As boxer Roberto Duran might say, no mas, Tim Burton, no mas. A director whose films used to be greeted with excited anticipation now only summons dread. Somewhere along the way, Burton lost his mojo. Dumbo is merely the latest evidence that he is not getting it back anytime soon, a banal exercise in faux sentimentality and overdone CGI. He doesn’t shoulder all the blame. Disney needs to stop using its back catalog of classics as a springboard for films that lack anything resembling the enchantment of the original films.
Scarcely over an hour long, the 1941 Dumbo is one of Disney’s most tear-jerking features. Humans barely exist in this colorful, musical cartoon about a baby circus elephant who is made a laughingstock because of his extra-large ears before he becomes a star when those ears act as wings allowing him to fly. Adding to the baby’s woes is the separation from his mother, Mrs. Jumbo, locked away from the other pachyderms as a mad elephant. But from Dumbo’s tragedy comes triumph and within that short running time is a scene of sublime brilliance in “Pink Elephants on Parade” as surreal imagery dances before the eyes of a drunken Dumbo and Timothy Mouse.
Burton’s Dumbo pays homage to that number in a scene involving pink soap bubble elephants, but all that does is emphasize how bereft the new film is of inspiration and magic. The now CGI elephant, who has curiously empty eyes, is more or less a supporting character to a cast of humans that include motherless children Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins); their one-armed, WWI vet and sidelined circus trick rider Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell, who really needs to stick to independent fare; his Hollywood movies tend toward the terrible); and Max Medici (Danny DeVito), owner of the threadbare tent show to which Dumbo is born.
As in the original film, Dumbo is separated from his mother, leaving him a grieving elephant, but he also seems to be the key to emotionally repairing the heartbroken Farrier family, and once his aeronautic talents are discovered, to insuring the financial health of the circus. But then big city impresario (and megalomaniac sociopath) V. A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton, whose reunion with his Beetlejuice and Batman director only serves as a reminder of what used to be) and the star of his show, trapeze artist Colette Marchand (Eva Green), sweep in with their own proposal to unite the two enterprises at Vandevere’s Dreamland (think Disneyland meets Coney Island, both on steroids).
There are a lot of “toos” here: The children are too precocious to tug much at heartstrings no matter how much they refer to their dead mother (who seems more of a plot device than someone who actually lived). Their father is too passive to be a true hero (an odd wrinkle in that that missing arm suggests valor to spare). Medici and Vandevere are too cartoony. (And Alan Arkin, in a cameo as a banker who holds Dreamland’s fate in his hands, steals his scenes from DeVito and Keaton with his impeccably dry delivery.) And Dumbo is too CGI. (His 1941 cel animation counterpart seemed far more real).
As usual, Burton seems to have paid most attention to his production design, the rendering of the tatty Medici circus and its sideshow and Dreamland. Dumbo is overstuffed visually and undernourished narratively. The clunky script credited to Ehren Kruger (whose credits include Scream 3, Reindeer Games, and three Transformers sequels) is charmless and prosaic. There is precious little within the movie to delight and enrapt children and even less to keep their parents awake through the long slog. Where Dumbo and its story of a flying elephant ought to soar, instead it crashes and burns. –Pam Grady