Maven's Nest

Reel Life: Flick Pix

Digital Dumbo flies circles around the rest of the live-action re-make.

By Nora Lee Mandel

Directed by Tim Burton
Produced by Justin Springer, Ehren Kruger, Katterli Frauenfelder, and Derek Frey
Written by Ehren Kruger, based on Dumbo (1941)
Released by Disney
USA. 1 hr 52 min. Rated PG
With: Danny DeVito, Colin Farrell, Michael Keaton, Eva Green, Nico Parker, Finley Hobbins, Roshan Seth, Alan Arkin, Sharon Rooney and DeObia Oparei
Released: March 29, 2019

Tim Burton’s live action Dumbo lumbers too much, with too little charm. It is just barely saved by a few elements.

Positives first, to be kind.

The best live person on screen is Danny DeVito as ring master Maximillian Medici, owner of the Medici Brothers Circus. As also his fake twin brother Giuseppe, he’s the hardest working man in this show business, especially when he talks directly to the movie audience. DeVito amusingly pulls off the fast-talking businessman and quick jokester, who also genuinely cares for his diverse circus troupe, colorfully seen mostly in the background. Standing out among the circus folk in brief appearances are: Roshan Seth as the Indian snake charmer (many times with a real python around his neck on-screen) Pramesh Singh, who implicitly admires Dumbo to be like the god Ganesh, and Sharon Rooney as circus mermaid Miss Atlantis, who gets to sing a too slight, truncated version of the classic lullaby “Baby Mine”. (Arcade Fire rocks it up over the closing credits.)

Eva Green, as the French aerialist Colette Marchant, convincingly enters as a beautiful evil sidekick arm-candy to the villain. But when she flies with Dumbo as “The Queen of The Heavens” on the trapeze (in stunning costumes by Colleen Atwood), she learns to love Dumbo by flying with him. She changes sides to be a surprisingly warm maternal figure, a role she doesn’t usually play.

But a Burton film is usually more about the look than the actors. Production designer Rick Heinrichs’s realization of the Casey Junior circus train is marvelous. Its animated journey across the southern map of the U.S. is delightful, and on to when they all move up to the show, literally, as the circus moves up to, literally, the big time – Dreamland at Coney Island. There’s even an over-the-top Busby Berkeley tribute inside the big top, even though there seems to be only one above shot of the dancers for all that staging. Will all the CGI, including of the Brooklyn Bridge and docks, I don’t know how much of the screen-filling, early 20th century look is attributable to cinematographer Ben Davis.

Thankfully, the digitally animated elephants are wonderful, and Dumbo’s circling flights are fantastic (even in the 2D Disney limits the press to see). The new concluding, PC scene of the elephant herd in a nature reserve is lovely and heartwarming.

Everything else is either way over the top or underdeveloped.

The prologue is too long until Dumbo finally appears, as the whole movie at almost two hours is too long and too complicated in detail (and history lessons) for very young kids. The usual Disney dead mother has to be explained (flu epidemic of 1918). The glum father Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell pretty much repeats his titular Saving Mr. Banks from six years ago) has to be explained as a wounded veteran of World War I. (How many in the audience will get his later references to being in France, including specific battles?)

Sorry, but the two child actors in their feature film debuts may be the most charmless in movies ever. While I realize their characters are recent orphans, they are even more colorless than their father. Sure, feminists have been calling for years for changes in the image of Disney princesses to have goals beyond marriage and happy ever after. But will girls, or any kid, really look up to boring Milly (Nico Parker) who expressionlessly insists she doesn’t want to be an exhibitionist performer like her horse-riding parents, but wants to be a scientist like Marie Curie? One would think Milly as a budding scientist would be interested that elephants are mammals who bear and nurse their young. But by the time the elephant appears at the Joplin, Missouri stop of the tour, the word “pregnant” is avoided like in a pre-code movie. The junior scientist seems to think that a newborn mammal would immediately eats peanuts. She drains science of all creativity and fun, and is not a model to emulate as she humorlessly tests her theories about what makes Dumbo fly. Her younger brother Joe (Finley Hobbins) is just plain bland.

Michael Keaton works hard as the opportunistic entrepreneur V.A. Vandevere, owner of Dreamland. But his effort to be the sleazy villain of the story is quickly overshadowed by Alan Arkin, who hilariously nails the Mr. Potter-like banker role of J. Griffin Remington.

Throughout, Danny Elfman’s score is also annoyingly over the top – with a constant, intrusive chorus. Just as “Baby Mine” is barely allowed to register, the jazzy “Pink Elephants on Parade” of course can no longer be linked to drunkenness, let alone without the no longer PC Jim Crows. Instead, the song is stuck into a bubbly circus act such that DeVito has to exclaim “It’s Pink Elephants!”.

The original Dumbo was the first movie I ever saw in a theater. At age four, when Mrs. Jumbo was taken away, I cried and climbed into my mother’s lap, where I stayed for the rest of the 64-minute film. I’ve loved introducing the classic Disney animated films to my four-year-old grandson. But I don’t think this live action version will enter that pantheon, not for me nor for other families.

NB: This review is in fulfillment of Disney’s requirement that I post a review in order to be kept on their invitation list for press screenings.


Nora Lee Mandel is a member of New York Film Critics Online and the Alliance of Women Film Journalists. Her reviews are counted in the Rotten Tomatoes TomatoMeter:
Complete Index to Nora Lee Mandel's Movie Reviews

Since August 2006, edited versions of most of my reviews of documentaries/indie/foreign films are at Film-Forward; since 2012, festival overviews at FilmFestivalTraveler; and, since 2016, coverage of women-made films at FF2 Media. Shorter versions of my older reviews are at IMDb's comments, where non-English-language films are listed by their native titles.

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