From the time Helen Aberson and Harold Pearl wrote the little 1939 “Roll-a-Book” on which Disney’s 1941 animated movie was based, “Dumbo” has been a beloved tale of transformation—an “Ugly Duckling” story transposed to the world of pachyderms, in which an outcast little elephant is made a popular sensation by his ability to fly with his oversized ears. That—along with the theme of familial separation—remains the essence of Tim Burton’s live-action reimagining, but this new version is also a transformation of another sort: in the hands of the director and screenwriter Ehren Kruger what was a small, charming movie barely an hour long has become a lumbering, depressing slog nearly twice that, encumbered with plot additions that follow today’s rote formulas for family fare.
There are things in the original that probably could not have been included today—the crows, for example, with their anachronistic racial overtones, or even the opening stork business, which might seem dated to modern audiences—even though a whole animated feature was recently constructed around it. But was it really necessary to excise all the songs except “Baby Mine,” and the character of Timothy Q. Mouse, the forerunner of Jiminy Cricket (who could easily be computer-generated today—after all, Dumbo is)? A lot of the charm goes out the window with them. (The pink elephants remain, but in a more benign context.)
Still, while the omissions are unfortunate, the additions are worse—and there are plenty of them, just as there were in the recent expansion of Disney’s Oscar-winning animated short into a feature as “Ferdinand.” As is commonplace in the Disney playbook today, the story becomes one of an unusual family. So Dumbo is—after his mother is sold off after apparently killing her boy’s tormentor (Phil Zimmerman)—effectively adopted by a human family that is itself fractured, the mother having been carried off in the flu epidemic of 1919.
That leaves Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell), who has come back from World War I minus his left arm and finds that circus owner Max Medici (Danny DeVito, strenuously unfunny) has sold the steed that was his partner in a cowboy act. He must now take on menial jobs, like caring for Dumbo, while also seeing to the needs of his two spunky kids, brainy Milly (Nico Parker) and exuberant Joe (Finley Hobbins). They’re the ones who teach Dumbo to fly (very early on in the story) with the aid of a supposedly magic feather.
But of course other circus folk are part of the supportive “extended” family, too, including the strong man (DeObia Oparei), the mermaid (Sharon Rooney) and the snake charmer (Rosnan Seth). Unfortunately, they’re all a pretty colorless lot—they might as well have been bused in from “The Greatest Showman.”
Then there’s the grand villain that’s now obligatory in every Disney feature, it seems. In this case it’s V.A, Vandevere (Michael Keaton), a Barnum-style impresario who buys the whole Medici troupe for his amusement park called Dreamland, though it’s only Dumbo he wants to acquire, and exploit, by teaming him up with his trapeze star/lover Colette (Eva Green)—he plans to sack the rest of them. Unhappily the role, as written, is almost devoid of laughs, leaving Keaton, saddled with a silver toupee, no choice but to snarl and sneer his way through the movie, although one might get some pleasure from imagining that the makers intended him as a satiric swipe at Walt Disney himself, who was not known as a terribly nice fellow in real life, and his pet project, Disneyland.
Things go as you might imagine from here. Collette turns from naughty to nice and becomes complicit in the Farrier family’s efforts not merely to save the Medici circus but to reunite Dumbo with his mother, who just happens to be part of an exhibit in another zone of Dreamland (and whom Vandevere decides to kill in order to keep his star attraction from being distracted!) Of course, this results in their own family being fixed as well. In the melee that results, the whole amusement park goes up in flames, leaving hundreds of patrons to escape as best they can while Dumbo helps to save the Farrier kids from Vandevere’s Prussian enforcer Brogelbecker (Lars Ildinger) by dousing some of the fire blocking their path with water.
The catastrophic character of this conflagration might lead you to wonder about the fate of all the customers who can’t make it out—like those shown riding atop the park’s mile-high Ferris Wheels, which apparently disintegrate in the blaze. But presumably we’re not intended to worry about such collateral damage: Dumbo and his mother emerge unscathed and return to their Asian homeland. And at least the destruction of Vandevere’s colossal enterprise gives Alan Arkin, otherwise totally wasted as a grumpy banker, the opportunity to utter the movie’s self-defining line: “Wow, what a disaster!”
It remains to remark that the CGI throughout the movie is fine, with Dumbo, with his floppy ears and big, pleading eyes, as winning a character as ever; and his flying scenes are fine, though they’re repeated so often that the magic gradually drips away to a dribble. One can, moreover, be glad that Kruger, who after all penned three of the “Transformers” pictures, at least refrained from giving the little fellow some new powers—like the ability to shoot fire from his trunk. Among the humans, Farrell frankly looks ill-at-ease, which is understandable (he is a widower just back from the trenches, after all) and Green never manages to make Collette particularly lovable, but both get by; Parker, with her exceptionally pronounced forehead, and Hobbins, with his engaging smile, almost manage to make the kids sufferable.
As for Burton, his attempts to instill some of his bizarre, idiosyncratic spirit into “Dumbo” come across as half-hearted, no more successful than the effort to imprint his personality on the woeful remake of “Planet of the Apes” was. Still, the physical production has all the Disney sheen, with Rick Heinrichs’ production design, Colleen Atwood’s costumes and Ben Davis’ cinematography, as well as the visual effects supervised by Richard Stammers, all top-notch. But “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms” and “Mary Poppins Returns” excelled in those departments and were severe disappointments, too. Burton’s long-time collaborator Danny Elfman contributes a crudely bombastic score that relies on angelic choirs to such an extent that you might wind up thinking you’re already experiencing the afterlife—though not necessarily heaven.
“Dumbo” closes with a coda depicting the revived Medici circus—now completely “animal friendly,” we’re told by ringmaster Max in a sop to today’s preferences. From what we see of the acts, it looks like the type of anemic show that would close before reaching the next town, but we’re supposed to believe that it’s a smash, even without the flying elephant. The real capper comes, though, when Max tells us emphatically that “miracles do happen!” Perhaps so, but not in the case of Tim Burton’s version of “Dumbo.”