Flying Pachyderm, Grounded: A Review Of "Dumbo"
Tim Burton is one of my favorite directors, but even I have to admit that for every one film of his that I’ll treasure for posterity, he’ll create three that are frustratingly forgettable. And no thanks to a clunky new story that is merely inspired by the original 1941 animated film, this 2019 Dumbo is a wonderful CGI flying creation, but saddled by a human-dominated family drama that’s stuck on terra firma. I’m not even sure it has enough moxie and precarious moments to keep the children entranced and entertained.
I honestly wanted to love this live-action version. Burton’s camera work is top-notch, with a color palette that reminded me of storybook art. His portraying society’s misfits has always been exemplary, from Edward Scissorhands to Big Fish and Big Eyes, so you know a circus troupe would come naturally to him. Danny de Vito’s "small pond" ringmaster Max Medici carries the front end of the film, and when Michael Keaton as big business impresario Vandervere makes his entrance, it pretty much carries the larger-than-life character treatment that make Burton’s films so compelling. So it comes as a frustrating downer that after such great introductions to these two, they slide downhill with not much to do but preen, and mug for the camera.
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Colin Farrell as Holt, World War I veteran and widower, is father to the two children who form the essential human bond with Dumbo; he takes on this leading man role with the right degree of earnestness. And for those who did a double take, and noticed that the daughter, played by Nico Parker, had an uncanny resemblance to Thandie Newton, give yourself a pat on the back, for she is Thandie’s real-life daughter. Eva Green shines in a role that’s downplayed, but still manages to leave a lasting impression. What is unfortunate is that with such a fertile environment (the circus) for Burton to play in, not much is really done with the other circus performers.
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As I mentioned above, it’s the new screenplay that leaves me wishing for more. Timothy the Mouse, who played such an integral role in the animated version is gone; and the scenes that might have been deemed disturbing or too dark have all been muted, excised, or turned into watered-down treatments. And I don’t know if Disney just lacks self-awareness, or possess brass balls; but in the wake of their take over of 20th century, it’s ironic to see how one of the themes of this 2019 Dumbo is about the villainous nature of Big Business gobbling up a small circus, and getting rid of their new "employees" with callous impunity.
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And yes, you can well say ‘What does this have to do with the film?’ Fair enough, but it doesn’t detract from the fact that there’s just too much thinness in this new version, with so much of the drama squeezed out. There’s just too much of playing safe, to the point of even making the case that animals shouldn’t be in a circus (or by extension, a zoo?). Nice sentiment, but why bother then to even remake Dumbo?
One down, with two more Disney live-action releases set for 2019, Aladdin and Lion King. Personally, it’s still their live-action Jungle Book and Pete’s Dragon that stand as my favorites, having brought something new, and enjoyable, to the table.
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