Review: In ‘Dumbo,’ Tim Burton Makes Flight Possible

Colin Farrell, Danny DeVito, Eva Green and Michael Keaton lead the cast in Disney’s new live-action adventure, directed by Tim Burton.

Nostalgia can play tricks on the mind.

dfn_dumbo_300First released in 1941, Walt Disney’s production of Dumbo was a fine family film for its era, centering on certain animals that performed at a circus and, especially, on a young elephant born with outsized ears whose only friend is a plucky mouse. The hand-drawn animation remains beautiful, though other elements in its 64-minute running time, such as a segment featuring black crows acting and singing in a stereotyped manner, have dated badly with the passage of decades.

Directed by Tim Burton, Disney’s new live-action version is wonderfully captivating. Ehren Kruger’s script greatly expands on the original slender premise, retaining memorable motifs and even entire scenes, yet refashioning them so that they fit comfortably within the new story.

The focus is on circus people this time, rather than the animals, though it must be acknowledged that all the animals are treated with appropriate respect. Appropriate punishment is meted out to any human who does not uphold such standards.

Everyone is surprised to see Holt Farrier (Colin Farrier) when he returns after The Great War, probably in 1919. Oh, his two young children Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins) are happy to have him back, but they are still mourning the loss of their mother, who died while Holt was serving in the military.

His fellow former workers at the Medici Brothers Circus also welcome him home, though all their eyes are initially drawn to Holt’s missing arm, which he lost in the war. Holt hopes to resume his career as a star of the show, performing tricks on horseback. Unfortunately, explains owner Max Medici (Danny DeVito), the circus has experienced rough times economically; the majority of workers and performers have been laid off, and the horses were sold off. But there is one position that Max can offer to Holt …

… and so Holt becomes an elephant tender. It’s a humbling change of circumstances, but Holt needs to provide for his family. More importantly, he needs to learn how to be a father again; his wife primarily cared for the emotional needs of the young ones, and Holt has no idea how she did it. The youngest, Joe, quickly re-adjusts to his father’s standoffish personality, but Milly is a different story.

A bright and determined young woman, Milly is determined to become a scientist, not a circus worker. She has declined to learn any possible circus skills, to the consternation of her father, as well as Max.

Things change with the arrival of a newborn elephant. Max bought Jumbo recently, without knowing that she was pregnant. When her child is born with enormous, ungainly ears, Max’s immediate plans for a new attraction are foiled and Holt is ordered to ‘take care of it.’

Sensitive to the young elephant’s ‘disabled’ appearance, the one-armed Holt is overly protective, warning his children away. Being curious youngsters, they ignore him and soon enough learn that the elephant has a secret ability to fly, which is apparently triggered by the appearance of any feather.

Soon enough, the newly-dubbed Dumbo becomes the star attraction of the show and attracts the attention of the wealthy business entrepreneur V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), accompanied by his lovely star attraction, the French trapeze artist Colette Marchant (Eva Green). Clearly, Dumbo is on his way to becoming a superstar of the early 20th century!

Things don’t work out that way, of course. Dumbo is very much a creature of the 21st century, celebrating differences and banishing all hatred and villainy. It is, after all, a tale for children, though it is also actively engaging for adults.

Born in Burbank, California, which was also the home of Walt Disney Studios, Tim Burton has long been associated with Disney fantasies, dating back to his time as an animator’s apprentice in the early 1980s. (Reportedly, he was fired by Disney after making Frankenweenie, a short film deemed too “dark and scary” for children.)

In more recent times, Burton remade Alice in Wonderland (2010) in 3D for the studio, effectively kicking off Disney’s current series of ‘animation to live-action’ remakes, which has spread through Maleficent (2014), Cinderella (2015), The Jungle Book (2016), and Beauty and the Beast (2017), among others, with more on the way. In the meantime, Burton has made TV show adaptation Dark Shadows (2012), feature-length animation Frankenweenie (2012), live-action drama Big Eyes (2014), and fantasy book adaptation Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2016).

After the major disappointment of Batman Returns (1992), I confess that my devotion to Burton as a film fan faltered. This was reinforced nearly a decade later by Planet of the Apes (2001), and I have not rushed out to see his live-action films since then. His animated films Corpse Bride (2005) and Frankenweenie (2012) played much better for me. So, perhaps out of my own ignorance, Dumbo strikes me as a triumph for Burton.

His fevered imagination is on full display, brought to life by a large crew that includes director of photography Ben Davis, production designer Rick Heinrichs, costume designer Colleen Atwood, and film editor Chris Lebenzon. Danny Elfman composed the musical score, which is only noticeable when it needs to be, otherwise contributing a steady and percolating background to the action.

The film is not a classic by any means. The acting, especially, is all over the map and tonally inconsistent; it sounds like the actors were given total freedom to come up with their own approach to their characters and then never reigned in, though it is fun to see the reunion of Keaton and DeVito in a neat sort of role reversal from Batman Returns.

Of all the cast members, young Nico Parker shines the brightest. She displays a calm demeanor and a capacity for childish glee that can explode at any moment, as well as a firm command of every dramatic scene in which she appears.

Tim Burton’s Dumbo approaches magic, and not just in making a young elephant with outsized ears fly.

The film will open wide in theaters throughout Dallas on Friday, March 29, 2019.

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