‘Dumbo’ tries to soar but sputters


Nico Parker in Dumbo (2019)

When a little elephant with big ears took flight 80 years ago, the world watched with awe. Since then, Disney’s animated classic Dumbo has been largely ignored until it was slated to be remade as a live-action film, just like half a dozen other Disney hits.

The modern “Dumbo” starts with the same idea as its predecessor: an orphaned, big-eared elephant still learns to fly, but this installment adds human characters to help keep the story moving and branch off of the original plot.

World War I vet and amputee Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) returns to the Medici Circus after the war where he and his wife had a famous equestrian double act, but after the flu epidemic ravaged the camp, his two kids are the only family he has left. Tasked with managing the elephants, the Farriers quickly learn that Dumbo, the newest member of the circus family, can use his oversized ears to fly. Dumbo becomes an overnight celebrity within the circus.

It’s not long before word about the amazing flying elephant gets around and the slimy entertainment mogul V. A. Vandevere (the creator of a knock-off Disneyland called Dreamland played by Michael Keaton) shows interest in buying Dumbo out from Medici (Danny Devito). Vandavere’s French paramour Colette Marchant (Eva Green), a talented trapeze artist, trains with the Farriers to learn to fly with Dumbo and bring even more crowds to the theme park. Tensions run high as Colette and the Farriers fight for Dumbo’s freedom and try to reunite him with his mom.

The star of the big top is the adorable CGI Dumbo himself. His bright blue eyes light up the screen and he’s an easy hero to cheer for. Unfortunately for us, he doesn’t get the screen time he deserves and is used as a pawn for the less interesting human characters to discuss and fight over with little autonomy for himself.

The other nice part of this film is its great visuals and effects. Even with a bad story, Burton can still salvage scenes with enough CGI and good camera angles that nearly make up for the two-hour runtime. His bright, saturated colors in the Dreamland sequences contrast well with the bland, washed-out tone of the first half of the film, but still fails to brighten the story itself.

The human characters play closely along the lines of typical archetypes with Michael Keaton’s perfectly despicable Vandevere contrasting well with Devito’s earnest Max Medici. Eva Green’s steely, yet kind Colette is one of the other highlights of the second half. The two kids, John and Milly, do their best with a clunky script and are strong role models for younger audiences.

It’s easy to see that this story has evolved into something much more complicated than the source material, but not necessarily better. The moments that stay true to the original are poignant and well-done, and when “Dumbo” does succeed, it feels like magic. It strikes the same emotional chord that the first film utilized, especially when Dumbo and his mom are about to be separated.  

The new storyline, though, isn’t as compelling and there’s a dark undercurrent running throughout the film that strips the heart away from the original story. The new plot could have gone in many, better directions, but at the end of the day, there’s really no need for this remake in the first place.

“Dumbo” seems to ignore the spirit of the original (except for thankfully removing the character literally named Jim Crow), and replaces a simple, heartfelt story with something that’s much more commercialized. It’s a ham-fisted moral lesson about the immoralities of circuses and commercialism, which is ironic considering the commercial empire that Disney has created.

“Dumbo” is one of those films that you might watch if you’re bored and it’s on Netflix, but this is not an example of Burton’s or Disney’s strongest work. “Dumbo” doesn’t fail to take off, but it can’t quite soar.