Tim Burton’s Dumbo is a unique, stylized take on the 1941 animated film. Disney’s most recent live-action adaptation is ambitious, at times mesmerizing, but ultimately falls short of becoming special. Burton seemed to focus in on the world he was creating, all while sacrificing any sort of memorable plot. As the film chugs along, it becomes apparent that the plot acts as a vehicle to show off Burton’s brooding, interesting world he has created, which is worth the price of admission in its own right. For the most part, Dumbo is well acted. The star-studded cast gives the film some curb appeal, and they mostly impress, with a few exceptions.
The movie opens with the Medici Brothers traveling circus, going from town to town to perform, with barely enough money to get by. Max Medici (Danny DeVito), who unsurprisingly does not have a “brother”, makes a last-ditch effort to buy a pregnant elephant from the far east. Soon after, Dumbo is born, only to be ridiculed and laughed at because of his large ears. Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell), a former show-jumper who lost his arm in the war, is tasked with taking care of these elephants. His children, Milly and Joe (Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins), have an infatuation with all the circus animals, but especially baby Dumbo. One night, while they are trying to teach Dumbo some tricks, he sucks up a feather and flies for a brief moment. After an incident at one of their shows, Dumbo’s mother is sold back to her original buyer. Dumbo is left alone with the Farrier family, his newfound ability to fly, and a longing for his mother that the kids are determined to solve. When millionaire, V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), catches wind of a flying elephant, he makes Medici an offer he can’t refuse, and takes his entire circus troupe to Dreamland, Vandevere’s Coney Island theme park. It is here, where Dumbo and his new flying-trapeze-artist partner, Colette Marchant (Eva Green), will awe the crowds and make Vandevere millions.
Burton’s world is something that inspires true wonder. Although constantly plagued by a dark, shadowy setting, there is never a feeling of doom. The circus animals seem tired, but happy. The troupe looks like they have been overworked for years, but their loyalty is tangible. The transition from the dreary scene of Medici’s circus to Vandevere’s Dreamland doesn’t do much in the way of color but is highlighted in the pure scope. The tone of Dumbo is a fair interpretation on the lives of these circus elephants, and the constant struggle this mother and son duo must persevere. There is never sustained happiness, just glimpses of hope in an otherwise monotonous life. Dumbo finds love in his human family, but it is clear that he will forever long for his mother.
The cast of Dumbo is impressive, with a few exceptions. Danny DeVito plays an excellent ring leader, Eva Green is eloquent in her role and Michael Keaton is the villain you love to hate. Unfortunately, Colin Farrell seems to be miscast, as his accent and demeanor can be hard to watch at times. The scenes involving the children, Parker and Hobbins, also fall flat, and one can only wonder if these roles were miscast as well.
Dumbo isn’t perfect by any means, but it is worth watching for the setting and the little moments of magic that are always prevalent in a Disney film. This is not your typical children’s film, as the dreary tone may be off putting, or even unsettling for some. The flow of Dumbo could have been smoother, and the acting could have been a touch better, but the film is full of little moments that inspire wonder and a sense of satisfaction.