Film Review: Dumbo (dir by Tim Burton)


Tim Burton’s remake of Dumbo actually wasn’t that bad.

I know!  I’m as shocked as anyone.  Usually, I’m against remakes on general principle and I’m certainly not a fan of the current trend of doing live-action versions of classic animated films.  (There’s a reason why I haven’t seen the new The Lion King.)  Dumbo is one of my favorites of the old Disney films, one that’s always brought tears to my mismatched eyes so I was naturally predisposed to be critical of the remake.  Add to that, I’m not particularly a huge fan of Tim Burton, a director who too often seems to be coasting on his reputation for being a visionary as opposed to actually being one.

And yet, I have to admit that I enjoyed this new version of Dumbo.  To call it a remake is actually a mistake.  It’s a reimagining, as I suppose any live action remake of an animated film about a flying elephant, a talking mouse, and a group of sarcastic crows would have to be.  So, the crows are gone, which is understandable as I doubt you could get away with a bird named “Jim Crow” today.  And sadly, Timothy the Mouse is gone.  He’s been replaced by several human characters, including Colin Farrell as a one-armed, former equestrian, Eva Green as a French trapeze artist, and Danny DeVito as the rough-around-the-edges but good-hearted ringmaster.  However, Dumbo’s still present and he’s still got the big ears.  He can still fly, as long as he’s holding a feather.

Dumbo’s only a CGI elephant but he’s still adorable.  Of course, I should be honest that I’ve always loved elephants.  I even rode one at Scarborough Fair once!  It was like a totally bumpy and somewhat uncomfortable ride but, at the same time, it was also totally cool because I was on top of an elephant!  The other thing I love about elephants is that elephants form real families.  They love each other.  They look out for each other.  They mourn their dead, which is one of many reasons why ivory poachers are some of the worst people in the world.  Elephants may not fly but there’s a sweetness to them that makes the story of Dumbo and his mother extra poignant, regardless of whether it’s animated, CGI, or live-action.  Anyway, the remake’s version of Dumbo is absolutely lovable, from the minute he reveals his ears to the triumphant moment when he soars through the circus tent.

As a director, Tim Burton has always struggled with pacing.  Watching his films, you always dread the inevitable moment when he gets distracted by a red herring or a superfluous storyline because you know that, once it happens, the entire film is going to go off the rails.  Dumbo starts out slowly and it seems like forever before the baby elephant actually shows up.  Fortunately, once Dumbo does show up, Burton’s direction becomes much more focused.  The story stops meandering and, for once, Burton actually manages to maintain some sense of narrative momentum.

Visually, the film’s a feast for the eyes.  Even though it’s a live-action film, the sets and the costumes are all flamboyantly and colorfully over-the-top, giving the film the feeling of being a child’s imagination come to life.  I mean, when you’re making a film about a flying elephant, there’s no point in trying to go for gritty realism.  While the film does mention some real-world tragedies — Farrell lost his arm in World War I and his wife to Spanish Flu — Burton plays up the fantasy elements of the story.  He’s helped by Danny DeVito and Michael Keaton who both give cartoonishly broad performances.  Fortunately, they’re both good enough actors that they can get away with it.

So, the live-action reimagining of Dumbo is not that bad.  It has its slow spots and it really can’t match the emotional power of the original animated version.  But, with all that taken into consideration, it’s still an undeniably entertaining two hours.

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