Jeff York

The Live-Action “Dumbo” Forgets to Keep It Simple

The Live-Action “Dumbo” Forgets to Keep It Simple
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The classic Disney animated feature Dumbo from 1941 was a mere 64 minutes long. The new live-action version is one-hour and 52 minutes. This new take on the material pads out the story, adding dozens of human characters into the mix while lessening the focus on the baby elephant character with the ginormous ears. As if that’s not overly revisionist enough, missing is Timothy Q. Mouse who lent such able support in the original, and even Dumbo’s ability to fly gets mined far too frequently. In the original film, his soaring elevated just the last 15 minutes of the film. Here, his trick is shown over and over again from 30 minutes into the movie. It almost becomes just another day at the circus.

In fact, there’s far too much circus in this outing altogether. The original Dumbo film was a focused love story between elephant mother and child. Here, they’re still the heart of it all, but the body of the film concerns another parent and his kids. Colin Farrell plays Holt Farrier, a star horse-riding performer for The Medici Brothers Circus who comes back from WWI a troubled man. His wife has died while he was away, he lost an arm in the war, and his newly independent children utterly flummox him. This film may be called Dumbo, but it’s all about Daddy learning to get his mojo back.

As Holt struggles to fit in, he faces one humiliation after another. His daughter Milly (Nico Parker) has little use for the circus and show biz, preferring the logic of scientific studies. His boss Max Medici (Danny DeVito) demotes him to the job of lowly elephant wrangler, looking after Baby Jumbo, dubbed Dumbo, because of his clumsy, oversized ears. The war veteran even ends up in clown makeup to help Dumbo perform his comedy tricks in the big ring. Holt is so out of sorts even the coyly confident acrobat Colette Marchant discombobulates him. (Then again, who wouldn’t be intimidated by Eva Green? She intimidated Bond, after all.)

Danny DeVito and Colin Farrell

Early in the film while Holt is feeling sorry for himself, his snooping kids discover that Dumbo can fly after he accidentally ingests a feather. That plot point is consistent with a trope from the original film, but here the elephant’s trick turns him into an immediate must-see act barely a third into the film. His commercial viability with a paying public starts driving the story as his prowess saves Medici’s business and brings a more prominent showman to come-a-calling. His name is V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton) and, in no time, he’s bought up the small circus and all its acts, and transported them to perform in his huge theme park entitled Dreamland. (As a rather obvious in-joke, it’s a thinly-veiled spoof of Disneyland.)

Once they all arrive at the ostentatious park, the simple story about Dumbo gets dwarfed even more. The story becomes crowded not only with the arc of Holt’s redemption but also by the machinations of Vandevere’s greed. Additional distractions stir into the mix including the ruthless exploitation of animals, the rights of the carnival workers, and the corporatization of the entertainment industry. It’s not only too many themes, but it’s also too adult for what is supposed to be all-family fare.

Director Tim Burton brings his penchant for top-notch production values to the period piece, and many aspects are impressive, such as the vivid costumes by Colleen Atwood. She’s worked with Burton on a number of films before, and their sensibilities fit hand in glittery glove here. A lot of Burton’s cast are returning veterans from his previous work too, though they don’t fare quite as well. Despite his familiarity with Keaton, DeVito, and Green, he doesn’t direct them to deliver particularly compelling performances. DeVito disappoints especially, pushing everything about his boisterous character to the forefront in the first few minutes and leaving no layers to plumb after that. Keaton, on the other hand, struggles to play an oversized villain. Decked in a bad wig and candy-colored suits, the actor doesn’t seem to know whether to play it straight or comically. It’s the kind of role that Hugh Grant aced handily in Paddington 2 last year, but Keaton can’t summon the same flair needed for such a part.

Eva Green

Burton and screenwriter Ehren Kruger do wonders with Dumbo when placing him front and center, and the scene where he struggles to escape a fiery stunt that goes awry in the big top is a breathless show-stopper. Yet, too much of the film around him distracts from such pure pathos. Instead, there’s far too much Holt, Vandevere, and incidental schtick that takes away from the title character throughout. Sure, the digs at Disney World’s Carousel of Progress attraction are amusing, as is hiring announcer Michael Buffer to play a carnival barker who exclaims, “Let’s get ready for Dumbooooo!”, but such bits mar the earnestness of Dumbo’s arc.

Ultimately, even Farrell’s dad and his kids get short shrift as the chaos of the third act swallows everything. It may be de rigueur in adventure films these days but did this movie need to end with an extended chase, lots of fighting, and the destruction of property? Was all that necessary just to reunite Dumbo with his mother? When they finally get back together in the original, it makes you cry. Here’s it more of a sigh of relief. There’s plenty of eye candy here, some genuine spectacle, and some nifty special effects, but the metaphor of moving the small circus to the vast theme park couldn’t be more apt for the troubles of the movie. This take on an intimate story is so jumbo that it makes it feel a little dumb.

Catch the trailer of Dumbo below:

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