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‘Dumbo’ can’t quite take flight

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Whatever your feelings with regards to mainstream Hollywood’s ongoing devotion to remakes, you have to accept the fact that things aren’t going to change anytime soon. Like it or not, you’re along for the remake ride – all you can do now is hope that they’re good.

With Disney’s live-action “Dumbo” – a remake of the studio’s 1941 animated classic – it seemed as though the pieces were there for success. Tim Burton’s pop-goth sensibilities and Technicolor weirdness seemed like a potentially fun lens through which to tell this story. The cast looks really strong. And the tale is a beloved one.

And yet – the film is less than the sum of its parts. While Burton’s aesthetic did lead to some memorable, engaging visuals and the ensemble provided generally solid-to-strong performances, an iffy screenplay and lack of spirit undermined those efforts. While it’s far from a bad movie, this “Dumbo” never manages to soar.

The year is 1919. The Medici Brothers Circus, led by Max Medici (Danny DeVito, TV’s “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”), is making its way through the country, moving from town to town on a tour that is unfortunately struggling.

This is the home – such as it is – to which Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell, “Widows”) returns after fighting overseas in World War I, where he lost an arm. He returns to his two children Milly and Joe (Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins in their respective debuts), who have been wards of the circus since the death of their mother, Holt’s wife and former performance partner.

Medici has sold Holt’s horses to stay afloat, leaving Holt no choice but to accept the job of elephant keeper. But when recent acquisition Mrs. Jumbo gives birth to a new baby, everything changes. This baby is different, with gigantic floppy ears that cause many to view him as a freak. And that difference is what leads to the circumstances in which Mrs. Jumbo goes wild in an effort to protect her child – so wild that tragedy strikes and she is sent away, returned to her previous owner and leaving Dumbo behind.

But those same ears lead that little baby – dubbed Dumbo after a particularly unfortunate performance – to become something truly special, thanks to the help of Milly and Joe.

Yeah, you know – Dumbo can fly.

The excitement generated by that miracle catches the attention of entertainment impresario V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton, “American Assassin”), a slick-talking huckster who talks Medici into bringing his whole crew to Coney Island so that Vandevere can add Dumbo to his show. His aim is to create an act in which star acrobat Colette (Eva Green, “Euphoria”) rides the elephant in flight.

Of course, Farrier has suspicions, as well as unresolved grief issues regarding his wife. And when it becomes clear that Dumbo deserves something better than a life spent as spectacle, it’s up to Farrier and allies both old and new to do something about it.

Honestly, it’s not that “Dumbo” is bad. It’s just surprisingly vanilla. OK, not THAT surprising – we are talking about Disney here – but I really expected a little bit more from Tim Burton on this one. It seems like the sort of thing that’s tailor-made for him – it’s a flying elephant and an old-timey circus, after all – but for whatever reason, it never seems to fully cohere. There are some Burtonesque gems scattered throughout – Dumbo’s first fireman/clown outing, the entrance into Vandevere’s circus – but not enough to really hammer home the stylistic choices.

And the story, while it does elicit some emotional response (what it is it about Disney separating kids from their mothers, anyway?), never feels as resonant as it should. Even the high stakes moments are somewhat lacking, despite the best efforts of those involved. The temptation is to invoke the uncanny valley and be done with it, but the CGI work on Dumbo is actually really good. Other than a few extreme moments, it comes off as very genuine.

Nor is it the fault of the actors, who all turn in solid work. Farrell is fine as the stoic, reserved Holt; he’s good at quiet and broken. DeVito and Keaton are both veterans of Burton productions and it shows; they’re the two most at ease with going big and weird with the choices that they make. It’s when they’re on-screen that things feel their Burton-est. Green’s also a Burton stalwart, but she’s handcuffed somewhat by the nature of her role. That said, she’s great within the confines of the part. The kids, despite both being rookies, acquit themselves nicely; they’re asked to handle a surprising amount of the narrative’s emotional load, and do so well.

But despite all the things that do work, the movie itself … doesn’t. Almost, but not quite.

Look, the kids at my screening of “Dumbo” were enraptured and fully engaged; they laughed and cried and cheered. When you look at it like that, it’s hard to call the film anything but successful. Do I think it should have committed more fully in tone, either leaning harder into the Burton bizarreness or going family-friendlier? Absolutely. Does that mean I think this movie is bad? No. I just wish it had been … more.

“Dumbo” doesn’t soar, but neither does it stumble. It could have been really good, but instead settles for good enough.

[3 out of 5]

Last modified on Wednesday, 03 April 2019 18:30

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