Movie Review: Tim Burton’s “Dumbo” lacks the magic touch

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Gloom and doom hang over Tim Burton’s live-action (ish) remake of “Dumbo,” a classic in the Disney cartoon canon.

You knew from the source material and the trailers to this remake that he was going for a sweet, sentimental fable, tinged with sadness.

But hiring the screenwriter of “Arlington Road” and “The Ring” should have been a bigger give-away. Burton has blown up Disney’s ode to magic, misfits finding their gift and a mother’s love into a shiny but bloated, glum affair that feels “BIG EVENT” in scope, and depressingly heartless in execution.

The soaring, Disney-esque non-verbal choir oooing, ahhing and tra-la-la-ing over much of the score is the only nostalgia to it. Every other scene — of mistreated animals, parents separated from their offspring, an ancient industry in its death throes and the physical cost of war, just underscores how the “good ol’days” were nothing of the sort.

I expected Burton to make me cry. I didn’t expect him to utterly bum me out.

“Dumbo” opens in 1919, with a circus about to leave its Sarasota winter quarters for its annual tour by (digital) train. A threadbare showman, Maximilian Medici (Danny DeVito) presides, his vastly-reduced “family” of performers who are forced to handle many off-stage jobs, thanks to years of layoffs and “The Spanish Influenza.”

A father, Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell), formerly a star horse trainer/stunt rider, returns from World War I to his motherless children (Nico Parker, Finley Robbins). He lost an arm in France, the horses were sold after his wife died (the flu). And little Milly has dreams of being the next Marie Curie, or a veterinarian, not “a show-off” in the circus.

Max gives one-armed Holt the job of tending to the elephants, and shows off Mrs. Jumbo, his most prized recent purchase. She’s not performing. She’s pregnant.

And no sooner has she given birth than her baby becomes an attraction, “freak show” ears be darned.

Much of the movie is about Dumbo — as jeering, pelting audiences name him — being separated from his mother and trying to get back to her. Max sells her off.

But the kids figure out the big-eared babe has an odd reaction to feathers. He can fly. And they promise Dumbo that if he performs this feat in public, he’ll earn enough money for the circus to buy mom back.

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Michael Keaton plays a New York impresario who wants Dumbo for his new theme park. Eva Green is Collette, his seemingly callous aerialist who shows a softer side when she has to work with the baby elephant.

Alan Arkin has several pointless (one laugh among them) scenes as a banker backing Dreamland, only if its new star attraction, a flying elephant, pays off.

The performances lack anything like the pluck, wit and spark they’d need to stand out and lift this. Some of that can be parked at the feet of having to act with digital animals. DeVito tries too hard for laughs, and even a dumb gimmick (having Michael Buffer, the WWE’s “Let get ready to RUMBLE” announcer, introduce Dumbo’s act) falls utterly flat.

The script’s idea of a running gag is Medici’s “rules,” which consist of only “Rule Number One: Keep the cages LOCKED.” “Rule Number One: Always have a BIG FINISH!”

This version of the story is overrun with villains, people not doing right by the animals, the kids or the basics of kindness. But none of them interesting enough to be worth hissing at.

The big “ooh” and “ahh” flying moments have a hint of magic, and the touching mother-baby stuff almost yanks a tear.

But those scenes are robbed of any payoff by the surrounding scenes, which offer no contrast — Burtonesque gloom becomes a pall that hangs over the entire enterprise.

There are half a dozen songs in the sixty-eight minute original 1941 animated film — and quite a few laughs, some of which came from the racist stereotypes playing the crows, which were never going to remain in a 2019 Disney remake. But when you strip away that, and almost all of the songs, save for the sweet, sad lullaby “Baby Mine,” and don’t replace them with anything the least bit light or funny, what are you left with?

Burton’s “Dumbo” is dark, digital and only weakly humorous. Kids may laugh at the digital Capuchin monkey who gets in Medici’s hair (and in his desk drawers, etc.) and coo at the baby elephant with the oversized ears. But the movie surrounding that is relentlessly sad, a picture that plays up the cruelty in this imaginary but sometimes too-real world.

And what the man who owes his career to Disney does to “Dreamland,” the theme park setting for the film’s final act, should have given the folks who write his checks pause.

Burton’s place within cinema culture is built on his ability to make the sad and morbid palatable, to play up the darkness in fables (“Edward Scissorhands,””The Corpse Bride”) and the gloom in what we used to call “comic” books. His “Batman” movies set the tone for the genre that has taken over the entire industry.

But in spite of that, the whimsy of “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure,” “Edward Scissorhands,””The Corpse Bride” and even his daft “Dark Shadows” and downbeat “Alice in Wonderland” still made this seem like a movie Disney could trust in his hands.

He remade it twice as long, with half the heart.

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MPAA Rating: PG for peril/action, some thematic elements, and brief mild language

Cast: Colin Farrell, Danny DeVito, Nico Parker, Michael Keaton, Eva Green, Alan Arkin, Roshan Seth, Joseph Gatt

Credits:Directed by, script by Ehren Kruger , based on the Helen Aberson/Harold Pearl novel. A Walt Disney release.

Running time: 1:52

 

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