Tim Burton has made movies with a lot of different themes and messages, but Dumbo is the first that feels like a naked cry for help. Adapting and expanding the 1941 animated classic, Burton marks his sixth partnership with the studio that once fired him for “being too dark” with a live action adventure that unfolds like an indictment of Walt Disney himself while giving the filmmaker an opportunity to both construct his own demented version of Disneyland and to burn it to the ground. An overlong two-hour running time does the title character’s journey no favors while somehow feeling busier than the 64-minute original, begging audiences to appreciate the majesty and wonder in a creature that the movie is too distracted by one-dimensional human characters to give him a personality to care about.
Colin Farrell plays Holt Farrier, a veteran and former circus star who returns from WWI to care for his two children Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins) without an arm and without a wife. With no horses for him to ride, ringmaster Max Medici (Danny DeVito) assigns Holt to care for their elephants, including a newborn named Baby Jumbo with enormous ears. But when the infant is re-named Dumbo and mercilessly teased during a performance, his mother lashes out at some of the audience members and she is separated and sent away. Though initially inconsolable, Dumbo slowly makes friends with Milly and Joe, who discover that he can achieve flight using his ears, but Holt’s preoccupation with his work keeps them from communicating this new discovery to him.
When an accident during a performance forces Dumbo to reveal his unique gift in front of an astonished crowd, Medici becomes an overnight success, attracting the attention of V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), an ambitious entrepreneur who plans for aerialist Colette Marchant (Eva Green) to “pilot” the elephant in his own show. But after Vandevere terminates most of the company and threatens to keep Dumbo separated from his mother permanently, Holt hatches a plan to use the elephant’s magical abilities to liberate his mother and Medici’s carnies from their would-be overseer’s controlling grip.
As a storyteller, Burton has always been attracted to outcasts and freaks, so broadly speaking, the appeal of Dumbo and the entire crew of carnival folk would seem obvious - the material gives him a chance to celebrate an ensemble of good-natured weirdos. But the one element that seems like a holdover from the original film is the fact that virtually all of the humans are pretty awful people - with the exception of Holt’s precocious children, they collectively seem indifferent to the suffering not just of the beasts in their care, but to each other as well. And even where there’s a buried lesson about the humane treatment of animals and empathizing with others, Burton, working from a script by Ehren Kruger, rushes so quickly through those epiphanies - and really, just any of the character beats that might help us identify with anyone on screen - that none of it resonates.
The best (or worst) example of this is the scene in which Dumbo visits his mother, who’s locked away in a compartment after disrupting a performance in order to protect her child. In the original Dumbo, that scene takes place more than halfway through the film, after we’ve witnessed how painful her absence is from his life, and accompanied by the ballad “Baby Mine,” it’s an absolutely devastating moment. Here, it is recreated barely 20 minutes into the two-hour story, as one of Medici’s performers blankly sings the song by a campfire, and it feels like empty homage; afterward, the forces keeping both characters active in the story but cruelly separated from one another feels alternately spiteful and just plain stupid - that is, unless the actual point of the story is to showcase humankind’s endless capacity for selfishness.
But in general, the movie hustles from one scene to the next with such speed that we never really get to spend time with these characters, especially Dumbo, who quite frankly just isn’t as expressive when rendered in CGI as he was in 2D animation. (The fact that they didn’t elect to amplify his big, blue eyes to make them pop against his leathery skin, is, I think, somewhat catastrophic.) Holt is not only too busy to listen to his children (he says some version of “go on now, do what I say” in almost every scene) but almost seems like he’s too distracted to be in the movie itself, even as Farrell tries to wring pathos from an injury and a loss that, if we had even just a few moments of reflection, could be truly powerful. Meanwhile, Vandevere’s calculating villainy escalates so fast from one scene to the next that even a cartoon would find Keaton’s performance “a little broad.”
Working with Ben Davis (Captain Marvel), Burton returns to the same kind of soft-lit cinematography that he used for Alice in Wonderland - a stylistic flashback that elicits its own nightmarish associations. But Burton’s treatment of these characters feels callous and indifferent - it’s like he’s going through the motions advocating the notion of believing in yourself, and that what makes you different makes you special. Then again, Burton has for more than two decades been Hollywood’s safest possible version of an outcast - a guy who can champion the underdog while making crowd-pleasing studio fare that’s just weird enough not to freak out the normies. Here, he’s either given up caring, or again, perhaps seems to be trying to raze one of his longest-standing relationships by portraying the former head of the studio bankrolling his film as a ruthless, monomaniacal businessman who absorbs and demolishes scrappy mom-and-pop businesses in order to build his own all-consuming empire.
To be fair, turning a 64-minute, 80-year-old story into a manageable feature-length film was undoubtedly a challenge, requiring expansion of some ideas, and especially looking back at the original, reduction of others. (None of the animals talk, for example, and “Pink Elephants On Parade,” perhaps that film’s most famous sequence, certainly could stand to be cut down.) But in spite of that, the movie plays so fast and loose with its own rules - including, apparently, Dumbo’s ability to understand human metaphors - that there’s little that’s appealing about its men or beasts. Ultimately, Dumbo not only could have been made by anyone other than Burton, it probably should, because it feels less like the latest film from a onetime visionary director than the next one off of a studio assembly line, and the last thing you want from a story that purports to celebrate uniqueness is for it to feel completely unexceptional.