20-years ago it was expected for astute cinema-lovers to cite him as a favourite director, but with the past decade of hit-and-miss fodder including Charlie & The Chocolate Factory and Alice in Wonderland, his work has become deceitfully hollow. It is true that he has fought to maintain his trademark dark-fantasy aesthetic by making movies like Dark Shadows, Sweeney Todd and Miss Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children, but throughout it all there is the absence of originality and innovation. There is no longer an anticipation for “the next Tim Burton movie”, but rather fond memories of the trailblazer he once was.
His career began with Disney when he was an animator on films like The Fox and the Hound and Tron, and so it is rather fitting that he would find himself back in their stables for the better part of the last decade. DUMBO is his third Disney film since 2010 and it adds to the seemingly endless string of live-action adaptations of their previous animated classics. This is a new era for the company and one that has been a wish-washy journey thus far. Some of their titles - like Cinderella and Pete's Dragon - have been fantastic, while others such as Beauty and the Beast and The Jungle Book have been mediocre at best. This is a moving freight train that Disney has launched and there's no slowing down as far ahead as we can see. DUMBO rests somewhere between those aforementioned titles, sitting comfortably in the middle where the positive balances out with the negative.
The original Dumbo was quite a dark film, full of twisted imagery and psychedelic hallucinations. It often finds itself listed amongst the scarier of kids movies, despite its cute and cuddly facade, and Burton's new adaptation taps in to that reputation, spending its time traipsing the murky depths.
The film opens with a montage sequence introducing us to The Medici Brothers Circus, a travelling sideshow lead by the so-called “world famous” Max Medici (Danny DeVito), a dishevelled ringmaster who struggles to keep the show afloat. His luck turns around when his largest performing elephant gives birth to an adorable floppy-eared cutie named Dumbo, who has the incredible ability of flight. Naturally Dumbo becomes a global success and is purchased to become a star-attraction at Dreamland, a mega-theme part run by a ruthless entrepreneur (Michael Keaton).
The overall storyline adheres to that of the 1941 original, however much more has been added to facilitate a 112-minute running time (the original was only 64-minutes long). The introduction of human characters is obviously essential, with the previous film having only a mouse to guide Dumbo through his trials, and these include a young brother and sister and their one-armed father (played by Nico Parker, Finley Hobbins and Colin Farrell respectively). In addition to DeVito's character the circus also includes an ensemble of carnie performers, including Eva Green as a French traipse artist. Michael Keaton's is the villain and his henchman is played by Joseph Gatt.
Of course creating human characters for a live-adaptation was important, and individually they have merit, but this is a film so full of clutter that the characters become almost irrelevant... or more-so they get lost in the wash. Make no mistake, Burton has crafted a beautiful looking film with a glorious production design, but as has often been his foible the saturation of CGI is overwhelming. It's difficult to connect with a film emotionally when most of what you're watching is computer generated (at least in Burton's case), and when the characters lack depth it's especially hard to connect.
DUMBO's strength lies with Dumbo himself. As a focal point he is stunningly realised and animated, and does indeed radiate warmth (what does that say when an animated elephant out-acts the human cast?). He is an adorable character pitted against some of the darkest imagery that Disney have every committed to film. This is also a strength of the film. This is a movie that will challenge its younger audiences and parents ought to be prepared for the questions and restlessness that follows. There is little light to be seen and the film tells a gruelling tale of animal cruelty from start to finish. Don't worry you will be spared the agony of enduring graphic depictions of torture, but you will be confronted with awful psychological abuse and implications of physical harm. This is the tone for most of the film and animal welfare informs the entire narrative. I personally like this aspect of DUMBO and am a staunch supporter of challenging kids through film. Lots of lessons can be learned and if this new adaptation can instil historical context and awareness to such issues, then good.
Therefore it is heartbreaking when DUMBO is delivered with a terrible script, accompanied by substandard performances. Young Nico Parker is particularly average as Dumbo's biggest ally. Where her role should be one of strength and determination, she is reduced to oddly sign-posted lines of dialogue to signal obvious points of reference to young viewers. Michael Keaton shouldn't be let off the hook either as he turns in one of the worst performances of his career. This film should signal a triumphant reunion between him and Burton (after Batman, Batman Returns and Beetlejuice) but there's little fun to be had as he phones in an archetypal portrayal of a villain... and don't get me started on the hair-piece. The rest of the cast are adequate, though no one stands out above the rest. Like I said, the cartoon elephant owns this one.
DUMBO isn't a bad movie, nor is it a good movie. It is simply an average one. There are positives to be taken from it, as well as an equal measure of negatives. It is dark, confronting and mostly sombre... with a centrepiece of cuteness. That's about the most I can say about it. You will have to be the judge on this one.