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Dumbo (2019) - Review

Dumbo

Review by Rob Carnevale

IndieLondon Rating: 3.5 out of 5

TIM Burton has previously raided Disney’s animated vault with his live action take on Alice in Wonderland. He now revives Dumbo with similarly mixed results.

High on visual spectacle and many of the themes that the filmmaker holds dear (outsiders and acceptance), the film nevertheless struggles on an emotional level despite the best efforts of a cracking ensemble cast.

Ehren Krueger’s script borrows from both the 1941 classic animation as well as the 1939 illustrated story (by Helen Aberson and Harold Pearl) that preceded it. But it doesn’t actually bring much more to it.

Burton also does away with songs and talking animals, opting for a more realistic approach that relies as much on the humans as it does the elephants and their animal friends.

The story therefore unfolds from two perspectives: Dumbo and the family tasked with looking after him.

Colin Farrell plays the patriarch of the latter, a returning First World War hero named Holt Farrier, who has lost his arm to combat and wife to influenza, leaving him in charge of two children (played by newcomers Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins). But he struggles to re-connect with both.

His circus home, led by Danny DeVito’s master of ceremonies, has also fallen onto hard times. But hope arrives in the unlikely form of Dumbo, a baby elephant with over-sized ears who is at first shunned for his appearance, until an encounter with a feather reveals he can fly.

When Dumbo’s potential is realised by ambitious entrepreneur VA Vandevere (Michael Keaton), a better life appears to be within reach for all. But as Vandevere exploits the baby elephant, it’s left to Farrell and his family to try and save him and reunite him with his mother.

It’s this second half of the story, however, that exposes many of the problems with Burton’s film given that it virtually re-treads the first half, only on a bigger scale.

The emotional arcs hinted at in the first half also struggle to amount to much given the predictable and thinly sketched way in which they unfold, thereby wasting a lot of the good groundwork laid down by Farrell, Parker, DeVito and company.

Rather, Burton becomes too pre-occupied with delivering unnecessary spectacle, including a climax set amid the terrors of Nightmare Island (which some younger viewers may find a little too intense given the PG certificate). While technically impressive, the action ultimately underwhelms and feels generic.

Such creative mishaps are a shame given how enjoyable the first half of the movie remains. Here, Burton keeps things simple and bathed in a sense of melancholy that feels somehow contemporary in spite of its period setting.

Dumbo

There is a genuine sense of loss in the human story, while Dumbo’s plight feels heartfelt, especially during the heart-rending separation from his mother. Such moments elevate the more crowd-pleasing ones, so that when Dumbo does fly, there is a spine-tingling sense of awe and empowerment. The effects involved in this process dazzle.

Burton also invests the first half (and parts of the second) with several nice visual nods to the animated classic, including the appearance of storks to herald Dumbo’s arrival and a bravura Pink Elephant homage.

And it’s great to see so many of his past collaborators reunited, most notably DeVito and Keaton for the first time since Batman Returns. Both are on excellent form, as are Farrell and Parker.

In spite of this, however, Burton can’t maintain the film’s momentum. If anything, the second half falls prone to the same kind of criticism that have been levelled upon a lot of the director’s more recent blockbuster work. There isn’t enough edge and too much feels polished and predictable, especially in the relationships between the humans (and, in particular, Farrell’s interactions with both his daughter and Eva Green’s trapeze entertainer).

It means that Dumbo exists in the shadow of its animated predecessor, when it could have soared on its own merits. As Disney’s live-action remakes go, this will probably go down as one of the less successful ones, no matter how big the initial box office.

It’s good, just not great.

Certificate: PG
Running time: 1hr 52mins
UK Release Date: March 29, 2019