Something of a return to form for director Tim Burton, aided by a heft of leeway given the original material, the live-action take on Disney’s classic Dumbo is an affecting, old-fashioned tale that doesn’t always entirely stick its landing after a series of momentous flights.
Disney’s original Dumbo, released in 1941, was always going to be the type of tale that needed a serious case of updated padding due to both the film’s scant 64 minute running time and heavily outdated material (the black crows say hello). Burton, whose last union with Disney resulted in an explicable billion dollar success (2010’s Alice in Wonderland), hasn’t been on the most consistent of runs lately, but he proves himself an inspired choice here by simultaneously grounding the film in a somber post-WWI setting whilst injecting his usual flare for theatrics; the visuals and a gloriously camp turn from Michael Keaton reminding us throughout.
Speaking of Keaton (the actor reuniting with Burton following their trio of late 80’s/early 90’s successes Beetlejuice, Batman, and Batman Returns), it’s his enigmatic entrepreneur V.A. Vandevere that truly pumps the film with a sense of life as, sadly, Colin Farrell’s protagonist Holt Ferrier, a wounded WWI veteran and former circus star, and his two on-screen spawn (Nico Parker’s Milly and Finley Hobbins’ Joe) downplay most of their material, with their more sullen performances feeling wildly out-of-place in a film that’s all about sentiment and spectacle.
You would think the sight of a baby elephant with overgrown ears and the ability to fly would leave anyone in a state of elated bewilderment, but for Farrell, Hobbins and Parker (the latter an especially guilty party of underplaying her emotions) their reactions appear lukewarm at best, furthering Keaton’s entrance into the film as its saviour as he at least reacts in the manner one would expect; we’re not surprised when he wants Dumbo’s soaring abilities for his own profit, but he at least sees a little magic in the elephant.
Of course it’s the titular over-expressive mammal that is truly the heart and soul of Burton’s safe-playing feature, a neat marvel of CGI that makes him look, at times, impossibly life-like. It’s his movie and everyone else is just coming along for the ride.
Next to Keaton (in the type of role Burton would have pegged for Johnny Depp), Danny DeVito and Eva Green maintain Dumbo‘s flare for the operatic with the former both enjoyably manic and naive as Dumbo’s original circus owner, and the latter surprisingly playing her role as a lofty aerialist straight-laced, her character warming to Dumbo and the Ferrier family over its 112 minute running time.
Whilst the film’s mentality mixture of old-fashioned storytelling and vibrant visuals may not always succeed with its intended audience – for a film about a flying elephant it’s surprising at how dark and adult certain sequences are – Dumbo‘s soaring set-pieces are enough to earn it a recommendation, though I dare say that the upcoming live-action adaptations of both Aladdin (however that film turns out) and The Lion King will ultimately overshadow this little elephant that flies over its source material but can’t help but land due to its uneven path.