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Film Review: Dumbo

Tackling the animated classic, Tim Burton’s live-action remake only soars in fits and bursts.
Film Review: Dumbo

Disney's Dumbo.

For more than three decades, Tim Burton has told viewers that the fantastical is possible – that a boy’s dearly departed dog can rejoin the land of the living, that a man with scissors for hands can bring magic to suburbia, and that children can find delights in chocolate factories or down rabbit holes. His remake of Dumbo fits firmly into the same mould and falls easily into his existing filmography, spinning another tale of an outcast beguiled by a life less ordinary. As he did with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Alice in Wonderland, too, Burton also reimagines a beloved classic, this time adapting Disney’s 1941 animated hit into the live-action realm. The good news: he’s in comfortable territory. The relief-inducing news: he fares better than his other blasts from the past, and Planet of the Apes and Dark Shadows as well. The less enchanting news: for all the visual flair and familiar themes that he loads into his latest release, the movie still only soars in fits and bursts. 

Unlike its 78-year-old predecessor, Dumbo focuses as much on circus-dwelling humans as its main mammalian attraction. Star rider Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell, Widows) is fresh home from World War I, and his children Milly and Joe (debutants (Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins) are trying to adjust to the changed status quo, when ringmaster Max Medici (Danny DeVito, TV’s It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia) announces that he’s bought a pregnant elephant. Looking after the giant creatures is Farrier’s new job, but the newborn calf isn’t like any other animal in the circus. Medici is horrified about the baby’s over-sized ears; however he changes he tune when Milly and Joe discover that the cute critter can use them to fly. 

Dumbo, as the young elephant is soon nicknamed, navigates a spate of ordeals at the Medici circus, but the film’s biggest threat arrives in the form of carnival entrepreneur V. A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton, American Assassin). A big permanent fairground, the big city and a bigger top all beckon, with Dumbo paired with French trapeze artist Colette Marchant (Eva Green, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children) as the star of the show. As Burton keeps casting his former stars – including the Batman Returns reunion with DeVito and Keaton – he keeps layering on his recognisable concerns. The world is unwelcoming to outliers like this engaging elephant and the people who love him. The new and the unusual rankles against tradition and order. Imagination and creativity hardly align with cold-hearted capitalism.

Touching upon ideas also pondered in Ed Wood and Big Eyes, repeating himself isn’t where Burton struggles with Dumbo. The sympathetic outsider angle works its charms as planned, perhaps even more so thanks to the film’s CGI, which renders the pint-sized creature with lifelike detail, expressions and emotions. From the wordless choral score that’s designed to evoke awe, to the filmmaker’s love of twinkling, eye-catching spectacle, his trademark aesthetic touches suit the movie’s mood as well. And yet, even for a story fleshed out from 64-minutes of animation and given ample changes by screenwriter Ehren Kruger (Ghost in the Shell), the film proves flimsy as a feather. It mightn’t be fair to expect a picture adapted from a cartoon to feel anything other than cartoonish, but Dumbo turns a broader tale into a slighter, more generic affair. And, as the feature’s 112 minutes tick by, that reality grates against Burton’s sensibilities – he’s typically eager to show wonder exceeding everyday bounds; however this narrative constrains its delights into formulaic confines. 

Much of the cast takes the script’s lead. Farrell and his on-screen offspring are passable without being memorable, Keaton opts for cookie-cutter villainy, and while DeVito and Green seem most at ease and attuned to Burton’s tone, they’re featured sparingly. But Dumbo himself is another matter. If little else, the movie’s human talent conveys just why he’s so entrancing. The film is at its best when the elephant flies high, rising above the feature’s thin flesh-and-blood characters and superficial subplots, and showcasing its set pieces and earnest sentiments. The creature makes an imprint when he’s not flapping his hefty ears above the ground, too; indeed, when Dumbo isn’t directing the audience’s attention to the critter, airborne or not, it leaves viewers wishing that it was.

3 stars


Director: Tim Burton

US, 2019, 112 mins


Release date: March 28

Distributor: Disney

Rated: PG

Sarah Ward

Thursday 28 March, 2019

About the author

Sarah Ward is a freelance film critic, arts and culture writer, and film festival organiser. She is the Australia-based critic for Screen International, a film reviewer and writer for ArtsHub, the weekend editor and a senior writer for Concrete Playground, a writer for the Goethe-Institut Australien’s Kino in Oz, and a contributor to SBS, SBS Movies and Flicks Australia. Her work has been published by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Junkee, FilmInk, Birth.Movies.Death, Lumina, Senses of Cinema, Broadsheet, Televised Revolution, Metro Magazine, Screen Education and the World Film Locations book series. She is also the editor of Trespass Magazine, a film and TV critic for ABC radio Brisbane, Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast, and has worked with the Brisbane International Film Festival, Queensland Film Festival, Sydney Underground Film Festival and Melbourne International Film Festival. Follow her on Twitter: @swardplay