Dumbo review: The Disney live-action remake production line delivers its latest, with Tim Burton taking on the tale of the elephant that could fly…

Dumbo review
©2019 Disney Enterprises, Inc.

Dumbo review

A profitable avenue that Disney has been exploring of late is the development of live-action adaptations of its classic animations. This year sees an uptake in those projects as well, what with the upcoming releases of Aladdin, The Lion King and a Maleficent sequel all before the year’s end. But before that, there is the little matter of a big-eared elephant to attend to.

Based from the original 1941 cartoon, Tim Burton’s Dumbo wisely expands the story (the original is only an hour long after-all) by introducing more human elements to the proceedings. Colin Farrell stars as Holt Farrier, a war veteran returning to his home of a travelling circus following the end of The Great War. Reunited with his children (played by Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins), but without an act to perform, Holt and his family are placed in charge of caring for the circus’ newborn baby elephant, whose over-sized ears make him a laughing stock to the general public. Soon enough, however, Holt’s children discover that Dumbo can use those ears to fly, leading to greater fame, but also greater dangers for both Dumbo and the Farrier family.

The original Dumbo is a delightful, pleasant and very slight animation. As a result, it certainly has more scope for reinvention when compared to some of the other choice decisions Disney have made when it comes to selecting their live-action productions. Indeed, Burton and screenwriter Ehren Kruger’s decision to bolster up the story with more human characters makes a great deal of sense, all the while retaining the message of the original, that being the things that make us different are often the things that make us special.

It is easy to see why Burton felt drawn to the story of Dumbo. There is no doubt that it is in tune with his tendency to focus upon characters who are deemed as freaks by society, but find the means to turn those so called disabilities into an advantage. Dumbo himself sits very well alongside the likes of Edward Scissorhands as individuals just looking to belong in a society that initially shuns them away.

Seemingly as a result of this more thematic attachment, Burton’s film-making style feels more at home here than it did in his previous Disney live-action effort, Alice in Wonderland (something which seemed on paper to be a stylistic slam-dunk, but ended up being weirdly drab and dull). Here, Burton channels into an aesthetic akin to one of his more personal films, Big Fish, presenting a world of gentle and warm pastel colours, which comes into friction with the cold, futuristic art deco stylings that colour the second half of the film. From visual call-backs to the animated original, to stylistic quirks that are unmistakably his own, this is easily Burton’s most visually arresting film for years.

The story expansion creates more room for characters to enter little Dumbo’s world and to help him on his way to be reunited with his mother. While the character driven plots are certainly functional, there is no escaping that the film often dangles the potential of something more dramatically complex, but often pulls back in order to keep everything emotionally straightforward and simple. Which is understandable, this is for kids after all, but as a consequence it makes many of the characters and their relationships (particularly the pivotal one between Holt and his children) feel trite and two-dimensional.

Thankfully, the cast are on charming form. Farrell clearly enjoys being in the world that Burton has created, and while Eva Green isn’t given a great deal to do, the two other Burton veterans seem to be having a ball. Danny DeVito as the ringmaster of the struggling circus that Holt calls home, and Michael Keaton as the scheming businessman who comes to exploit Dumbo for his own game, are a joy. DeVito once again mixes a chaotic energy with a great deal of empathy, something which he has only grown stronger at in his later years. Meanwhile, Keaton, is having an absolute blast cutting loose and diving into the weird eccentricities that he and Burton so wonderfully exploited in Beetlejuice.

Of course, the film was only ever going to sink or fly on the strength of its animated title character. It is good then, that the little guy is an adorable creation brought to life by some truly wonderful effects. Not afraid to often make him have similar expressions to that of his 2D animated counterpart, this Dumbo feels alive, curious and wary as he takes in the ever-increasing absurdity of the world that he is in. The strong effects work on the character of Dumbo are, oddly, more successful at giving this film a heart than the flesh and blood characters surrounding him are.

Burton’s films have always been accused of having more style than substance, and while Dumbo will not sway anyone away from that opinion, there is no denying the great deal of attention attributed into that style. Thanks to some dazzling effects and a rich visual design, this Dumbo just about flies with a sweet and simple sense of spirit and adventure.

Dumbo review by Andrew Gaudion, March 2019.

Dumbo is released in cinemas on 29th March 2019.

Dumbo (2019)