Friday, March 29, 2019

Big Ears: Despite adorable Dumbo, “Dumbo” never really takes flight

Dumbo (2019)
112 min.
Release Date: March 29, 2019 (Wide)

The Mouse House is leaving no stone unturned in reimagining every one of their animated properties, and 2019's succession begins with “Dumbo,” a live-action/CG-assisted remake of the 1941 Disney classic by director Tim Burton (2016's "Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children"). Dumbo—the big-eared elephant, that is—could fall firmly into Burton’s menagerie of lonely, misunderstood outcasts, and a circus of so-called freaks would be right at home in Burton Land, but aside from a few moments that showcase his signature style and weird, whimsical sensibilities, “Dumbo” curiously comes off as one of Burton’s most anonymous efforts. Where’s the joy and magic? In expanding upon the basic framework of the original film (both based on Helen Aberson and Harold Pearl’s book), screenwriter Ehren Kruger (2017’s “Ghost in the Shell”) and director Burton don’t really do much to make the film pop or make it their wondrous own. Unlike Dumbo, “Dumbo” isn’t anything more than fine, never really taking flight or engendering enough feeling to move one to tears.

Around the end of World War I, widowed veteran and former circus trick-rider Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) returns home, having lost his arm but reuniting with his children, Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins). The children have lost their mother to influenza but have made their own family within the Medici Brothers Circus. Circus ringmaster Max Medici (Danny DeVito) had to sell Holt’s horses while he was gone, so he puts Holt in charge of elephant maintenance. When a pregnant elephant, Mrs. Jumbo, gives birth, the baby elephant is derided for having floppy, oversized ears and then watches his protective mama being taken away from him. Milly and Joe take to the elephant immediately, particularly when they realize their new friend can levitate and eventually fly with the flap of his ears when a feather goes through his trunk. The news of the mockingly dubbed “Dumbo” gets around and in comes V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), a charismatic but slimy and opportunistic entrepreneur who wants to exploit the animal as the main attraction with Parisian trapeze artist Colette Merchant (Eva Green) at his cutting-edge theme park Dreamland. 

With expressive, soulful eyes, Dumbo is an impressively animated CG creation, making one believe an elephant can fly again, and as it should be, the adorable little pachyderm is worth caring about. Unfortunately, the script has to fill out a whole extra hour and doesn't know what to do with all of its boring, underwritten human characters. It also doesn’t help that the performances mostly register as either muted or broad. Colin Farrell has a low-key charm as Holt, and Eva Green (Burton’s latest muse) adds a little more spark as Colette. As science-minded Milly, newcomer Nico Parker has a sweet, graceful presence, not to mention a dead-ringer resemblance to her mother (Thandie Newton), that she completely outshines her forgettable co-star, Finley Hobbins, as brother Joe. As for Michael Keaton and Danny DeVito, there is the chance to see Bruce “Batman” Wayne and Oswald “The Penguin” Cobblepot in the same film again, only to have their heroic and villainous roles reversed. Beaming in from a livelier, cartoonish movie, Keaton revels in the hammy villainy here, but his V.A. Vandevere is a generically one-note mustache-twirler without any surprises; in fact, by selling tickets before even making sure his circus act with Dumbo and Colette will work, his Vandevere reminds of an early-20th-century Billy McFarland, the would-be mastermind behind Fyre Festival. Then there’s DeVito, who brings some zing to ringmaster Max Medici, but his shtick with his pet monkey is hardly amusing.

For large chunks of “Dumbo,” one forgets that Tim Burton is actually at the helm, until a nod to the original film's hallucinatory "Pink Elephants on Parade" scene serves as a reminder when Dumbo imagines pink soap bubbles morphing into elephants. Dumbo’s first flight in the circus ring in front of a crowd provides the one brief moment of wonder, and the first glimpse of Vandevere’s art-deco-styled Dreamland through the pearly gates like Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory also catches the eye. Not much else in the workmanlike production really wows, though the technical efforts of Burton’s longtime collaborators, like production designer Rick Heinrichs, costume designer Colleen Atwood, and composer Danny Elfman, cannot be faulted. It should also be noted that an anachronistic cameo by a certain ring announcer is more jarring than clever and will surely fly over the heads of the young target audience. While the 1941 film told its beautifully simple yet big-hearted story in just a hair over an hour, this “Dumbo” feels joyless, needlessly protracted, and mechanically plotted when it could have pared down the excess of side players around Dumbo and concentrated on its core story about a put-upon boy, animal or not, finding courage to reunite with his mother. Somehow, this new version is just flat when our heart should be flying high with the little elephant that could.

Grade: C

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