In the newest entry in the recent line of live-action remakes of classic animated Disney movies, we have Tim Burton directing a new take on Dumbo. This story now focuses on Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell), who has returned from World War I without his left arm and having missed the passing of his wife. Now having to take care of his two kids, Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins), on his own, he returns to the circus he worked at as a performer before the war only to have ringmaster Max Medici (Danny DeVito) assign him the new duty of taking care of the elephants. It is in this job that Holt and his offspring encounter the newly born elephant Dumbo, a critter with abnormally large ears who is turned into a sideshow attraction and separated from his mama in short order.
In order to stretch the 64-minute-long animated Disney feature into a two-hour live-action movie, the focus of Dumbo has shifted over to a whole horde of human characters, including an antagonist in the form of entertainer V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton). This means our primary storyline is now one of the most tired family movie plotlines out there, the tired routine of a single dad struggling to connect to his kids as well a now deceased/absent mother used to. Any well-worn narrative can be made new again with the proper execution but Dumbo is such a predominately paint-by-number movie that its version of this well-worn storyline ends up reminding one of Chicken Little rather than Finding Nemo in terms of prior Disney family movies covering similar narrative terrain.
Put simply, Holt Farrier and his kids just aren’t that interesting as characters, there’s no real memorable personality to any of them that makes them feel like characters who can headline a movie. The most I can say about Joe’s personality, for instance, is that he can do a headstand when leaning against a wall while Milly has one defining trait in her affinity for science, an interest that ends up not playing any kind of role in the story. As for Holt, despite Colin Farrell being game in the material as he speaks in a voice that seems to be an impression of Andrew Garfield in Hacksaw Ridge, he’s indistinguishable from a hundred other struggling dad’s in other similar family movies. Worse still, the two kids, despite being given solid performances by their respective performers, prove to be a distraction in scenes centered on Dumbo. Ehren Kruger’s screenplay has a bad habit in these sequences of constantly cutting back to this pair of youngsters to provide dialogue clarifying what Dumbo is very clearly doing. If Dumbo is eating a peanut, for instance, we have to cut back to Joe saying “Look! Dumbo is eating a peanut, yes sir, I know peanuts and that is for sure a peanut!”
Instead of functioning as compelling protagonists, these two characters instead alternate from being just boring to interrupting Dumbo-heavy scenes by acting like a superfluous Greek chorus. The rest of Ehren Kruger’s screenplay is similarly as lackluster as its lead human characters, a shock given what kind of superb writing Kruger delivered on the first three Transformers sequels and that live-action Ghost in the Shell feature. The story, for instance, could sorely use some more wit or fun, while the dialogue is frequently like nails on a chalkboard as characters frequently speak in overly expository lines that sound so mechanical. It’s hard to get emotionally invested in people that so often talk in such a manner.
Dumbo also suffers on a thematic level by way of the same flaw that dragged The Greatest Showman down. Specifically, portraying a group of circus performers as stand-in’s for real-life marginalized communities isn’t all that effective when you both shove those characters to the margins and also reduce them to one-note stereotypes. To bring such a messy script to life in a satisfying manner is a major uphill challenge and it’s one Tim Burton struggles at in his disposable work behind the camera on Dumbo. On a positive note, Burton’s affinity for wider shots and more cohesive editing at least allow one to appreciate all the colorful physical sets used to bring the environments in Dumbo to life. Colleen Atwood’s costume work is similarly vibrant and visually pleasing.
Supporting performances from Danny DeVito and Michael Keaton also provide some bright spots in a mostly forgettable affair. DeVito’s consistently charming performance has its best moments where he seems to have amusing wandered in from another more manic movie. As for Michael Keaton, he provides the same level of delightful hamminess that momentarily lit up that dreary Need for Speed movie in his tragically brief turn as a clear pastiche of Walt Disney. Truth be told, most of the cast is doing decent work, even actors like Colin Farrell or the constantly tragically underused Eva Green who don’t have much to do in their parts. Of course, none of these human actors are technically the titular main character of Dumbo, no, that honor goes to the big-eared elephant himself.
Dumbo as a character is alright but I was surprised by how I didn’t fall head over heels for him. Cute baby animals are my Kryptonite and that’s especially true of baby elephants, so you’d think this live-action version of Dumbo would have been up my alley and then some. Instead, I was just sort of non-plussed by him. I suspect this is due to Kruger’s script not allowing Dumbo to show much of a personality in his screentime. One of the many problems with relying on those child characters explaining all of Dumbo’s actions is that it robs the character of a chance to let his own actions speak for himself, and by proxy, allow the character to take on some dimensions. Instead, Dumbo the character amuses but he never captures the heart, even in an obligatory recreation of that iconic Baby Mine sequence. The fact that this CGI Dumbo sometimes fails to properly mesh with the live-action backgrounds and characters he interacts with also further hinders one getting too attached to the creature since one keeps getting overtly reminded that this isn’t, in fact, a real creature. Dumbo is a disappointing feature in a number of ways but the fact that it couldn’t even make a baby elephant an instantly irresistible protagonist may be the most notable testament to how it comes up short.