Whether big fish or big ears, Danny DeVito will always be running some zippy zany circus in Tim Burton films till the end of time…
Following the First World War, a travelling circus and its inhabitance are propelled into fame and fortune after being gifted the unique treasure of a magical flying elephant named Dumbo.
Not being the first Disney property for Tim Burton to adapt into a live-action spectacle, Dumbo follows in suit from 2010’s Alice In Wonderland reminding audiences that Burton is only interested in Disney’s most obscure titles. In an age of Disney live-action reboots and long-awaited sequels, its obvious that what we’re seeing is the biggest media-based industry cashing in on nostalgia for the cheapest of audience responses. If there’s anything in the modern world of cinema nowadays that truly tires me out more than the superhero explosion, it would have to be Disney’s attempts at remaking magic, over and over and over again. The worst part is that most of Disney’s remakes aren’t even technically bad – they’re just horrendously forgettable, like Beauty and the Beast, Mary Poppins Returns and Christopher Robin. And the reasons for why these movies fail in my mind would be that not only do they lack the magic of the originals, but also enslave themselves to a certain formula, never bothering to truly break the Disney mould and adopt their own styles. That’s why I was at least more intrigued, heading into 2019, with Dumbo more than I currently am with Aladdin or The Lion King – because, at the very least, Tim Burton is a visionary director.
Say what you want about Burton as a filmmaker, but I honestly do not think he has particularly fell from grace as of yet. Sure Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children was pretty crap and before then his rendition of Dark Shadows was ridiculously boring… but between those two films, Burton also made Frankenweenie and Big Eyes, for which both confirm Burton has yet to lose his spark. Burton is a filmmaker who, granted, has been proven to be inconsistent, but has not yet appeared to be burnt out – which is why I held hope that Dumbo would surface as one of Disney’s better recent works…
So, the big question: did I like Burton’s Dumbo? … meh… uh… hmm… meh… yeah, I’m going to go with ‘meh’. 2019’s Dumbo was certainly not a great film, but neither could I call it terrible. At the very least, Dumbo managed to be rather innovative with its plot, introducing new characters and scenarios which worked conceptually, but in execution, not so much. You see, my problem with Burton’s Dumbo was not that it was a ‘meh’ Disney live-action feature; my problem with Dumbo was that it was a ‘meh’ Tim Burton feature.
Say what you want about 2010’s Alice In Wonderland but I honestly quite liked that movie (not Alice Through the Looking Glass though – that was painfully terrible). The film included a fun new twist on the story, boosted by solid casting, only made better because of one crucial ingredient: Alice In Wonderland was, without a doubt, a Tim Burton film. I referred to Burton as visionary director before because I truly believe he is one of the only remaining filmmakers today who’s style is both distinct, heavily original and uncompromising. The twisted, spooky appeal of his films, bleeding into literally every project he has ever made – including the ridiculously warped, but beautiful depiction of Alice In Wonderland – Burton’s style is what makes Burton still a relevant name in cinema today. For if a filmmaker did not have a style, the end product would be, well, Beauty and the Beast, Mary Poppins Returns or Christopher Robin. And yes, even in 2016’s Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children was Burton’s style still visible – if not slightly faded. So when speaking on 2019’s Dumbo, I have to admit my biggest disappointment was that Burton – as an auteur – was really no where to be seen throughout any of the runtime.
Dumbo was not particularly a carbon copy, formulaic Disney product – like some of the studio’s recent efforts – but it was, at least, kind of bland. The use of green screen was ridiculously visible in most of the movie as no frame truly ‘popped’ like a Burton film usually would allow for. The only indicators that reminded me that what I was watching was a Burton feature included some use of the lighting and the fact Burton regulars like Eva Green, Danny DeVito and Michael Keaton (the latter two being the long-awaited reunion of Batman and the Penguin, by the way) appeared throughout. Apart from that, Dumbo was a bit of a weird movie – and no not in a bad way… but also not in a good way… but also not in a Disney way… but also not in a Burton way. Weird, right?
I will tell you what I did appreciate about 2019’s Dumbo was its ingenuity and visual ability to extend itself beyond just the original Dumbo story to be a more well-rounded, feasible adventure for the big screen. Don’t get me wrong; I love the first Dumbo! The 1941 classic is, in my mind, one of the greatest animations ever made with gorgeous hand-drawn imagery and such creative concepts in narrative, character and visuals. Truly a fine work of art on the spectrum with more a Fantasia than a Bambi, the original Dumbo is the definition of cinematic art… however that movie was very of its time. With a runtime of only a few minutes over an hour, 1941’s Dumbo could be seen by today’s standards as a surrealist short film directed towards a child audience. What I hoped 2019’s Dumbo would do was elevate the material for a more modern audience, with stakes and schemes that worked in live-action as opposed to animation. 2019’s Dumbo did, to an extent, deliver a nuance take on its story… but I couldn’t say it was executed as well as possible.
Around the forty minute mark of Burton’s Dumbo, the movie altered its direction from being a faithful adaptation of the 1941 version to instead become a completely new and flashy reinterpretation of the Disney classic. As soon as Keaton rolled into the story as did the narrative of Dumbo shift into becoming a more large-scaled bombastic tale on greedy corporations, the strength of family, animal welfare and all that jazz. I have to say, I appreciated the new direction the film took the tale of Dumbo, but the direction it did take felt rather generic and could have been more wonderous in retrospect. The thing is that when your story revolves around an elephant who is given the ability to fly due to his enormous ears, maybe that should be your film’s focus instead of 90s Batman and 90s Penguin talking logistics of running a circus with Alan Arkin (actually, that would be a great Jim Jarmusch film).
I know that with live-action films (especially those directed towards children) its easier to lean the film’s perspective on human characters for that empathetical emotional weight. It’s easier for audiences to connect with human characters, because, when you distill it, we all suffer the same problems as human beings. Although, I would’ve hoped that Burton, being the ‘sometimes’ genius that he is, would have found a way to make the central elephant more of the star in all of Burton’s obscure stylings and quirks. The character of Dumbo in this film played second fiddle to almost everyone onscreen, to which didn’t sit well with me. I honestly would have appreciated either a more closer approach to the story through Dumbo’s perspective (like the original but just reworked) or have Dumbo and his mother play as a metaphor for the children and their relationship with their parents in the film. And although the latter would have worked better thematically for a live-action reboot, the movie could be seen as attempting to go down that root but ultimately backed out, because… I don’t know… maybe its too much work for them to do in a “kid’s” film.
I don’t want it to sound too much like I hated Burton’s Dumbo since the movie was pretty serviceable for what it was and could definitely be enjoyed by a younger audience, it’s just that, with a filmmaker like Burton behind the wheel, I expected more and just didn’t get it. Annoying, it also was, that Dumbo managed to set up a lot of interesting plot threads that either didn’t go anywhere or just was not explored as well as possible: like say, Colin Farrell’s character.
A veteran from World War One, Farrell’s character of Holt Farrier returns to his home in a travelling circus to find his wife dead and his children yearning for the affection he is unable to give them. To add, Farrier’s arm was amputated during the war, enabling him to continue his one true talent of being an equestrian rider in the circus, to which his wife previously partnered with him to perform. Farrier is forced to take on the role as the elephant keeper, to which his children are able to assist him with, but for which he has no interest in… now, that to me is a great setup to an emotional and powerful story. Even if Dumbo chose to use the perspective of Farrier, the movie would have been a more straight-laced, inventive tear-jerker of a film that would have 100% worked, especially since Farrell is an amazing actor. Instead though, the movie never really explored a strong enough arc for Farrier and instead just used him as another face in a sea of cast members, all of which shared the film’s perspective unequally, never making the story definitive or strong enough to hold its own.
With so many characters and not enough time to explore them all, Dumbo lost its sense of emotion because there was nothing to really get emotional about. None of the character relationships were explored to a healthy extent as despite most of the performance’s working, nothing about the characters particularly worked in unison. Eva Green and Danny DeVito were delightful enough, as was Farrell, who never really gives a shallow performance in even his worst films. Nico Parker and Finely Hobbins, though, as the Farrier children really did not work for me at all, performing as rather unpleasant acting presences in an ultimately well performed film. Michael Keaton though… jeez Louise, was this man working hard in Dumbo. Keaton was so energetic and loud and boisterous that he made the rest of the cast look like they were sleeping as compared to him – awake after twenty-two coffees and counting. If anyone was really trying to make Dumbo work, it was Keaton who I really enjoyed seeing collaborate with Burton after years of the two not joining up for any recent projects.
Back to technicalities briefly, although I said I thought the green screen was very noticeable in parts of Dumbo, the titular big eared character however was rendered really well. Dumbo’s design and look really quite worked for me and I couldn’t really say much of a bad word about the CG creation in the long run. I will say though that there’s something about the translation of animation to live-action that does not entirely work for me and, even though I have harkened on about said issue many times previously, here in Dumbo I felt it was this translation that especially harmed the “magic” of the film.
I have said countless times that sometimes animation should just be kept as animation since, in live-action form, the magic of an animated world can get absurdly lost in translation. When I sat watching 2019’s Dumbo I couldn’t help thinking logical thoughts like “how could the elephant fly with its ears as wings even though its back half is so damn heavy?”. In animation, you never question these crazy bits and pieces because in animation, literally anything is possible. However in live-action, as soon as you feature real people and real locations surrounding a single magical element… well, if not done right, the magic is lost and logistics overpower wonder.
The original 1941 Dumbo included the infamous sequence of a bubble elephant parade seen during what could only be described as an acid trip, and although this scene was (rather beautifully) redone in the new movie, it never felt as special as the original because live-action has limitations – there always has to be a sense of logic. There’s only one remedy to having a film feel feasibly magical without being animation and that is if the filmmaker behind it has a definitive style… which brings me full circle. Burton has style as a filmmaker, but it was not at all present in Dumbo – a film that sorely needed it.
For goodness sake, the original animation was a film about suffering – it was doom, gloom and miserable through and through, not to mention rather terrifying and traumatising for a young audience. Who else specialises in the theme of suffering? Who else is all doom, gloom and miserableness through and through? Who else has a terrifying and traumatising approach to child filmmaking? Yeah, that’s right, the answer is Tim Burton. In what world could a Disney animated film from the 1940s be darker than a Tim Burton film? In what world?!
So yeah, Dumbo was disappointing because with the talent attached and the material it had at its disposal, it was rather flat, like a lemonade bottle someone has shook several times and left to fizzle out over a couple of days. I’m not saying Dumbo was an awful movie and a total waste of time – in fact, I believe some people may truly like it – the movie was just meh and for what it was, it should have been more.
You know what, I left Dumbo, thinking to myself, “why can’t Tim Burton make an original piece on late 19th century/ early 20th century freak shows?”. Truly being a field Burton could occupy at full capacity, I feel there are definitely greater routes Burton could take in revitalising his style, which still could feature little old Danny DeVito running a circus.
Dumbo, sadly, belongs in the… KINGDOM OF THE CRIMINALLY DULL…
- Leroy and Rose, 2019, Dumbo (2019), IMP Awards, TMDb, viewed 1 April 2019, <http://www.impawards.com/2019/dumbo_ver8.html> (Featured Image)
- Dargis, M 2019, Review: ‘Dumbo’ Goes Bonkers in Dreamland, The New York Times, The New York Times Company, viewed 1 April 2019, <https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/27/movies/dumbo-review.html>