Dumbo (2019) Review

DUMBO FLIES, BUT NEVER SOARS


 

In 1941, Walt Disney Pictures released Dumbo, their fourth full-length feature animated film. The movie, which was based on the story / novel by Helen Aberson and Pearl, followed the journey of Jumbo Jr., a semi-anthropomorphic elephant who is cruelly nicknamed “Dumbo”, as in “dumb”. He is ridiculed for his big ears, but in fact he is capable of flying by using his ears as wings. Throughout most of the film, his only true friend, aside from his mother, is the mouse, Timothy – a relationship parodying the stereotypical animosity between mice and elephants. Dumbo, which was made to recoup the losses of 1940’s Fantasia (due to WWII in Europe) and be a more “simplistic” narrative for audiences and is also considered to be one of the shortest Disney animated films released (i.e. a 64-minute runtime). Despite being released the same year that the US entered WWII, Dumbo was a financial success from Disney and has become one of the most beloved classics from the company and in children’s entertainment. In 2017, the film was also selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”. Now, with the studio’s current trend of revisiting its older animated properties for a new generation, Walt Disney Pictures and director Tim Burton present the live-action adaptation film Dumbo? Does the movie soar high or does it falter underneath cinematic expectations?

THE STORY


In 1919, the Medici Brothers Circus Owner, Max Medici (Danny DeVito) is trying to keep his troupe together, but finding it difficult to entice audiences to attend his traveling show. Returning from serving in World War I is Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell), a former cowboy who’s lost an arm in combat, trying to figure how to be useful to the circus as well as taking care of his children, Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins). Bringing in Jumbo, a new elephant to “spic up” interesting in the circus, Max and his traveling crew receive the arrival of the pachyderm’s newly born infant Dumbo, with the creature’s oversized ears identifying him as a “freak” to the human, who don’t know what to do with him. Put into Holt’s care, Dumbo soon reveals he’s capable flight (with the magical help from feathers) and is put on display by Max while Jumbo is sent away after growing violent when trying to protect her child. As Dumbo’s fame spreads, V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), a New York City entrepreneur, comes looking to acquire the elephant, bringing Max’s troupe to his Dreamland park for spectacle glory. While Dumbo and the two Farrier children befriend trapeze artist Colette Marchant (Eva Green), Holt recognizes trouble and suspicion; surmising that Vandevere’s motives for the flying wonder elephant isn’t exactly pure of heart, while Dumbo himself is set to perform for the masses; hoping for the promise of being reunited with his mother.

THE GOOD / THE BAD


As I’ve told you guys many times before, I’m a huge fan of all things Disney. I grew up with the “House of Mouse” and all of its various media facets and properties…. from books, to toys, to cartoons, and to feature length movies (both live action and animated). Thus, it goes without saying that I steadily grew up watching majority of Disney’s animated feature films throughout my childhood; ranging from old classics to new endeavors and everything in-between from Disney’s vault. Naturally, I’ve come across watching 1941’s Dumbo many times in my youth; finding the animated movie to be quite endearing. Of course, I found it to be a little bit sad at times, especially that one particular scene with Dumbo’s mother (you guys know which one I’m talking about) as well as the whole “teasing” of Dumbo for his ears. Of course, Dumbo did have some highlights moments that I personally liked, including the train (Casey Jr.), the whole elephants on parade scene (which did scare me a bit when I was younger), and the whole crow scene. Of course, I do recognize that particular scene is now considered “racist” (and justly so for its stereotyping), but it does carry the most memorable scene in the film as well as the chief song “When I See an Elephant Fly”. In the end, Disney’s Dumbo is definitely a classic and remains timeless within its simplistic storytelling, colorful animation style (for its day and age), and universal message of embracing the idea of being different / individuality.

As to be expected, this brings me back to talking about the 2019 release of Dumbo, which is the latest addition to Disney’s resurgence of revisiting their animated classics for live-action treatments. Given the popular success of its past endeavors in its live-action reimaginings, it was almost inevitable that Disney would (eventually) come across updating their 1941 animated classic for a new generation of moviegoers. I’ll admit that…. with Disney releasing three “live action remakes” in 2019 (i.e. Dumbo, Aladdin, and The Lion King), Dumbo was the least interesting one for me. Can’t say why, but I was more excited to see other two entries. Still, given the studio’s proven track record of these types of endeavors, I was curious to see how this movie would ultimately plan. In addition, I was curious to see how director Tim Burton would handle the source material. Plus, the film’s cast (i.e. Farrell, Keaton, DeVito, and Green) intrigued me. So, I went to see Dumbo a few weeks after it got released, but doing my movie review sort of fell through the cracks as I kept on delaying it…. until now. So, what did I think of it? Well, it was just somewhere between okay and good. While Dumbo expands upon the original feature in new ways and still retains the heartwarming story of the little flying elephant, the movie doesn’t ring celebratory and cinematic glory within its presentation and execution. The movie’s heart is definitely in the right place, but it’s, more or less, an adequate / serviceable live-action treatment from Disney.

As I said above, Dumbo is directed by Tim Burton, whose previous known for directing such films like Edward Scissorhands, Batman, and Beetlejuice. Given his previous involvement in what started this sort of “renaissance” era of Disney’s live-action remakes with the release of 2010’s Alice in Wonderland, Burton seems like a suitable choice for delivering another reimagining project for “House of Mouse”. Burton signature styles of visuals quirks and developing characters that may come across as “weird” or “misunderstood” has always been a classic moniker and attraction to his features and certainly does embrace the ideal with Dumbo. Of course, Burton makes the movie much more approachable for the family viewing audience than some of his past projects (not as creepy or dark), but Dumbo still feels very much like a Tim Burton film (and in this case…. that’s a good thing). To that end, Burton is a great capable director and certainly shows that in Dumbo, filling the feature and expanding upon its source material for some interesting ideas. While there are some changes made from the original film, Burton does make a few nods and winks from the classic 1941 animated film that I’m sure fans and moviegoers will spot (especially that one particular moment between Dumbo and his mom).

One of the more criticized aspect of Disney’s recent live-action remakes is the simple fact that most of them are “beat for beat” plot / moments throughout the feature; calling into question the fact of why even “remake” these movies if there just going to carbon copies. Burton actually does try something different from several other entries on this list; expanding upon Dumbo’s story by adding new ideas and characters into the mix (mostly humans). The film script, which was penned by Ehren Kruger, breathes new life into the classic, creating new moments and more of a original story that stand on its own, but also honors the original Disney cartoon (spiritually). Kruger’s script also continues the original 1941 film’s themes of those who are different from society and embracing those “differences” will ultimately make you stronger. Naturally, that’s a really good message to discuss (a sort of timeless one at that) and something that speaks to today’s modern audience. Plus, there’s also more subtle cautionary message of animal cruelty; something that is quite palpable for everyone and those who work / own animals. To be parents out there, it’s not graphic or violent depictions in the movie, but the message is there and that’s a good thing (animal cruelty / abuse is no laughing matter).

Also, and I don’t know who planned this out (Burton or Kruger), but Dumbo certainly does have an underling message of the cynicism in the entertainment industry, which is clearly visible in the character V.A. Vandevere through his ambition, idealism, and even his Dreamland amusement park. It’s clear that those attributes all vaguely swirl around Disney company itself and makes a person wonder if Burton or Kruger (or both) came up with that particular idea for Dumbo. To me, I found it to be quite amusing; the gall of it all of actually putting it in a Disney feature film release as well.

Presentation-wise, Dumbo is quite a beautiful film and clearly shows that Disney spared no expense when trying to translate their 1941 cartoon movie into a live-action remake. The film’s setting is much more realized that its original counterpart with Burton’s attention for detail for spot on in presenting the feature’s timeline circa 1919. Thus, the talents behind these particular filmmaking areas, including Rick Heinrichs (production designs), John Bush / Cosmo Sarson (set decorations), and Colleen Atwood (costume designs) should be given big “kudos” for their efforts in making Dumbo visually appealing. The movie might not be so great, but the presentation aesthetics of it all is quite striking. Additionally, Burton makes the film a visual appealing world, layering the large and expansive shots with some CGI visual to fully express the world’s setting. This is especially noticeable when depicting Vandevere’s Dreamland theme park. This might be a “love / hate” criticism view point for some moviegoers out there, with some finding Burton’s over usage of CGI visuals unnecessary, but I personally liked it and it didn’t bother me. The whole Dreamland concept was cool and fun and just wish that the movie got to explore more of it. Suffice to say…. the visuals certainly did help my wonder and fascination within the expansive, fictious amusement park. Thus, I really have to thanks the visual effects team and the art department for the concept / rendering of Dreamland. Plus, cinematographer Ben Davis does a great job in capturing many of the sequences that are visually stunning. Lastly, Burton’s frequently composer collaborator, Danny Elfman provides the musical score for Dumbo and certainly does hit all the right moments of sweet / tender flourishes and melodic / adventurous motifs throughout, which certainly does help with the film’s various sequences.

Perhaps one of the greatest strengths that the movie has to offer is in the character namesake of the film. Yes, Dumbo, the flying elephant, is quite endearing to watch whenever he’s on-screen. Personally, he’s more of a fully realized character more so than its human characters (more on the below). The CGI rendering of Dumbo is quite adorable and expressive, which is quite easy on the eyes (both visually speaking and in heartwarming) and is easy to connect / root for throughout the feature. Whatever your stance is on about this movie (be it good or bad), none one can deny how lovably cute Dumbo visually looks in the film and the tender journey he goes through in trying to find his mother.

Despite of having a lofty and surefire premise, Dumbo does falter in its execution; making the film feel not quite as remarkable as Burton (and Disney) wanted it to be. Given his wildly imaginative and sometimes “offbeat” signature and styles of filmmaking, Dumbo isn’t exactly Burton’s best motion picture and is to be considered a “safer” project than past endeavors. What do I mean by safer? Well, Dumbo, despite expanding upon the original 1941 animated movie, feels like a basic motion picture, with a narrative storyline that’s been many times before. There’s nothing wrong with the story being told as its quite universal and endearing, but Burton’s direction for Dumbo feels formulaic and predictable for a scenario that seems a bit familiar from similar films that have done this before. This can also be contributed to Kruger’s script, which also plays its safe within storytelling context and plot beats. Because of this, the movie (in its entirety) feel less impactfully entertaining as well.  It definitely works, but Dumbo doesn’t have the enticing cinematic “oomph” (that “je ne sais quoi” nuance) that other previous live-action remakes from Disney were able to achieve.

The movie also decides to “go big” within its third act of danger and peril. Again, there’s nothing wrong with having some danger and peril in a feature’s climatic moments, but I felt that Dumbo didn’t need a big “razzmatazz” finale of peril and action as it should’ve remained (much like its original film) simple and more focused on its titular character. As mentioned above, the film does make Dumbo the narrative catalyst for the movie, but isn’t that only main focused and certainly that makes some problematic areas. It’s definitely a good idea and works, but Dumbo does get pushed aside during a few key moments. Again, given the idea of expanding upon its human characters in the film, I kind of knew that this was gonna happen, but there are few parts where I wished Dumbo played a larger part, especially given the fact that some of the characters are otherwise one-dimensional. This, of course, brings me to talking about another negative point about Dumbo….the characters. While I’ll go into more depth below, but the character builds (for most of the characters) aren’t quite as dynamic nor well-rounded as what could’ve been. The intent is there, but the fall through in the screenplay (and direction) drops the ball; making the human characters in Dumbo feel slightly generic and stock-like.

The cast in Dumbo has several big named stars in its selection, casting several prominent names to play the feature’s human characters. While Dumbo is, of course, the main attraction of the feature, the movie devotes time to the Farrier family, the caretaker circus members who watch over Dumbo throughout the film’s journey. At the head is actor Colin Farrell, who plays the role of Holt Farrier. Known for his roles in The Lobster, Alexander, and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Farrell gets the most to do (of the Farrier family) in the movie; finding the character of Holt to be the classic wayward hero, who’s trying to find his place after returning home from war as well as trying to “reconnect” with his kids. While his theatrical gravitas and presence on-screen is good, Holt’s character development takes a “backseat” towards the second half of the feature, which is slightly disappointing. Holt’s two kids (Milly and Joe), however, seem a bit underdeveloped and unnecessary. The character of Milly Farrier gets the most to do by helping with training Dumbo as well as being a “curious mind” for science and innovation (as a side story), but young actress Nico Parker (who makes her theatrical debut with Dumbo) feels extremely wooden and not all realistic. Definitely a miscast. As for Joe, the youngest member of the Farrier family and who is played by young actor Finley Hobbins (who also makes his theatrical debut with Dumbo) falls completely to the wayside with vey little importance beyond a few scenes of encouragement / continuity.

Looking beyond Dumbo and the Farrier family, there are several large supporting players in the movie, who are played by seasoned / recognizable talents, including actors Danny DeVito, Michael Keaton, and Eva Green. DeVito, known for his roles in Batman Returns, Taxi, and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, seems to be the “best fit” within his character of Max Medici, the wisecracking / shrewd owner of the Medici Brothers Circus. DeVito brings his own bravado and talented charisma to the role in a way that the currently now 74-year-old actor can bring; making the most of Max in the feature. Keaton, known for his role as Batman, The Founder, and Spider-Man: Homecoming, plays a more “mustache twirling”, larger-than-life antagonist character in his portrayal of V.A. Vandevere, chewing his dialogue with glee and zeal. It’s not exactly the absolute best role that the actor has done, but it’s quite clear that he’s having fun as the “villain” in Dumbo. Lastly, Green, known for her roles in Casino Royale, Kingdom of Heaven, and 300: Rise of an Empire, plays the stereotypical supportive female character that befriends the main characters, but feels “trapped” within the clutches of the bad guy. It’s been many times over and does feel a bit stale in the movie, but Green’s screen presence elevates her portrayal of Colette Marchant. Plus, I love Green as an actress. Collectively, these characters, while performed well, never truly break out of their cliched “character personas”. They definitely work as storytelling characters, but could’ve been developed further than what’s presented.

Rounding out the cast are several minor characters that fill in the gaps either background secondary roles. This includes actor Roshan Seth (Gandhi and Street Fighter) as Pramesh Singh, actor DeObia Oparei (Game of Thrones and Independence Day: Resurgence) as strongman Rongo, actor Joseph Gatt (Game of Thrones and Z Nation) as Vandevere’s assistant Neils Skelling, actor Phil Zimmerman (The Tunnel and The Scopia Effect) as Rufus Sorghum, actor Douglas Reith (Downton Abbey and The Queen) as Sotherby, actress Sharon Rooney (The Tunnel and Sherlock) as Miss Atlantis, actor Frank Bourke (The Last Kingdom and The Wind that Shakes the Barley) as Puck the Organ Grinder, and actor Alan Arkin (Argo and Little Miss Sunshine) as business investor mogul J. Griffin Remington. Lastly, there is a fun / amusing cameo appearance of a famous announcer that appears in the movie. I did get a good chuckle he first appears in the feature (you’ll probably know who I am talking about).

FINAL THOUGHTS


In the current era of reimagining their old animated properties, Disney turns to one of their beloved classic cartoon features for live-action treatment in the 2019 release Dumbo. Director Tim Burton latest film sees to expand upon the original 1941 animated masterpiece, providing more room for character building and spectacle wonderment to unfold within the film’s presentation. While doesn’t quite reach the same entertainment caliber as some of the previous Disney live-action remakes of the past (stumbling within its story and characters), the film does reach some heightened cinematic wonder within its scenery (again, I love Dreamland), a few memorable moments (several translated from 1941 cartoon feature), and a heartwarming / familiar story of love, happiness, and being different. To me, I thought that this movie was okay. It held my attention and entertained me, but I wasn’t completely “wowed” by it like I did with the live-action remakes of Cinderella, The Jungle Book, and Beauty and the Beast. Thus, my recommendations for the film is a “Rent It” as it’s not really a “must see” Disney remake (probably the weakest entry of late), but is still a serviceable retelling of sorts. While Disney will continue to march forward of reimagining its animated features into live-action cinematic tales (with many more on the horizon), Dumbo stands as a cautionary tale for the juggernaut studio of family entertainment; proving that concrete influences need to be interjected into these current trends of remakes and maybe (just maybe) that not every Disney classic needs to be revisited within their illustrious vault.

3.3 Out of 5 (Rent It)

 

Released On: March 29th, 2019
Reviewed On: May 11th, 2019

Dumbo  is 112 minutes long and is rated PG for peril / action, some thematic elements, and brief mild language

2 comments

  • Great review, spot on! Burton is certainly a capable director, as you wrote, but despite the underlying message of the movie (there’s a clear critique of the entertainment industry!), the movie is not memorable by any mean…

    I also wrote a post on my blog about it, more or less in line with what you wrote here, if you want to have a look (my perspective is a bit different, as I’ve never been a fan of the original movie, I barely remembered it)!

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