A heart-warming tale that never quite takes off
Tim Burton’s live action remake of Disney’s classic about a flying elephant has its high points, but ultimately fails to soar, writes Paul Whitington
The creative wonks at Disney must know they take their lives in their hands every time they remake one of their classics. Though Dumbo is perhaps less watched and less loved these days than the likes of Snow White and Cinderella, it's a special film in its way, and was Walt Disney's personal favourite.
Perhaps that's because the 1941 animation saved the studio from bankruptcy after the box offices failures of Fantasia and Pinocchio. Barely 60 minutes long, it told the touching, by times, heartbreaking and ultimately uplifting story of a baby circus elephant born with ginormous ears.
Children were traumatised by the scene in which young Dumbo is separated from his mother, who's declared mad and locked up: when her child comes to visit her, their trunks mingle through the bars of a cage.
In the original film, the abandoned mammal was assisted by a faithful mouse called Timothy, and a wily gang of crows who would later come to be considered distasteful African-American caricatures. This, though, is a live action film, so a talking mouse who sounded like he was from Brooklyn was deemed beyond the pale. In fairness, this production is not so much a remake as a rethink: it has departed considerably from the original template, as evidenced by the choice of director.
Tim Burton was always going to introduce his well-worn gothic tics to the equation, and once this warm and fuzzy family drama is up and running, its corners are curled by a Halloween-ish tinge. Colin Farrell leads the line, playing Holt Farrier, a big top horse-riding star who returns home to the circus from the Great War disillusioned and physically diminished having lost an arm.
His two young children, Milly and Joe (Nico Parker, Finley Hobbins), are shocked when they see this, but they've already known plenty of grief, their beloved mother having died of influenza when Holt was at war. He hopes the circus owner and ringmaster Max Medici (Danny DeVito) will let him perform again, but Max is a realist, and asks Holt to look after the elephants instead. When one of them gives birth, Max thinks things are finally looking up for the circus. But once he gets a load of Dumbo, all bets are off.
The pup is a freak, he decides, and must be kept out of sight: little does he know that Dumbo can fly. Milly and Joe are playing with the animal when it ingests a feather and takes off. Dumbo hits the headlines and next thing you know, the vultures are swooping, chief among them V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), the oily owner of a vast amusement park.
When Vandevere offers to buy up the whole Medici Brothers circus, Max agrees and off they're whisked to the bright lights of New York. It's Vandevere's plan that his star trapeze artist Colette Marchant will ride Dumbo as he flies, but the animal is not keen to cooperate, especially when it finds out that its mother is being held nearby.
The critical welcome has not been warm for Burton's Dumbo but while it's true that the film's disparate parts never fully coalesce and that Burton might not have been the ideal choice as director in the first place, there's enough humour, heart and visual panache to keep you interested.
The Cgi elephant itself, which has been the target of particular ire, is pretty well rendered in my opinion, cute but not too cute, with watchful blue eyes and an impish streak, and the first sight of it taking flight is strangely moving. Farrell brings his usual soul to a slightly underwritten role, and there's an interesting chemistry between he and Eva Green. Keaton is great fun as the stylishly odious Vandevere and DeVito gives it socks as the irrepressible ringmaster Medici.
There is a slightness to all these characterisations and it's the actors rather than the script that give them hints of depth. Perhaps this is because the film-makers, afraid of failing, have played it safe.
There are constant studious nods to the original, but in the end, your heartstrings are not tugged as they might and should have been.
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