Director: Tim Burton
Stars: Danny DeVito, Michael Keaton, Eva Green
“This is a disaster,” exclaims Alan Arkin’s character during the climactic scenes of Tim Burton’s live action Dumbo remake, and given the savaging the film has received from most quarters of the UK press, one might assume that this line will live to take on a grim sense of self-awareness. But wait, because while some way short of greatness, the underwhelming truth is that this film isn’t the monstrosity its been made out to be. Indeed, it’s probably the best Tim Burton film to have appeared in, well, a while.
That isn’t the same as it being ‘good’, per se (however you wish to quantify that).
This suspicious conveyerbelt of live do-overs from Disney is partially Burton’s fault to begin with. His grotesque and charmless Alice In Wonderland haphazardly sated the cinema-going public’s appetite for gaudy 3D, arriving in the wake of Avatar at the start of 2010. Dumbo is available to watch in 3D, but it’s telling how scant such screenings are. Still, Burton has Michael Keaton wave his cane at the camera, just in case someone’s enjoying that kind of thing still.
It doesn’t start well. A clunky jaunt across an American map interspersed with patchwork character introductions and a lot of lousy CGI gives the impression that Dumbo is going to be as unpleasant an experience as Alice. Colin Farrell phones in a one-armed First World War vet returning to life at the circus, and the film’s initial approach to animal captivity for the purposes of entertainment is cowardly to say the least. Dumbo’s mother is kept in shockingly cramped quarters, but there’s virtually no authorial investigation of this angle of the story. In addition, there’s a bit too much mileage sought from animals having accidents or being mildly mistreated. Unwittingly or not, Burton’s Dumbo comes to feel darkly mean-spirited. There have been misanthropic tendencies in the man’s work before, but the mistreatment of animals – even CG ones – gets things off on the wrong foot.
Things do pick up after a time, and largely this is thanks to Burton’s rusty sense of showmanship winning through. Little credit can be given to the cast, sadly. Danny DeVito’s put upon ringmaster Max Medici has the weariness of a comedian tanking at an open mic night, Michael Keaton’s Machiavellian V.A. Vandevere isn’t nearly Machiavellian enough and the less said about the child actors the better (sorry child actors). Eva Green brings mild elevation to proceedings, but there’s little character to her high-wire Colette. The lack of inspiration in the film’s human elements is disheartening.
Dumbo himself fares a little better, but remains in the shadow of his hand-drawn predecessor, cowed by the persistently unsavoury nature of his captivity. When the film attempts an eleventh hour reversal of ideology (with some sprightly Free Willy-style escapades) it all feels somewhat contrived. Too little, too late. And this isn’t the only whiff of hypocrisy here…
The film’s second half (a noted improvement on its first) sees Medici’s circus troupe invited to Vandevere’s Floridian fun fair; a goliath amusement park that invites comparison to The Mouse’s own famous behemoth in the Sunshine State. Dumbo then takes on a defiantly anti-capitalist, anti-establishment stance that seems somewhat rich coming from Disney, especially immediately following their controversial Fox takeover. Ideally, one would have the breathing space to separate the art from the manufacturer, but it can’t help but feel disingenuous and false.
Vandevere’s Dreamland does provide Burton a playground for his particular stylistic sensibilities, which come to the fore better than they have since the distant days of Batman Returns. There’s an almost steampunk dynamic on display here and it comes alive whenever Burton shoots his creation at night, bathed either in bulbous electric light or against a backdrop of blazing naked flames. A shot of Colin Farrell’s Holt Farrier in silhouette within a deserted big top might be the single most stirring image the director has provided us this century.
The bar has fallen so low, though. With only a couple of slight returns to speak of, Burton hasn’t been a dynamic or even interesting presence since Ed Wood. A man once praised for his unique and original cinematic vision has become better known for a slew of risible remakes. Dumbo is the best of these, but it still feels clunky, liable to collapse into mawkishness at any moment. It just about scrapes by, and fleetingly even manages to soar. But the enormous lift encouraged by Danny Elfman’s music never really comes. Still, we should at the very least be thankful that he kept Johnny Depp out of this one. Farrell may be a little wooden, but things could have been a whole lot worse.
Still, Farrier’s insistence on calling Dumbo by the nickname “Big D” tells you a lot about the lack of self-awareness on display here.