Film Review - Dumbo

Eva Green in a scene from “Dumbo.”

As Disney live-action remakes go, “Dumbo” is one of the better ones. Tim Burton (“Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children”) puts his creative visual spin on the 1941 original cartoon.

The look and style of the film is a culmination of the directors previous work. “Batman Returns” fans will rejoice to see both Batman (Michael Keaton) and The Penguin (Danny DeVito) reunite under very different circumstances. There are a lot of changes to the story in this new adaptation, but few, if any, will notice them. As it turns out “Dumbo” isn’t one of the more beloved animated Disney classics.

Most of those I spoke to after the press screening couldn’t point out any of the differences from the original. Burton’s frequent collaborator Collin Atwood (“Alice Through the Looking Glass”) has memorable costume designs while “Sleepy Hollow” production designer Rick Heinrichs will likely lead the pack when it comes to award consideration. The story is told from the point of view of the humans, not the animals this time, but it’s the emotion in Dumbo’s eyes that steals the show.

Born into a world where your talent decides your worth, Baby Jumbo is a disappointment for ringmaster and owner Max Medici (DeVito) when he arrives sporting enormous ears. Fearing financial loss to his traveling circus, he orders elephant trainer Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) and his children to conceal the baby elephant’s deformity. Milly and Joe Farrier quickly learn that with some coaxing and a trick feather, Dumbo, as he’s nicknamed, can actually fly. The circus is saved and the “disappointment” becomes the star of the show. When millionaire V. A. Vandevere (Keaton), the owner of Dreamland, hears of the flying elephant, he makes Medici an offer that changes everyone’s lives and separates Dumbo from his mother. The Farrier children make it their mission to reunite the elephants no matter what the cost.

“The face only a mother could love,” a memorable line from the original animated film is delivered this time by one of the human characters.

“Dumbo” is the second live-action remake, after 2015’s “Cinderella,” to discard talking animals. Although much of the human dialogue is poorly written, especially when it comes to Keaton’s character, Nico Parker isn’t much better, while Finley Hobbins is barely given any lines at all. “Dumbo” is structured very differently from any of the other live action films. Sometimes this works to the film’s advantage, along with a plot that keeps the audience in suspense. Other times it works against the experience. The film is two hours long, twice as long as the original, and there are elements of the film that feel unnecessary (i.e. Alan Arkin’s banker character).

“Dumbo” was filmed entirely on a green screen studio set, yet it doesn’t feel that way. It feels alive and open. The visual effects, especially the close-ups of Dumbo are the selling point. The cartoon version made great use of those sad eyes in which every emotion of the character was conveyed and that’s the case here, but with much greater realism. For Burton fans, it’s fun to pick out the influence from the various films, dealing with striped tents, clowns and circus performers, “Batman Returns” fans will have a field day. It’s a pleasant experience for those skeptical about the entertainment value of a Disney movie. Burton’s usual dark tone is subdued but the creativity and imagination remain, finding messages in various segments of the story everyone can relate to.

Final Thought – Tim Burton’s “Dumbo” is the best of the live-action remakes thus far.

Dustin Chase is a film critic and associate editor with Texas Art & Film, which is based in Galveston. Visit texasartfilm.com.

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