Say what you want, but no other studio in Hollywood has been able to play the game of Monopoly as well as the “House of Mouse.” Through various properties such as Marvel, Star Wars, Pixar and even ESPN, Disney hasn’t just become a Hollywood juggernaut; they’ve become a media empire that, whether we like it or not, is impossible to escape from.
Since already making billions of dollars every year is apparently not enough, Disney has also focused heavily on bringing some of their hand-drawn animated masterpieces into a live-action setting. With financial successes like “Maleficent” (2014), “The Jungle Book” (2016) and especially “Beauty and the Beast” (2017), this is a trend that the company isn’t looking to depart from anytime soon.
Now we have “Dumbo,” with director Tim Burton ("The Nightmare Before Christmas" and "Beetlejuice") at the helm of this 1941 adaptation that is the first of three live-action adaptations that Disney is producing this year — the other two being Guy Ritchie’s “Aladdin” and Jon Favreau’s “The Lion King.”
Following the conclusion of World War I, veteran Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) comes home his job at the Medici Brothers’ Circus, run by Max Medici (Danny DeVito) and his two children Joe (Finley Hobbins) and Milly (Nico Parker). Unfortunately, Medici’s business has seen better days, as most of what made the circus a “must-see event for all ages” has been sold off in order to keep the business out of financial ruin.
However, Medici also made one investment as well; a pregnant elephant named Jumbo, who eventually gives birth to Dumbo, an adorable baby elephant with iconically enormous ears. When Joe and Milly realize that, through the use of feather, Dumbo’s ears are able to completely lift the elephant off the ground, astounding both the audience and the members of the circus as a result.
The event is so surreal that wealthy entrepreneur V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton) soon approaches Medici with the opportunity to have his crew of circus freaks and more importantly, Dumbo, perform at Dreamland, a large-scale and industrial amusement park owned by Vandevere.
But as any viewer might expect, Vandevere cares more about profits than safety, and as long as it impresses investment banker J. Griffin Remington (Alan Arkin), he is not willing to let go of Dumbo anytime soon.
Considering that the original animated film is only around an hour long, Burton and screenwriter Ehren Kruger had to make some additions and changes in order to stretch the film out to it's hour and 52 minutes runtime. With those creative liberties comes aspects that, simply put, didn’t need to make the final cut.
The main issue with Dumbo above all else though, is the fact that Burton and Kruger concentrate too much on the human characters rather than are star elephant at hand. Much of the running time instead being dedicated to Holt’s relationship with his children and the recent loss of their mother.
Because you know, it’s not like we already have enough Disney films that focus on the absence of a maternal figure (“Bambi,” “The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Chicken Little,” “Cinderella" and pretty much any Disney priness movie while we're at it).
However, when they decide to focus on the mother-son relationship between Dumbo and Jumbo, we do begin to feel some emotional weight, not to mention, it also helps that Dumbo is easily capable of providing the “awe” factor, in large part thanks to some impressive CGI.
Burton’s iconic aesthetic, however, which usually consists of dark and sometimes even gothically-comedic imagery (see “Beetlejuice,” “Edward Scissorhands,” “Corpse Bride,” etc.), mainly comes out to play during the second and third act. Although most of it feels somewhat restrained in order to still appeal to a younger demographic.
In many respects, “Dumbo” is undeniably flawed, and while it certainly isn’t the worst attempt by Disney to profit off their own animated properties, it was a film that really didn’t need to be greenlit in the first place. But even with that said, there are some enjoyable factors here, and it’s mainly due to Burton being in the director’s chair.
Sometimes he needs to show more of that gothic side, but even when it seems like it’s absent, there is at least one visual element that makes you go “Yeah, I guess only Tim Burton would do that.”
After recently failed attempts to prove that he still hasn’t changed since the 1990s, it’s nice to see that Burton has retained some of his original filmmaking style.