DUMBO Review: Elephant On Autopilot

Methinks Tim Burton would rather be making a BIOSHOCK movie.

However one lands on the issue of Disney’s trend of live-action remakes of their animated catalog, Dumbo seems like it should be a prime candidate for a modern update. The original film is barely a complete narrative and contains some notably, ahem, dated elements that Disney probably would rather no longer be associated with the eminently still marketable flying elephant. And given the film’s circus setting and underpinnings of body dysmorphia, old Disney favorite Tim Burton seems like the perfect fit to direct a modern retelling. But anyone who has followed Burton’s career over the past couple decades knows the auteur to be incredibly hit-and-miss these days, particularly in his work with adaptations, and Dumbo might just be the most conventionally drab Burton has ever been.

The first act of Dumbo serves as a truncated (…heh) version of the original film, blowing through the formalities of Dumbo learning to fly because of his protective mother being sequestered and sold off. Expository dialogue is handled by human characters rather than adult animals in this version, though their personal roles within the story feel perfunctory and bafflingly underdeveloped. Colin Farrell plays a horse-stuntman reduced to handling elephants after returning to the circus sans an arm after fighting in World War I, but his character only seems to exist so that his supposedly precocious kids Milly and Joe (Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins, respectively) can proclaim Dumbo’s thoughts to the audience. These kids barely have enough traits between them for even a single character, with Milly’s sole characteristics being a vacant stare and a vague love of science; Joe doesn’t even get that much. The closest we get to a fleshed out character in this act is Danny DeVito as the ringmaster, but the DeVito's inability to vulgarly vamp in an all-ages film really deflates his unique charms.

But then Act Two kicks in, and Burton launches off into the same sort of pseudo-sequel shenanigans he got into with Alice in Wonderland, spinning out a bizarre mythology focused on Michael Keaton’s role as a Thomas Edison pastiche who invents his own proto-Disneyland. The film goes through the general beats of demonstrating depraved industrialism as a soulless counterpart to the purity of nomadic hucksterism, which feels odd coming from Disney of all places but also feels appropriately soulless considering that it is, in fact, coming from Disney. The morals remain as shallow as the characters, and in the meanwhile Dumbo just meanders in the background, learning to fly a little bit better by artificial increments until we’ve killed enough time for an escape climax.

Burton’s main draw to the project seems to have been in designing the film’s faux Disneyland – here branded Dreamland – and the few moments where the production design sits centerstage are when the film is at its most intriguing. Striped patterns and mechanized movements act as Burton staples in a park that feels most inspired by the design of Bioshock, of all things, which is a bit anachronistic to the film’s 1919 setting but visually engaging nonetheless. Everything feels shiny and new with a vague sinister undercurrent of corporatized artificiality, and the real tragedy of this practical set design is that it must constantly be juxtaposed with the uncanny unrealism of Dumbo himself. The baby elephant’s digital rendering feels too smooth, too wet, too much like the wrinkles are painted on, too divorced from the authenticity of actual animals seen elsewhere in the film. Other computer-generated creations feel similarly sloppy, but it’s especially egregious for the constantly-present title character to look so unintentionally otherworldly.

Dumbo is, at best, a serviceable film, functional in its character arcs as it moves along at an energetic enough clip, but it’s also remarkably detached from any sense of genuine emotion. The only time I felt anything over the course of its runtime was at the culmination of a gag cameo so absurd that it jolted me from catatonia. But then Burton went right on back to painting by numbers, and not even the shadows of former inspiration can make the film worth a recommendation.