Not every blockbuster or franchise starter/wannabe can – or should – be seen through a superhero prism, but Dumbo, Tim Burton’s (Ed Wood, Mars Attacks, Edward Scissorhands) misguided remake of the 1941 Disney animated classic, certainly can be. The superhero in question can’t speak or even control his own destiny (for that, he depends on the kindness of strangers), but he can communicate except through overlarge, blue eyes, giant, floppy ears, and expressive body language. And like every superhero, he has a tragic backstory (forcible separation from his mother) that unfolds in reel time, and a unique superpower (flight) that once used purely for good and not entertainment, will help free them both from the chains of captivity. He’s also an outcast, a pariah among his own kind, the deliberate subject of ridicule, humiliation, and shame. In short, the all-CGI title character is a misfit-outsider after Burton’s own, not-yet-curdled, middle-aged heart.
Unfortunately for Burton and his audience (i.e., us), doubling the original’s thankfully brief 64-minute running time effectively means opening up Dumbo, shifting the focus from Dumbo and his plight to a circus family also beset by tragedy (the symmetrical loss of a mother and a visibly wounded war veteran) and the larger circus itself, beset less by tragedy than a sputtering post-war economy that has little room or space for their kind of old-school entertainment. Not that there’s anything wrong per se in the non-Dumbo circus characters, Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell), the aforementioned war veteran, a one-time trick horseman and circus mainstay pre-war injury, or his two children, Milly (Nico Parker), a wannabe scientist in early 20th-century America, and her younger brother, Joe (Finley Hobbins). They make for an endearing, if remarkably well scrubbed, trio. It’s just that their individual and collective story often distracts from Dumbo’s journey from sideshow outcast to world-class entertainer and beyond. (Props for Dumbo’s surprising, surprisingly welcome pro-conservation, anti-animals-in-circuses-or-zoos message.)
And when Dumbo isn’t focused on the Farriers and their intra-personal jousts, conflicts, and reconciliations, it’s focused on the circus proper, specifically owner-ringmaster Max Medici (Danny DeVito), a kind-hearted, well-meaning impresario who treats circus workers less as employees than an extended family. Burton and his screenwriter, Ehren Kruger, use broad strokes to introduce the circus performers, most of whom leave little if any mark. To Burton, however, the circus represents a near-socialist utopia of equals or near-equals, with only one or two mean-spirited workers who represent both the worst humanity has to offer (i.e., cruelty to animals) and function as a plot device (one callously instigates the incident that separates Dumbo from his mother, Jumbo). The real villain, V. A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), a Trump-like venal, morally and ethically bankrupt showman, doesn’t appear until the bloated, overlong, and over-indulgent second half. He’s as bland, dull, and uninteresting a villain as any found in Disney’s animation library.
Once Dumbo switches from the shabby, worn-out environs of the picture-book circus to Vandevere’s static amusement/theme park, Dreamland, Dumbo practically stalls out. Besides Vandevere and his machinations to permanently separate Dumbo from the circus, Dumbo introduces another characters, Colette Marchant (Eva Green), an aerialist who proves crucial to the evolution of Dumbo’s high-flying act and – no surprise here – a potential surrogate mother and significant other to the Farrier children and their wounded father, respectively. She has a semi-tragic history too (because of course, everyone who’s not a villain in Dumbo does). In exchange for a career and financial stability, Colette has handed over control of her life to Vandevere. A minor-league, bald henchman, Neils Skellig (Joseph Gatt), in thrall to Vandevere for no discernible reason other than the usual villain’s need for gofers and day-to-day evildoing, and J. Griffin Remington (Alan Arkin), a crotchety, curmudgeonly banker who holds the financial keys to Vandevere’s future, round out the non-circus performers.
As a director, Burton’s recent career has floundered more than it has soared (to deliberately mix metaphors). His attempt to start an X-Men-inspired franchise in Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children failed to generate much interest from audiences while his attempt at spectacle-free drama, Big Eyes, came and went with little fanfare despite another winning turn from Amy Adams. And while his biggest successes over the last twenty years, Alice in Wonderland and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, generously filled the coffers of their respective producers/studios, they did little to discourage the argument that Burton’s best days as a filmmaker with something to say, with the equivalent of a vision beyond CGI-driven, heavily production designed filmmaking, were and will remain behind him. With the occasional moment or scene in Dumbo, all but one or two tied to the Dumbo character and his plight (Burton spends close to half of Dumbo’s running time in close-ups of Dumbo’s large, expressive eyes), he does little to convince naysayers that they’re wrong.