If you have not visited before, let me tell you something about myself that repeat visitors have already heard, I am a sentimentalist. I tear up at dog stories, mt throat constricts when I see the American Flag waving in the background of a patriotic scene, and a well placed song can send me on a nostalgia voyage that I might take days to return from. With all of that front loaded, “Dumbo” should have been catnip to me and just the kind of soft sweet film to enjoy on a family night out. That is what makes it so depressing to report that the film is a rather joyless and empty exercise in spite of all the emotional manipulation that it attempts. Tim Burton has lost something here, and it is not his unique visual style .
The film looks great. I was so in during the opening moments of Casey Jr. chugging down the tracks toward the home of the Medici Brothers Circus. The hint of the original theme, and the near face on the front of the locomotive, made me think of riding in the tiny circus cages pulled by the miniature train at Disneyland. That moment was fleeting however. When we arrive at the circus, we are rushed through an introduction of characters that tells us their names but nothing about who they are. Milly is a scientist supposedly trapped in a circus child’s body. How do we know this?, because someone says it. We don’t learn it organically from her actions, the character is being described to us. She fares better than her brother however, poor Joe is not given any character at all, not even a expository line about his personality. In a blink and you’ll miss it moment, we discover that they have been cared for by the circus magician and his wife after the death of their mother while their father was away in WWI. It is his return to the circus that starts the movie, and that feels like the wrong start. I can see the parallel being developed by the story structure of an absent parent and the need for connection. Colin Farrell as Holt Farrier, needs to re-establish with his kids, but we are seeing all of this out of any previous context and I mostly did not care because I had to emotional connection to anyone yet.
We should feel emotionally invested in Dumbo immediately. Baby animals are almost always cute and a baby elephant just screams “adorable”. The CGI creature that is the star of this movie is suitably appealing but somehow still fails to capture our hearts the way he should. When baby Dumbo is being sepearted from his mother, it should be a moment of heartwrenching drama, instead it is a moment of mild sadness that passes much too quickly. I’m not sure what Burton and screenwriter Ehren Kruger missed, but there is definitely a shortage of giving a darn here. I think it may be that the story of the kids and their father steps on the emphasis on Dumbo and his mother. It also does so without giving us enough emotional reward for the human story. We are supposed to care about the tragedy that has befallen this family, but there was no flashback to happier times or a current display of the family bonds. Once again, we are just told that this is what is happening, not really shown it.
The biggest missteps in my opinion come from trying to establish the villainous characters in the story. Holt is supposed to take over the responsibility of the elephants in the circus, but a roustabout who doesn’t really like the elephants and has been in charge, resents having his authority undermined. That character is drawn so broadly, that you can tell he is evil from the moment he appears on screen. That his malicious treatment of the elephants and Holt, results in an on screen death in a kids movie, tales this away from being light hearted family fare. This has a dark edge to it, that might work in other Burton films but is a sour center to this piece of eye candy. It gets worse when the main villain, portrayed by Michael Keaton, comes on like a young John Hammond, all set to show the world something impossible and then he morphs into the standard shortsighted capitalist that is the easy parody for struggling screenwriters. Almost nothing Keaton’s character does after bringing everyone from the circus to his amusement center makes sense. Each choice he makes is counter intuitive to the goals he has and the supposed status he has attained. The climax of the film comes as a result of a temper tantrum that takes place for no reason what so ever.
Give Burton and Kruger a little credit for playing a bit subversively with the Keaton character V.A. Vandevere. When we see the amusement park he has created, it is a send up of Disney himself and the legendary park that he created. The “Trip to the Moon” ride in the background is lifted from one of the early attractions in Disneyland’s Tomorrowland, as is the “Hall of Science” which has a futuristic display that anyone who remembers the “Carousel of Progress” will chuckle at. The ruthless businessman behind the warm hearted innovator is a caricature of Disney’s legendary duality. This idea would have worked so much better if there was a redemption arc to the story rather than a comeuppance. Stupidity in a character who has succeeded beyond imagination may be Burton’s attempt to get a little revenge in the complicated relationship he has had with the house of the mouse since the start of his career.
Danny DeVito is the ringmaster owner of the Medici brothers circus. He has played a similar role in other Tim Burton films so the casting works although his performance is a little outsized at times and the actions he is required to take to make the story move forward do not make much sense. Eva Green is an aerial artist who initially looks like a villain but moves into the role of ally effectively and love interest much less so. Her relationship with the children, their father and Dumbo himself is ambiguous when it should be more obvious.
So if a guy like me, who cries a little at the trailer for a chezy movie about a dog, can’t get worked up about a film like this, someone has missed a step. There are only two moments where I started to feel a connection to the characters and the story. First was the moment when the circus folk are singing the song that came from the original film, and the mermaid is plucking it out on her ukulele. That was a piece of fan service that was necessary and worked because of the previous connection. The second moment is when Dumbo is watching the bubble show that goes on right before his performance and his head nods with the dancing pink elephants that are faintly suggested by the bubbles. Had there been a little bit more of that magic, this opinion would be different. Unfortunately, we miss the comic antagonists of the cartoon and don’t care about the protagonists or antagonists in this re-imaging of the story.