Review – Dumbo (2019)

by Kevin Muller

The Disney canon is full of animated films that are currently getting live action remakes. This year we have Aladdin, The Lion King, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, and this film Dumbo. Each of these projects has a respected director connected to them that have to abide by the guidelines of the mouse house. Dumbo, is a film of extreme sadness about the separation of mother and child. Who better of a person to make that dreadful situation have beauty than director Tim Burton. The most famous film of his Edward Scissorhands was about an isolated creation trying to both fit in and fine love in the world. Can Burton make this story of an elephant, with the gift of flight, have the same emotional impact he gave Edward close to 30 years ago?

The year is 1919, where the spectacle of the circus is still a staple of American culture.   It is the end of the first World War, so people need the escapism from the darkness of the time. One veteran, Holt Farrier, played by Colin Farrell, returns home with a missing arm. Despite this, he wants to continue his life with his two children, Joe and Milly, and continue his act of doing tricks on horses. Head of operations, Max Medici, realizes that an one armed man is a tough sell in a world that is starting to move on from tent based attractions to theme parked ones. The pendulum swings in their favor when one of the elephants gives birth to a baby with large ears. At first, it seems like a freak of nature, until Joe and Milly start to play with it and discover that it can fly. The elephant, which they name Dumbo, becomes the main attraction and brings in both the money and exposure that the circus desperately needs. Dumbo misses his mother after she comes to the rescue of her baby from audience hecklers. Theme Park owner, V.A. Vandevere, becomes very interested in Dumbo and plans to scoop him away from the only family he has ever known. His belief is that the circus life is a thing of the past and if you create something worthwhile, people will come to you, as he did with his amusement park called “Dreamland.” It is up to the Holt, his children, and the rest of the circus to reunite the mother and child.

Screenwriter Ehren Krueger, created the human drama since the animated film was solely about all the animals. Some of those animals do make appearances, but for the most part, this is a film that relies on the human performances. Colin Farrell is given just enough to make a redeemable hero out of Holt. He is a broken man, who not only lost his arm, but his wife to sickness. As a widow, he is scared and unsure about raising two children on his own.Burton also collected some of his regulars to help advance the story. DeVito is fine as the circus leader who is protective, yet demanding, of his troupe. New Burton star, Eva Green, plays Colette Marchant, a high flying trapeze artist. Her and Dumbo are paired together to create the final act in the show. Through this, she starts to understand her costar and begins to find the beauty she forgot exists in life.  Finally, Michael Keaton, who was both Batman and Beetlejuice for his director, plays Vandevere. The man is despicable, greedy, and vacant of empathy, but pretty tame for a Tim Burton villain. Keaton does alter his voice slightly, but nothing like we’ve come to know past Burton villains. Even the kids, Nico Parker, daughter of actress Thandie Newton, and Finley Hobbins, provide a nice element to the story. All the performances are good, but none of them really stick out, which is surprising for a director who has at least one standout performance in his films.

Burton, who has been on autopilot for the last ten years, despite some projects that made him step out of his comfort zone, creates a beautiful world for the story to develop. Vandevere’s “Dreamland,” is full of all the oddities and freaky ideas that we associate with the director. As with the performances, it is a well-directed film, but very middle of the road. Disney’s metaphorical foot is definitely felt on Burton’s creativity. There are moments where he can slide his style in. Those specific moments jump outside the standards of the Disney fare, which create a sense of mischief. How is the elephant though? If you are solely going to see the title character, you will get your money’s worth. The animators bring Dumbo to life. It is incredibly easy to fall in love with the little guy based upon how well the team makes him emote every little emotion.

Dumbo has its heart in the right place. It respectfully brings the story to a new generation of viewers. While some of the decisions don’t work, you can’t help to smile when the he is front and center. Burton does bring his artistic talents to this classic Disney tale, but can’t save the film’s human characters from being surprisingly bland.

I am giving Dumbo a 3.5 out of 5 Hairpieces!

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