I didn’t want to see Tim Burton’s “Dumbo.” The trailer made me cry every dang time I saw it. I never saw the animated original. (Somehow, I managed to miss animated fare like “Dumbo” and “The Jungle Book” but watched live-action classics like “The Apple Dumpling Gang” and “The Three Lives of Thomasina.”)
Even though I never saw Dumbo, I knew the basics beforehand. A floppy-eared baby elephant becomes a circus star. He loses his mama, finds a mouse friend named Timothy, gets ridiculed by hateful humans and learns to fly thanks to the security blanket a feather provides.
The live-action “Dumbo” has all of those same elements, minus the mouse friend. There IS a mouse in a tiny costume, but he doesn’t talk, isn’t Dumbo’s friend and stays in a cage for most of the movie.
While Dumbo plays a pretty big part in the film, I think it would be difficult to say he’s front and center in the movie. Instead, the film focuses on Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) — a one-armed WWI veteran and former trick rider in the Medici Bros. circus — and his family. His wife died while he was serving in the war, and his children know nothing but circus life. Milly (Nico Parker) imagines herself to be the next great female scientist, while Joe (Finley Hobbins) … well, he doesn’t really have a personality or do a lot.
Circus owner Max Medici (Burton alum Danny Devito) does his bit every night, but he’s struggling to keep the crowds coming in a world that’s changing and a circus that’s downsizing. The only job he has for Holt is elephant trainer, which is what brings the Farriers together with Mama Jumbo and her odd-looking baby.
It’s the Farrier children who discover Dumbo’s flying abilities. His mother has been sold, and he’s a helpless baby. His talent provides the boost the circus needs and lures a shady businessman, V.A. Vandevere (another Burton alum Michael Keaton), and his French girlfriend, Colette (Burton alum Eva Green).
“Dumbo” is a hard film for me to review. Honestly, I was a bit bored during the first bits. Well, I wasn’t bored when I was ugly sobbing as baby Dumbo cried as his mother was taken away, but other early bits left me a bit underwhelmed.
Farrell might be the lead, but he doesn’t manage to carry the movie. He’s bland, and his Southern accent is ridiculous. (Seriously, why do films keep having actors try to pull off accents? Last week, I had to suffer through Daniel Dae Kim’s horrendous British accent in “Hellboy.” While Kim’s drifted in and out for two hours, Farrell’s stays consistent but consistently bad.)
Part of the reason “Dumbo” is hard for me to review is the fact it isn’t your typical Burton film. There are definitely elements of his style, but it’s not in-your-face Burton. It’s reserved, thankfully nothing like the insanity of 2010’s “Alice in Wonderland.” Some of that restraint benefits the narrative, but it also makes the movie a little bland and boring. (Did I mention I yawned a couple dozen times in the first half?) I’m an adamant Burton fan, which was part of the appeal for me. I could gush over the beauty of a Burton film, but that’s just not present here. Love him or hate him, but the man creates a work of art in each film.
“Dumbo” just didn’t give me reason to gush, period. Dumbo himself is beautifully created and has a realness to his features that makes his sadness seem even more genuine. But, that’s the only part of the film that makes you feel. His sadness, his fear, even his happiness comes across on screen. The human actors, though, fall flat. Keaton is over-the-top slimy. Farrell and family are boring. Even Green, who I adore, doesn’t shine in this film. No, the only one who comes close to being memorable is Devito, but even his Max Medici is a character who will be long forgotten.
Burton can do wonder. He can do magic and fantasy. Remember 2003’s “Big Fish”? Where was that magic and wonderment? This is a film about a flying elephant in a circus, remember? We should walk away with a bit of childlike wonder and awe. Instead, I found myself just glad the film was done.
All of that doesn’t mean “Dumbo” is a bad live-action reimagining or a bad movie, in general. It’s just not memorable.
Bottom line: “Dumbo” isn’t likely to speak to anyone but the Disney faithful. It’s a middle-of-the-road, live-action reimagining.