Disney has rampantly rehashed its beloved animated classics as live-action films of late. Alice in Wonderland, The Jungle Book, Beauty and the Beast and more have arrived since 2010. This year will bring three more, including Lion King and Aladdin.
But first, the studio taps Tim Burton to direct the live-action version of Dumbo, the 1941 classic about an elephant with enlarged ears that is able to fly. In any other movie, the casting of Colin Farrell, Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Eva Green and Alan Arkin would be considered an amazing ensemble, but somehow Burton finds a way to waste more talent than Clint Eastwood did in last year’s The Mule.
The movie has Holt Farrier (Farrell) returning from World War I to his two kids and his beloved circus troupe minus an arm and his wife, who died while he was away. His circus home (headed by Devito’s Max Medici) faces financial issues, and Farrier’s put in charge of taking care of the elephants, one of which is pregnant. If you wondered if Farrell could again be in anything as bad as the second season of True Detective, Dumbo is your answer — he hits a new low with his horrid Southern accent (though the one he used in 2000’s Tigerland was pretty awesome).
The pregnant elephant gives birth to a baby with big ears, who is separated from his ma and forced to work in a circus, which thrives after one of Farrier’s kids realizes the baby elephant can fly only after his trunk sucks in a feather. That’s the movie. And beyond the fact that these movies have known storylines, Burton still sucks the life out of the production.
The end product makes it feel like neither Disney nor Burton were happy with each other’s visions. The director tries to mellow down his usual borderline-creepy aesthetic, but somehow the movie still feels dark — something that Disney seems to not go for, given the rampant tonal disparity.
(And you have to wonder if Depp’s main muse Johnny Depp was originally sought to play Farrier — or Dumbo, for that matter.)
Screenwriter Ehren Kruger, who has written several Transformers films, doesn’t help. His work here is pretty much what you’d expect given the late Roger Ebert’s assessment of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen: “If you want to save yourself the ticket price, go into the kitchen, cue up a male choir singing the music of hell, and get a kid to start banging pots and pans together. Then close your eyes and use your imagination.”
The script is bland and seems to wait for CGI to save the day where good storytelling is lacking.
Unfortunately, special effects can’t replace soul, and the film has none to offer. This could be considered a harsh assessment for what is considered a children’s movie, but keep in mind that other, better Disney properties — various Marvel movies, for instance — also have a built in kids audience. Those films aren’t only successful because of super powers; they give the audience the respect they deserve with the depth of the material. Conversely, Burton’s movie about a magical flying elephant is bereft of imagination.
Eventually, ambitious entrepreneur V.A Vandevere (Keaton) arrives, interested in buying the rights to Dumbo after word gets around of a flying elephant. He wants to make Dumbo an attraction for his Dreamland amusement park and Medici signs over the rights to the entire troupe when he believes everyone will have a better future with the smooth-talking big wig.
Of course, the city-slicker only cares about money and even has Dumbo’s mother stuck in a cage as part of his other attraction centering around dangerous animals around the world.
And yadda, yadda, yadda — we see Dumbo get reunited with his mom. I would say spoiler alert, but the audience knows the story. The only question is will they care? Finishing the movie felt like a chore and had me wishing I could fly away to another movie.
To be fair, in my theater only two other people were at the showing and when Dumbo would fly, this grown man a few rows ahead of me would applaud. So who knows.
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