An uneven Dumbo retains the child-like splendour of its predecessor.
After World War I, Holt Farrier (played by Colin Farrell) returns to the circus where his children wait. Circus owner, Max Medici (Danny DeVito), assigns Holt to oversee and train a baby elephant named Dumbo. Its oversized ears paint Dumbo as a target for ridicule but when the animal displays powers of flight, VA Vandevere (Michael Keaton), an entrepreneur, and Colette Marchant (Eva Green), an aerialist enter the picture.
Here be spoilers…
What we like
I watched the animated Dumbo (circa 1941) back when I was a wee tot. Bawled my eyes out at the "Baby Mine" scene, ran for the covers during the "Pink Elephant on Parade", cheered for Dumbo when he abandoned the idea of the magic feather and flew on his own accord.
The update, and it is an update rather than a reboot, is directed by Tim Burton and written by Ehren Kruger. In this modern outing, gone are the stereotypes (goodbye Jim Crow and Company), talking animals (goodbye Timothy Q Mouse's pep talk) and musical number (good-bye "Pink Elephants on Parade" sequence). Now, there's the inclusion of humans to give the film meat and more running time (the 1941 animation's runtime is an hour). It's great for the whole family: children get to understand the film's theme of believing in yourself, but there are also other issues for parents to ponder upon like the "evils of corporations" and the "evils of animal captivity".
There's the usual Burton's touch, albeit, a more restrained rendition. The visuals are bonkers, especially when we're at VA Vandmere's Dreamland; there, the acts look like they are out of Cirque du Soleil—spandexed contortionists; big band fanfare.
A tip of the hat for having the modern Dumbo evoke many of the wonderments I felt as a child; now as an adult, seeing Dumbo snorting up feathers like they are power-ups and seeing him take flight.
What we didn't like
The movie performs a nifty misdirection: look here at the pretty visual effects but pay no mind to the lacklustre characterisations. We never really see the dynamics between Holt and his children. There's the superficiality of estrangement but we never dive past it. Michael Keaton's portrayal of VA Vandevere started out with such promise. His sneering, the manic eyes… oh, wouldn't you want to see the gears turn in his head (is this setting up for Keaton's Beetlejuice 2?). But then this interesting man regressed into the 2D caricature of a cartoon villain. You mean, if you want Dumbo to perform to his optimal best, instead of keeping his mother close to him, you'd rather send her away to be killed? Bro, do you even know how to manage a business?
And the "Baby Mine" scene, where Dumbo goes over to visit his caged mother? It doesn't possess the same spirit as the animated version. The 1941 version (see below) has three minutes to show the depths of parental love for a child; to trust you back into the memory of being cradled and safe in a maternal embrace.
The live version of that scene, it felt… truncated, rushed? It's a wasted opportunity, especially to tug at heartstrings and moisten the eyes.
What to look out for
Is it just me or is VA Vandevere and Dreamland thin representations for Walt Disney and Disneyland?
(reads a few comments on the Internet)
Nope, it's not me.
Dreamland absorbing Medici's circus and later letting all the acts, except for Dumbo, go bears a striking parallel to the recent Disney-Fox merger, with the former buying all of Fox's assets and planning to reboot all except for Deadpool. Sure, the screenplay was okayed way ahead before anyone knew about the deal but the similarities are almost… eerie. (I'm not sure how this idea even got past Disney).
It's also fun trying to see how the live version pay homage to the animated classic. Storks fly overhead as the travelling circus leaves the Floridian wetlands; we get a glimpse of the "Pink Elephants on Parade" in a soap bubble act—it's an added easter egg hunt incentive if you've seen the animated version.
Oh, and Michael Duffer, the iconic announcer behind, "let's get ready to ruuuuuumble", fills the shoes as Baritone Bates, the announcer for Dreamland. He gives a variation of his signature phrase in Dumbo.
Dumbo is showing in theatres now.