‘Dumbo’ review: Tim Burton presents whimsical, safe adaptation

Tim Burton’s ‘Dumbo’ takes flight with wonder in its midsection, but euphoria runs dry quickly that you’ll hardly be pressed to remain for the encore.

It’s only until the last few minutes of the 1941 animated classic, Dumbo, when the eponymous elephant with oversized ears finally discovers his ability to fly. In Tim Burton’s live-action adaptation, Dumbo already soars by the second act – the part where the film’s sense of wonder is at most palpable. Aided by Danny Elfman’s riveting musical score, such scene can be the cinematic equivalent to King Kong pounding his chest on top of the Empire State Building or E.T. hoisting a bicycle into the midnight sky.

From then, the succeeding flight sequences unfortunately starts to lose its potency and that has something to do with the steady workmanlike quality in both Ehren Kruger’s screenplay and Tim Burton’s direction. Is Burton the right person to do this remake in the first place? I, for one, would have shown more interest had the film went on a darker path, a la Frankenweenie style. However, Disney will not be happy to put such nightmarish themes on their beloved kiddie classic. With that, the visionary director seems to be held back in exhibiting the extent of his full potential, thereby making Dumbo feel like it’s stuck between on being a crowd pleaser and a dark re-imagination. The result feels occasionally flat and unexceptional.

Colin Farrell and Eva Green in ‘Dumbo.

Surely, the script shows an effort to stretch out its thin source material but it does so by padding the narrative with thinly-written characters. There’s the boisterous ringmaster Medici (Danny DeVito) who sells Dumbo, along with his entire circus, to the brash entrepreneur Vandevere (Michael Keaton). It’s a nice reunion for the two actors who have previously starred in 1992’s Batman Returns. The latter is probably the most memorable character here but that is largely due to Keaton’s quirky performance. Then there’s Eva Green who showcases her dexterity as the trapeze artist Colette – it’s a fresh break from her usual femme fatale roles. Together, it’s nice to see them putting up personas, but as a whole, they don’t differentiate much to the ensemble of amusing misfits entertaining in the background.

The most underused character, however, is its main human protagonist. From the onset, one can expect that the handicapped WWI veteran Holt (Colin Farrell) will have the strongest human connection to the physically deformed elephant. But the story does not capitalize much on this common ground. It does little favor that most of his dialogues are with his two children, Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins), who are quite wooden for roles that should supply the film’s youthful vibe. While the recently released Bumblebee perfectly demonstrates how to forge a solid bond between a human and a robot, it’s quite surprising that Dumbo struggles to latch an emotional hook among its human cast.

It is true that like the original, none of the new relationships presented competes to Dumbo and his mother’s. There’s pain and yearning when he gets separated from his mom, best illustrated when the two, divided by a cell, cuddle each other’s trunks for comfort. In this version, Dumbo does not speak but he seems to understand the conversations happening around him. The computer-generated elephant remains to be an endearing and warm character who succeeds in conveying the emotions needed. With his expressive eyes, you can feel Dumbo’s exhilaration as he takes flight, or his heartbreak and humiliation once he’s dressed up like a mime, only to be made fun by a cruel audience.

Most of the magic and visual treat here is actually supplied by the grandiose production design and Colleen Atwood’s rich and lavish costumes designs. Burton gets much fanfare with a surrealist musical number involving bubble elephants on a parade, which doesn’t necessarily lead anywhere – it’s just an eye-candy filler. Then there’s a surprise cameo from Michael Buffer, who chants, “Let’s get ready for Dumboooo…” much to the adults’ amusement. However when the film gets to its themes that matters the most, like its messages on pro-animal rights and anti-capitalism, it does so by rushing through those epiphanies. With the inclusion of the kids who constantly push Dumbo to take his leap of faith, there seems to be weaker statement of animal empowerment in there.

With Dumbo mainly relying on its superficial charms, the younger viewers will be highly entertained. The adults accompanying them, however, won’t necessarily be thrilled by its stiff narrative. Like a fleeting stage act, it continues to be a whimsical experience but it never truly tugs to the heartstrings. Dumbo’s adorable CGI-features mostly flood the film’s presence that one can call this adaptation as the cinematic equivalent of a cute stuff toy.

3 out of 5 stars
Directed by Tim Burton and written by Ehren Kruger, ‘Dumbo‘ stars Colin Farrell, Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Eva Green, Alan Arkin, Nico Parker, Finley Hobbinsm, Roshan Seth, DeObia Oparei, Joseph Gatt, Sharon Rooney, Michael Buffer, Frank Bourke and Jo Osmond. Based on Disney’s “Dumbo” by Otto Englander. Run time: 112 minutes.

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