Directed by Tim Burton
Screenplay by Ehren Kruger
Based on the book by Helen Aberson and Harold Pearly
As the ol’ Disney fan favourite Casey Junior trundles across Greater America, so too does the endless train of Live-Action Disney remakes grind to a halt with Dumbo. The original 1941 animated piece saved the Walt Disney company following weak sales from Fantasia. It was short, simplistic but a prime example of exquisite storytelling and poignant tugs at the heartstrings. This remake succeeds with visual splendour but loses out on much of the desperately needed heart.
In the betwixt and between is Ehren Kruger’s (of Transformers fame…) screen adaptation which takes the simplistic appeal of Dumbo and instead fuels it with overcomplications and hollow visuals. Tim Burton stated he considers Dumbo to be ‘a simple story’, which it is. It sits alongside Disney’s Alice in Wonderland (1951) as an adventure where the character encounters rather than creates the traditional Barthes’ linear narrative. In the original, Dumbo has no real adversary, no goal and is instead driven by other characters prompts. Kruger’s injection of drama to stretch out a narrative which seems to cross a multitude of other films.
Still subject to the travelling Circus, Jumbo Jnr is subject to the bullying, frustrations and removal from his mother after being branded the freakish ‘Dumbo’. From here the plot dives headfirst into the Disneyland reject pile as he is made the new star of V.A. Vandevere’s Dreamland.
In truth, no performance is outstanding and even the most accomplished performers are on auto-pilot. Though, as always Danny DeVito manages to garner laughs by exuding his presence. An almost twisted take on Walt himself, Micheal Keaton’s Vandevere is a man whose emphasis on imagination is enjoyable but perplexing. It’s a drastic headscratcher for a Disney production to place an imaginer in the helm of an antagonist.
We’re unsure who the primary focus should be with. Naturally, we would assume Dumbo but the film angles us towards children Milly and Joe Farrier (Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins). By the introduction of Dumbo, we seem to have our protagonist, until a romance is shoe-horned in. Their father Holt returns from the first world war – his left arm lost in an undiscussed event. Focus shifts to Holt and the acrobat Colette Marchmont (Eva Green). The direction is all over the place, snapping our necks in an attempt to identify where we should cast attention.
Burton’s trademark stamp is rampant throughout the film, not only visually but in its construction. Containing the deep richness of his colour palette, this is evident in the costume design. Even more so is the lighting aesthetic Burton utilises, sharp strikes of bold yellow light against darker – neutral tones. Then, of course, there are the eyes. His signature cinematography lends itself to Dumbo’s large, empathetic eyes. There are just a few too many shots which relies on this too much, diluting the effect quite quickly.
Sadly, this makes Dumbo more of a Buton piece than a Disney one. Whilst there is nothign wrong with a Burtonesque incarnation, far from it, the intention pushes it into the hands of one creator over another.
As for Jumbo Jnr himself, the visual effects team have endeavoured to maintain the engaging demeanour of the large-ear elephant. They succeed, the CGI model is adorable in some close-up shots, but from a distance has no weight. When a near 80-year-old 2D model connects greater with the audience than your modern-day creation, there is an issue. Nowhere is this more evident than what should be the pathos-driven separation of Dumbo and his mother. There is little pain, rushed and allowing for no sense of urgency as the ‘mad elephant’ is whisked away. Instead of focusing on the sorrow of Dumbo, we are pushed into following the Farrier children’s plans.
There are though, short flights of fancy which, with expansion would have lifted Dumbo. The second half, for as far as the plot may reach contains pathos, humour and snippets of tension. It only extends so far, but there are intakes of breath at Dumbo’s first flight. With a climax that is much grander than expected, here pacing is also drastically improved, though the editing is sloppy on occasion with poor cuts and failed continuity. The particular highlight as is Burton’s take on the infamous Pink Elephants. Dumbo is no longer intoxicated for the encounter, but his gentle fascination with the bubbles galloping along to Danny Elfman’s take on the original score by Frank Churchill and Oliver Wallace is delightful.
If only the first two-thirds had an ounce of heart that the closing had, perhaps Dumbo would sit in the upper tier of the Disney remakes. Comparisons to the original are inevitable, and whilst Tim Burton’s signature auteur style is abundant across the piece, it lacks the warmth, ingenuity or creativity from the 1941 masterpiece. It certainly isn’t the weakest of the dredged up fantasy epics from Disney, but far from the pinnacle – so wake me up when we have A Whole New World to revisit with Aladdin.