Disney's live-action Dumbo movie has threads of a heartwarming family story, with good performances, but is as shallow as its overly CGI-ed world.
Walt Disney Studios has found success in recent years by dipping into their animated classics vault and adapting the films to live-action, and the latest of these is Dumbo. Tim Burton directs the screenplay by Ehren Kruger (Ghost in the Shell), taking the 1941 animated Disney classic and translating it to a longer tale that focuses on the humans surrounding the titular baby elephant as much as the flying marvel - for better or worse. Burton returns to the Disney fold after 2010's Alice in Wonderland, and attempts a more grounded, but still fantastical story. Disney's live-action Dumbo movie has threads of a heartwarming family story, with good performances, but is as shallow as its overly CGI-ed world.
Dumbo follows the Farrier family, including war veteran Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) who returns to the Medici Brothers circus and his two children, Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins), after the passing of their mother. The struggling circus is hoping to see a boost when its owner, Max Medici (Danny DeVito), purchases a pregnant elephant, but he's disappointed by the baby, who comes to be known as Dumbo, because of his big ears. However, all their fates change when Dumbo reveals he's able to fly and the Medici Brothers circus is acquired by entrepreneur V. A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton). In screenwriter Kruger's hands, the story of Dumbo addresses themes of family, believing in yourself and the importance of animal rights - though some are more effective than others.
Altogether the story of Dumbo finds a surprisingly natural way to flesh out the tale of the original, which was one of Disney's shortest animated films, but Kruger goes a touch too far and the new movie feels spread too thin across its two-hour runtime. Although Dumbo introduces a host of human characters to build out the world, they're largely one-dimensional and reduced to either moving the plot forward as necessary or used for punchlines. Keaton's Vandevere is perhaps the most memorable character, but that's largely up to the actor's quirky performance. Even within the Farrier family, Farrell gets the most to do as the father struggling to connect with his kids, but it still winds up feeling hollow despite Farrell's performances and takes a back seat to everything else going on in the movie. Meanwhile, with Milly, Disney continues its own relatively new trend of giving a young female character an interest in STEM, but since Dumbo doesn't build out the character beyond this interest, it's little more than lip service. And in the mix of the movie, the youngest Farrier completely falls by the wayside, along with all the performers from the Medici circus.
Where Dumbo excels, at least in terms of character, is the titular baby elephant, who is more fully realized than the majority of the human characters. The CGI-rendered elephant is adorable and expressive, making it easy to connect with the animal even as the humans around it appear more and more wooden. It certainly makes sense for Dumbo to be the star of the show, but the depth of emotion to the elephant's story and character juxtaposed with that of the humans only serves to remind viewers that the rest of the film is lacking in real heart. Against the overly sterilized CGI world in which the story takes place, Dumbo undoubtedly stands out for his realism, but even the adorable baby elephant can't save this show.
Altogether, Dumbo has all the hallmarks of a Burton movie, both good and bad. It follows a loveable weirdo (or, in this case, a circus troupe of loveable weirdos) who challenges preconceived notions of normalcy. In the case of Dumbo, Burton also includes an important message of animal rights that comes natural to a story about a baby elephant terrorized and forced to perform on cue. However, the movie also uses the particular blend of elaborate stage design and CGI backgrounds that has marked Burton's more recent films. In this case, that means the up close scenes in Dumbo tend to work, while the larger, grander moments of scenery fall completely flat. Dumbo is perhaps one of Burton's more successful movies of late, but by no means reaches the heights of the director's heyday.
Ultimately, Dumbo is a serviceable live-action Disney retelling that has all the elements of success on paper, but the heart is lost somewhere in translation. Despite a stellar cast in Farrell, DeVito, Keaton and Eva Green, Dumbo never achieves in fully developing its human characters, and although Dumbo himself is remarkably cute, the CGI elephant can't carry the movie on his own. While Dumbo may be entertaining enough for families and Disney faithfuls, the movie isn't necessarily a must-see, even for Disney die-hards. It's a perfectly fine live-action retelling of one of Disney's animated classics that proves not every film from the vault needs to be revisited.
Dumbo is now playing in U.S. theaters nationwide. It is 112 minutes long and rated PG for peril/action, some thematic elements and brief mild language.
Let us know what you thought of the film in the comments section!
- Dumbo (2019) release date: Mar 29, 2019