Well…despite having a CG Elephant that I couldn’t help but love, Dumbo (2019) struggles to stay afloat. There are some great actors cast, but they are mostly given very little to do. Worse, the amount of weight put on one of the child actors is – sorry to say – asking too much of the performer. Tim Burton’s newest film wants to recreate some of the magical sentimentality seen in his film Big Fish (2003), but this film feels far less developed, and never offers anything or anybody to attach those emotions to in a way that sticks. Again, Dumbo the elephant is adorable and hard not to love, but he’s not really the main character here. The change from the titular character being the lead to a human ensemble cast results in a film that just never manages to develop anyone specific to root for.
Dumbo was just missing something to really make it mean anything
Max Medici (Danny DeVito) runs the Medici Brother’s Circus, and their recently purchased elephant, Jumbo, is expecting a baby any day. Also, Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell), a star among the circus performers, is returning from war to his two children, Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins). Both Dumbo and Holt aren’t exactly what the circus was looking for in the way of attraction, as one has giant ears and latter is missing an arm – but Medici looks to do what he does, and make the most out of any situation. Through the scientific method, Milly and Joe discover that Dumbo’s big ears enable him to fly, which in a true Burton-esque way, makes us wonder if maybe being a “freak” isn’t such a bad thing after all.
The biggest change for this live-action adaptation from the original cartoon is that the animals can’t speak. Dumbo doesn’t speak either, but Timothy Q. Mouse, dressed as a ringmaster, speaks through most of the movie, and takes on a parental role for the baby elephant after his mother is incarcerated. Similarly in Burton and writer Ehren Kruger’s take on the story, Dumbo is separated from his protective mother, and Milly and Joe – who lost their mother while Holt was away at war – play surrogates.
The trouble with the film begins here, as Milly’s character feels very phony. In part (pointing this out is not something I take joy in), this issue falls to the performance of Parker, who delivers each line in the film with zero emotion. While this could be a character trait embedded in Milly’s love of science, it doesn’t come off that way, and really has a quite a negative impact on many of the emotional moments throughout the film. There is tension between the children and their estranged father that never feels fully formed or understandable. A throwaway line here and there shed some light on it, but it never feels genuine enough to spark the needed empathetic connection.
While Farrell, Devito, Michael Keaton, and especially Eva Green give solid to great performances, there are just too many threads that never weave together in a way that feels impactful. Strip away the ensemble cast, which has Eva Green’s trapeze artist character Colette Marchant take on a reluctant surrogate role from the outset of the film, and I think the audience would have found an emotional story to latch onto in a more meaningful way. Green is the highlight in the film for me, and her moments with Dumbo are some of my favorites. Again, not to take away from Keaton, Devito, or Farrell – but their characters and the journeys they take feel so minor that it is hard to argue their need.
Dumbo, the elephant, has an arc himself – but it doesn’t feel like this is his movie. It clearly should be, however, as he is at the mercy of almost everyone else. Burton has us see through the eyes of the elephant multiple times through a fuzzy fisheye lens effect, yet it never feels like we get a true sense of what Dumbo is going through. He wants his mother, and that is a simple enough goal – but how this plays out feels so contrived and unlikely that it damages the film more than helps.
People will say that Disney is making these live-action adaptations for the money…and those people are right. However, Disney doesn’t need to make this kind of money through name recognition alone. While this version of the story doesn’t damage the original, it only makes me wonder what Burton could have made instead of reimagining what was certainly a classic. We have two more of these films this year, and if Dumbo sets the bar of expectations, I’m even less excited for Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin (2019) than I was before. With that said, Dumbo isn’t horrible…but it still mostly feels vanilla, just earning itself the Decent Watch rating.