Want to see a dark ‘Dumbo’? Me neither.
Tim Burton combines live-action and animation in the latest version of the classic children's story ‘Dumbo.’
Every fan of classic Disney animation probably has a favorite screen pairing — Mickey and Minnie, Lady and Tramp, Snow White and one or all of the Seven Dwarfs.
Personally I’ve always been partial to Dumbo and Timothy Q. Mouse, so I was dismayed and disappointed to find Timothy — Dumbo’s best friend, surrogate parent, defender, drinking buddy, and inspirational sidekick — virtually absent from Tim Burton’s new live-action version.
Also absent: most of the daffy, endearing appeal of the 1941 classic. Like so many modernized supersized reboots, this one is twice as long and half as good.
Problems include Burton’s characteristic desire to make things “dark.” He’s rounded up his old Batman cronies for a story that places poor little Dumbo in a circus with all the cheer and charm of Gotham City.
Needless to say, this time Dumbo does not enter the world via stork. Instead, the wheeler-dealer impresario of a two-bit traveling circus (Danny DeVito) buys a pregnant elephant figuring he’ll eventually get a bonus animal in the bargain.
The baby, a CGI creation, is born with gigantic malformed ears and proves an inept performer, prompting hecklers to name him Dumbo. A pair of circus children (Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins) nurture him, and learn that he has the magical ability to fly — though they have a hard time convincing their widower father (Colin Farrell), a one-time horseman demoted to elephant handler because he lost an arm in World War I. He was fighting in France when his wife died during the influenza pandemic.
Want more “dark?” No? Well, too bad. Dumbo’s own mom is exiled when she kills her sadistic trainer, who is seen leaving, feet first, with the coroner.
This movie has nearly as high a body count as Us.
On the bright side, Dumbo becomes a sensation when he starts to fly, having been persuaded by the children that if he excels as a performer, he’ll earn enough money to fund a reunion with his mother.
The sudden fame, however, comes at the elephant’s peril. He is acquired in a shady stock deal by a big-time theme park operator named Vandevere (Michael Keaton, a good actor giving a bad performance that borders on tactless caricature). Vandevere has gone heavily in debt to fund this enterprise, so Dumbo becomes a make-or-break investment, and much treachery ensues.
This plot will be thrilling to all children who regard the viewing of Dumbo as a stepping-stone for a career at Goldman Sachs. (This interest in finance has become habitual with Disney reboots; you may remember the crooked banker/foreclosure angle from Mary Poppins Returns.)
Viewers may also be less than enthralled by Vandevere’s creepy entertainment complex, where we are stuck for at least an hour (the movie runs nearly two). It’s called Dreamland, and appears to be Burton’s inversion of Disneyland.
Is this satire? Homage?
More like the desperation of a director who’s supplanted “vision” for emotion. The story leaves Dumbo without meaningful links to the human characters, and the scattered story of Farrell’s cohering family falls flat.
Given all of this, I wonder if Timothy Q. Mouse was written out at all. Maybe he saw an early draft of Ehren Kruger’s script and decided to hold out for Stuart Little 4.
Dumbo. Directed by Tim Burton. With Colin Farrell, Danny DeVito. Nico Parker, Michael Keaton, Eva Green, and Finley Hobbins. Distributed by Disney.
Parents’ guide: PG
Running time: 115 minutes
Playing at: Area theaters