Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) comes home from fighting in World War I in 1919. While he was away, his wife died from influenza and he lost his left arm from a war injury. His children Milly and Joe (Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins) are cared for by other people in the circus for whom Holt was once the star performer, doing tricks on horseback. The Medici Brothers Circus travels the country entertaining small-town crowds. The owner, Max Medici (Danny DeVito), has sold off Holt’s horses as the flu epidemic and the war have cut into business. Max puts Holt in charge of the elephants, including his latest acquisition, an Asian elephant named Jumbo. Jumbo is pregnant and gives birth to Jumbo, Jr. The baby elephant has enormous ears and is thought of as a freak. When crowds see Jumbo, Jr., they laugh and throw trash at him, angering his mother, who storms the tent. This leads to Jumbo, Jr.’s name being changed to Dumbo. Dumbo’s mother gets sent off to another attraction, making Dumbo sad. Milly and Joe are playing with Dumbo, blowing a feather back and forth between them when Dumbo sucks the feather into his trunk. This make Dumbo sneeze, causing his ears to flap and lifting him off the ground. None of the adults believe Milly and Joe until an accident under the big top proves Dumbo’s giant ears allow him to fly. The publicity of Dumbo flying attracts the attention of Dreamland amusement park owner V. A. Vandermere (Michael Keaton). His park has a permanent circus and wants Dumbo to be his newest act to secure more financing from billionaire banker J. Griffin Remington (Alan Arkin). He wants his girlfriend and star trapeze artist Colette Marchand (Eva Green) to ride on Dumbo’s back as he flies around the big top. However, Vandermere proves he has dark motives and will do anything to make Dumbo fly.
Disney’s live-action remake of the classic animated 1941 “Dumbo” feels like a cynical cash grab. I know all movies released are meant to make significantly more money than it cost to produce them, however, “Dumbo” feels like everyone is working on the film just to make a paycheck and the lack of caring shows.
“Dumbo” never strikes any of the emotional high notes you would expect from the story. When Dumbo’s mother is comforting him after she gets locked up and is about to be sent away, you should be turned into a blubbering mess, but you’re not. When Dumbo flies around the big top for the first time, proving what the children said to be true, it should be a moment of wonder and joy, but it isn’t. Early on, when Holt steps off the train and sees his children for the first time, there should be some kind of heightened feeling, but there isn’t.
Nothing works emotionally in the story including some of the characters. Milly Farrier is a robot for most of the film. Whether she’s presented with disappointment or triumph, her reaction is the same: Indifference. I don’t believe this is a choice made by actress Nico Parker, but director Tim Burton. Burton seems to be making a film about outsiders and trying to give every character their own weakness or foible. Holt is missing an arm and is a widower. Milly is emotionally shut down. Her brother Joe seems clueless. Medici is a short, small-time con man. Dumbo has big ears and misses his mother. I believe the story Burton is trying to tell is how these outcasts fight to triumph in a world built to keep them down, however, by the end of the film (no spoilers), the only winner is the elephant.
Colin Farrell looks uncomfortable as Holt. He has no chemistry at all with the young actors playing his children. That becomes part of the story as it is referenced over and over again that Holt’s dead wife always knew how to talk to the children, however, even by the end of the film, there’s something off about how Holt, Milly and Joe interact. Perhaps Farrell doesn’t like working the children. Maybe director Tim Burton was trying to up the discomfort between the characters since Holt had been away at war, is perhaps dealing with what we now call PTSD, and has to adjust to being a single parent. Whatever the reason, Farrell looks like he doesn’t want to be there.
Then there is the villain. Keaton’s Vandermere can’t decide if he has a foreign accent or not. He mugs and preens, strutting as if dancing whenever he’s on screen. It’s an odd performance that is hampered by some contradictory choices the script has the character make. I’m not going to spoil it, but Vandermere seems to cut off his nose to spite his face late in the film.
Eva Green’s Colette starts out as a snobbish ice queen but quickly turns into Holt’s ally and a surrogate mother to his children. This transition is far too fast and isn’t precipitated by any major event. She goes from being a diva to a warm-hearted step mom in no time flat.
About the only thing that almost works in “Dumbo” is the elephant and even that has some issues that stick out. Dumbo seems to understand a great deal of English right out of the womb. His blue eyes are weirdly large (it’s rare, but there are blue-eyed elephants in the wild). We see several shots from Dumbo’s perspective, and he appears to have mildly warped eyesight. One would think this might hamper his ability to avoid objects in his flight path, but it doesn’t. Dumbo, and most of the animals shown in the film, is computer generated. There are moments when you don’t notice it as much, but frequently the CGI is obvious and that kills any wonder the film might have had for me.
“Dumbo” is rated PG for peril/action, some thematic elements, and brief mild language. There are a couple of scenes where fire threatens various characters. A person is killed by a falling big top pole. There is some minor violence that is mostly played for laughs. A person is dragged by a horse. There are threats made to kill various animals and implying some animals were killed to make a pair of boots. Foul language is mostly suggested and mild.
Tim Burton needs to step away from big budget projects. While he has made some entertaining movies for the Disney and others, Burton’s last couple of efforts have been lackluster. I had similar feelings about another Burton film: ‘“Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” isn’t a terrible movie. It just isn’t terribly memorable. It looks amazing and features some interesting ideas in regards to people with unique abilities. What it doesn’t do is really strike deep in the heart of the audience and make us care about what happens to the denizens of this peculiar world.’ I guess Burton tries too hard to make his movies about misfits and outsiders when, in this case, he should have concentrated on making a light and sweet family film. It isn’t offensive, but it isn’t entertaining either.
“Dumbo” gets two stars out of five.
A civil rights drama, a Stephen King adaptation and a superhero adventure are making their way to a screen near you. I’ll see and review at least one of the following:
The Best of Enemies—
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