Director Tim Burton always delivers a feast for the senses.
Burton’s palette, from the dark purple depths of “Batman” to the gothic “Dark Shadows,” reveals an auteur with few visual peers. His tag team partner, composer Danny Elfman, supplies the sonic pop.
Burton and Elfman do it again with “Dumbo,” the live-action reboot of the classic Disney yarn. Only the film’s storytelling demands trip Burton up.
It’s no secret that Burton considers narrative a necessary evil … at best. You’d think he set the bar low enough by updating a decades-old cartoon.
Nope. The classic “Dumbo” remains the superior product.
Once again a baby elephant with massive ears upends the lives of a circus troupe. Danny DeVito’s Max Medici lords over a colorful collection of circus acts. Times are hard, but the gang gets a boost when the misshapen pachyderm takes to the air.
Suddenly a freak show becomes the main attraction. The news travels fast despite the lack of Twitter or Snapchat. Enter a mustache-wrangling Michael Keaton, so soulless he might as well have “antagonist” written in marker on his forehead.
The story spins awkwardly from there:
- Will Max deliver Dumbo to this foul man?
- Can Mama and Dumbo unite at long last?
- And why on God’s green earth does Hollywood keep asking Colin Farrell to tackle accents he has no ability to master?
The “True Detective” alum plays Holt, a former star attraction who returned from the “war” without an arm. He’s still a hard working widower, even if he’s repeatedly pinned by a Southern? accent. His kids Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins) have a gentle touch with the title character. That helps them cajole fellow circus star (Eva Green) into an airborne duet.
“Dumbo” introduces far too many characters, or simply can bring the lot of them to life. Holt is kind, decent and a yawner. Keaton, acting as if a Disney animator pulled his every muscle, never sells us on his character’s charisma.
DeVito emerges unscathed, if only because he injects even his kindest characters with a dash of Louie DePalma.
The original’s 64 minute running time just won’t do by modern stands. “Dumbo” therefore stretches the story to nearly two full hours, and the strain is evident. Burton routinely falls for manic third acts, and we get precisely that here.
What’s missing? The dramatic stakes. The most curious part is Dumbo himself. He’s rendered with loving CGI, and he interacts with his circus chums without a hint of his digital roots. He looks and feels real, and the illusion never wavers.
So why don’t we see more of him? Sure, he flies with a galloping stride that’s beguiling, but he, too, suffers from scant character traits.
FAST FACT: Variety reported that Quebec Prime Minister Adelard Godbout feared “Dumbo” would negatively impact the morals of young movie goers upon its initial release. He ensured that only adults were permitted to see the film.
The film offers a brief but pointed attack on the use of circus animals. Agree or disagree, it’s a strictly 21st century sentiment, much like some of the dialogue,
“Let’s do this!” is but one glaring example. The source material remains so whimsical, so timeless, you almost wish the takeaway here would be “Let’s do this … again, and get it right.”
HiT or Miss: Children may forgive “Dumbo’s” bland characters and soapy theatrics, but adults weaned on the 1941 animated classic will be let down.