No one ever accused Tim Burton of being a traditionalist, but underneath the patina of technicolor quirk and mall-goth dirt that the director obsessively lacquers on everything beats the tender, sticky-sweet heart of a sentimentalist. Nostalgia is entwined around every strand of Burton’s creative DNA, and his deep abiding love of mid-century kitsch has driven his choices through a host of projects like Mars Attacks, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Planet of the Apes, which, for better and often worse were filtered through his funhouse mirror.
So it’s not a total shock that when finally handed the keys to the House of Mouse, Burton turns in an affectionate, conventional, and mostly reverential tribute to an animated classic. In fact, the 2019 version of Disney’s Dumbo feels almost too respectful; it’s borderline syrupy and much more sanitized than the 1941 original. Understandably there’s no problematic jive talking, cigar-chomping crows in this version, but there’s also nothing as memorable as the song they sang, either. Heck, even the circus freaks here are soft and cuddly — not that one would expect a film about a wide-eyed, flying elephant to be grim and gritty, but the degree to which Burton has reined in his weird impulses is jolting.
In a delightfully cornball turn, Danny DeVito plays Max, the ringleader and shabby father figure to the scruffy misfits of the Medici Bros. Circus, a fly-by-night operation that roams the less-glamorous corners of the heartland. After being gravely wounded in WWI, cowboy star attraction Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) returns to find the old outfit is struggling: his wife passed away, his prize horses have been sold off, and the audiences are being drawn to newfangled media. Since his injury makes trick roping impossible, Holt is forced to earn his keep by tending the elephants, including the new baby with the freakishly large ears. Max thinks the little mutant will scare the rubes, but Holt’s smart young kids fall instantly in love with him, and become his protectors, especially after they discover his special skill. Dumbo also charms a lovely French acrobat, Colette (Eva Green), who is nearly as charmed by the earnest, handsome widower Holt. When about halfway through the movie title CGI pachyderm finally does take flight, it is indeed a magical and heartwarming sight, which helps keep the whole thing floating while the extra, bulky plot machinery tries to pull the whole big top down over our heads.
Longtime Burton fave Johnny Depp is refreshingly absent, but Michael Keaton is on hand to fill the void in clownish overacting as V.A. Vandevere, a crooked entrepreneur who intends to make Dumbo the star attraction at his amusement park Dreamland, which bears more than a passing resemblance to, say, the Fantasyland section of Disney’s own Magic Kingdom.
This satiric jab at soulless corporatism is as close as this family entertainment comes to having an edge, though even that much self-awareness in a kiddy flick is pretty welcome. While it never hits the stratosphere, this re-imagined Dumbo is a visually rich carnival, and so amiable in its desire to enchant and thrill, that cynicism is as wasted on it as gravity is on its hero.
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