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It’s hard to believe that Disney has four live action remakes coming out this year. Four! Kicking things off is 2019’s Dumbo, a remake of the classic 1941 film and the first Tim Burton-helmed project I’ve properly appreciated since 2012’s Frankenweenie. If you catch Dumbo this weekend, I expect you'll find it to be genuinely enjoyable, deliciously dark, and yet appropriate for kids of most ages.
The original Dumbo is a classic Disney film, but it’s not revered in the same way in which certain other classic films are. As a result, this live action remake got to make some more creative choices than other Disney remakes we’ve previously seen.
Given the simple narrative of the original, there was a lot of room for Tim Burton to take the 2019 live action remake in new directions, and both visually and story-wise a lot of chances are taken in Dumbo, specifically in ways I am surprised and tickled that Disney as a studio agreed to.
In this version of Dumbo, the young elephant learns to fly thanks to the machinations of two circus born-and-bred youngsters played by newcomers Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins. After Dumbo’s mother is sold from the circus for producing a dud baby elephant with giant ears, the two kids convince Dumbo to fly in a bid to get his mother back. They are helped in their enterprise by their father Holt (Colin Farrell), and propelled to success by the circus owner Max Medici (Danny DeVito).
Things get bigger and grander for Dumbo as the movie progresses. In fact, there are moments in Dumbo that feel like pure magic; that capture the intangible feeling Disney has spent years trying to create in its own parks. Notably, there’s a pink elephants homage partially though the film that is entrancing, and without spoiling a huge chunk of the movie, Dumbo is visually delightful and sometimes darker than you would expect for a PG film.
What really stuck with me most, though, wasn’t the visual eye candy or the fun Easter eggs peppered throughout the film, of which there are plenty. Instead, Dumbo is completely banking on people buying into a movie about an (admittedly cute) elephant who doesn’t talk, and yet the stakes are just high enough to pull the production off.
In terms of those stakes, Tim Burton’s Dumbo actually ups the ante quite a bit from some other Disney remakes. There are moments in the movie that feel like a good episode of America’s Got Talent, meaning danger felt present and there was darkness lurking around corners --Tim Burton hallmarks if I’ve ever seen them.
In addition, the casting choices work. I mostly buy Colin Farrell as an “Aww shucks” American horseback rider. Eva Green is delightful working alongside Dumbo, and Michael Keaton gets some excellent moments as Vandervere, a Walt Disney-type, albeit with quite the twist. (Unrelated to Keaton's performance, Vandervere's arc is the biggest problem for me in the film.)
I actually enjoyed nearly every second Michael Keaton’s Vandervere is onscreen, particularly when he’s conversing with banker Remington (Alan Arkin) and Medici. Yet, his motivations and a weird tonal jump for the character contribute to some major problems with the script and the “why” behind what happens in the third act. Ultimately, the movie suffers in pace and tone because of some of the choices that are made.
Dumbo really could have benefitted a little from trimming the fat, perhaps giving the ensemble circus performers a little less to do, particularly in the third act, which turns into a full-on heist movie briefly before petering out. A lengthy, two-part closing sequence also probably could have been cut down or wrapped into the end credits. Even at only 112 minutes the movie still feels like it runs long, and that’s never a good thing.
By its end, the Dumbo remake may feel like a sideshow at the circus, and not one of the Big Top attractions like those coming later in 2019 - but I think most of us would still rather be at the circus than anywhere else this weekend.