits all the familiar beats of its predecessor: a baby elephant with unusually large ears is born in a circus, made fun of, separated from his mother and earns the courage to fly with the help of a feather. But that story is reserved for the first 45 minutes of the film, quickly breezed through – minus those pesky racist crows – to make way for a second, original story that certainly feels more from the mind of the man who brought us Edward Scissorhands than the House of Mouse.
The second half of the film moves out of the big top and into the amusement world of the future filled with technological advances and state-of-the-art attractions with an eye on having a flying elephant to bring in even more crowds.
It’s just a shame these two halves of a film, each with their own potential, never fully meld into one entertaining story for kids or adults. The things everyone loves about the animated Disney film feel rushed or forced here, while Burton fans get glimpses of his genius, the dark elements are never dark or whimsical enough.
Dumbo is the first Disney’s three attempts at mining their animated content in 2019, with The Lion King and Aladdin to follow later this year. This effort is neither the worst of the studio’s live-action adaptations, nor is it bottom-of-the-barrel Burton – that honour still goes to Alice In Wonderland. The best thing we can say about Dumbo is at least it doesn’t star Johnny Depp.
Thankfully, Colin Farrell is Burton’s leading man here along with some of his familiar collaborators including Michael Keaton, Eva Green and Danny DeVito. But, just like the original animation doesn’t put much effort into its human characters, neither does the live-action version.
Farrell’s returning war hero Holt Farrier enters as a sad and broken man who has not only lost his arm fighting in France, but his wife, mother of his two children, and circus partner. It’s really all an excuse to put some sad clown make-up on Holt so he can thrust Dumbo into the spotlight for circus owner Max Medici (DeVito). Here, DeVito is the standout of the cast, building on his Big Fish ringmaster and adding a little more heart, though he too seems underdeveloped and paper thin.
Like DeVito, Keaton and Green’s characters from the Dreamland amusement park are given vague back stories that seem like an afterthought. She’s a trapeze artist from the streets of Paris and he’s…a businessman? A rich guy who likes circuses? It doesn’t matter because the human characters are the most 2D things in this 3D movie.
Impressive though, is Dumbo himself.
Big blue eyes and floppy ears, the CGI baby elephant blends seamlessly into the film so much so that it’s easy to forget he’s not real – at least when he’s on the ground. However, there’s no waterworks reserved for this version.
Unlike the original tear-jerking ”Baby Mine” scene (which That Shelf readers called one of the most emotional movie moments of all-time Drawn Sadly: The Most Emotionally Raw Animated Moments Of All Time – That Shelf), the live-action version is totally rushed, leaving everyone dry-eyed.
Visually-speaking, the film is a marvel that manages to capture the travelling circus world while the Dreamland amusement park looks like it would be perfectly at home in Burton’s vision of Gotham City.
Where Dumbo does earn big points is for the pushing the importance of STEM education for girls. Milly Farrier (Nico Parker) eschews the sideshow life of the circus in favour of the “magic of the future” through science and chemistry. It also scores points for being decisively pro-animal rights, pushing for a circus of tomorrow that doesn’t include caged animals. It may be corny, but it’s a message that works here.
Dumbo may win over families and Disney die-hards, but Burton fans will be left disappointed.
And yes, at one point Farrell gets to yell “Go for it, Big D!”