Disney is back in theaters this week with Dumbo, the first of three reimaginings of the studio’s own animated classics that will be released between now and the end of July. That’s merely an observation, not a criticism, as most of Disney’s retellings over the past several years have been varying degrees of good. Dumbo, however, falls short.
Director Tim Burton has plenty of room for originality. His Dumbo is almost two hours while the animated classic clocks in at just over one. Burton is as faithful to the original as one should reasonably expect and there is some inherent charm in the old and new story elements. For a movie about a flying elephant, however, Dumbo never truly soars.
Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) returns to the Medici Bros. Circus after serving his country in the first World War. His wife died while he was away and he can’t help but feel like a stranger to his own children, Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Parker). Farrell is almost charming enough, hammy Southern accent and all, but the script leaves his character with an annoying lack of common sense.
Holt struggles to get along with his kids. He acts as if communicating with children is some riddle only his wife could solve. One could easily guess that Milly and Joe’s mother did not effectively tell them to be quiet and go away every time they spoke. It takes Holt far too long to figure that out.
The circus is struggling and owner Max Medici’s (Danny DeVito) last hope is a recently-purchased elephant that is about to give birth. Baby Jumbo (eventually Dumbo) arrives and his large ears look like a deal-breaker. It is the Farrier family’s job to deal with this problem.
The kids discover the practical application of Dumbo’s ears and train the precious pachyderm to fly. Holt is little help until he and the rest of the Medici troupe see what Dumbo can do. The kids are not looking to exploit Dumbo for their own gain, but rather help the circus earn enough money to buy Dumbo’s mom back (Max sold her after she gave birth to the big-eared baby).
Dumbo does a fair job of navigating the issue of animal exploitation that is embedded in its story. Explaining how it does that borders on spoiler territory, but suffice to say, those who use animals for profit are shown to be wrong, including V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton).
Vandevere is a strangely-timed antagonist for a Disney movie. He’s buying up an organization, the Medici Bros. Circus, for its star attraction and showing little care for the rest in the same month that Disney has closed its Fox purchase.
This, of course, is not to say Disney is Vandevere in its handling of formerly Fox assets thus far (Disney isn’t discarding all but one thing from Fox). The timing is merely an odd coincidence, but the real-life parallels are hard to ignore and many will hope Disney adheres to the message of its own film.
Speaking of the star attraction, though, there is a reason it has taken so long to get to Dumbo in this review. The movie isn’t really about Dumbo. He’s a supporting player. He’s cute when the CG works, as it does most of the time, and it’s hard not to enjoy all of the moments we spend with him, but there are not enough of them. This story belongs to the Farriers first and Dumbo second.
Burton’s Dumbo is beautiful to look at. The production and costume design feel at home within his canon while also honoring the original film. It’s a well-struck balance between fresh and familiar. As gorgeous as it may be, though, struggles in execution sometimes make the dream of Dumbo feel like a nightmare.
The climactic action sequence in the third act is staged very poorly. The only logical conclusion based on the timing of various events is that many, many amusement parkgoers and animals must have died.
The only counterargument is, “It’s a Disney movie, so every person and animal made it out.” Of course, a movie should show certain things happening (or that it is at least possible for survival to happen) rather than rely on the audience to supply their own assumptions based on the studio releasing the film.
Dumbo has its share of moments that make it feel like a passable piece of family entertainment. Many will probably find it to be exactly that. The more an audience considers the film’s many gaps in execution, however, the harder it will be to convince themselves that Dumbo‘s flights adequately compensate for all of its flops.