This live-action re-imagining of Disney’s 1941 animated classic may be the sweetest film Tim Burton has ever made. It’s also the safest. If you prefer Burton’s big visionary swings into darkness (Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, Batman, Ed Wood, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Sweeney Todd), the family-friendly Dumbo will require adjustment to the PG light. Dumbo, the baby elephant who can use his weirdly big ears to fly, still occupies the center ring in Burton’s extravagant new circus. But screenwriter Ehren Kruger, infamous for three of the five Transformers films, has transformed the plot to include a mixed bag of human characters.
Colin Farrell stars as Holt Farrier, a circus performer who has just returned from World War I minus an arm and a wife who has died from influenza during his absence. That leaves Holt in charge of his two children, Milly (Nico Parker) and her little brother Joe (Finley Hobbins). In such reduced circumstances, financially strapped circus owner Max Medici (an energetic Danny DeVito) has sold the horses that once made Holt a star attraction and put the combat veteran in charge of Jumbo, a pregnant elephant. Max’s thinking is that an infant Jumbo will draw crowds to his traveling circus. But when the baby, cruelly tagged Dumbo, is born with oversized ears, Max wants nothing to do with him. That is until Dumbo uses those floppy ears to fly.
The computerized Dumbo is a marvel of cuteness and technical wizardry who steals every scene he’s in. What character designer Michael Kutsche does in terms of eye movement and facial expressions sets a new gold standard. It’s a shame that the script overcomplicates things with a series of villains, notably Michael Keaton as V.A. Vandevere, a malevolent opportunist who sees Dumbo as his meal ticket. This puts him in conflict with Max, which sets up a sparks-flying reunion between Burton’s Batman and Penguin — which crushingly never amount to anything. Damn. Alan Arkin has his moments as J. Griffin Remington, a banker willing to finance Vandevere’s nefarious plans, which include sending Dumbo’s mom to the glue factory so Dumbo won’t be distracted by her. Add in Eva Green, star of Burton’s Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children and Dark Shadows, as Colette Marchant, a sexy aerialist who finds her soul in Dumbo and leaves Vandevere to fly into the waiting arm of Holt.
Everything you think will happen next most emphatically does. Predictability is the driving force behind a script that also embraces a circus menagerie: Roshan Seth as snake charmer Pramesh Singh, DeObia Oparei as strongman Rongo the Strongo and Sharon Rooney as circus mermaid Miss Atlantis. These characters so resemble the group Hugh Jackman’s P.T. Barnum assembled in The Greatest Show, you expect them to burst into song. In fact, Rooney does warble her take on “Baby Mine,” the Oscar-nominated tune from the animated Dumbo.
Burton lays on the razzle dazzle — deep bows to cinematographer Ben Davis (Doctor Strange), production designer Rick Heinrichs (Star Wars: The Last Jedi), costume designer Colleen Atwood (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) and composer Danny Elfman in his 17th collaboration with Burton. Vandevere’s Dreamland Colosseum is a mainstream circus that brings new meaning to over the top. Ditto Keaton’s rabid overacting. There will be those who find a political allegory in the separation of Dumbo and his mom, a not-so-veiled reference to Trump immigration policies that split parents from children. There will be others who find happy endings a cheat in such a world, justifiably dismissing the film as bland, cautious, sluggish and padded. It’s a shame about that. At heart, Dumbo is a simple story that fits Burton like a glove. It’s a tale of misfits, with Dumbo as the ultimate outsider, fighting not to belong to but escape from a society that dismisses them as freaks. Burton didn’t need Hollywood glitz and so-called human interest to get that point across. Only when the film moves past the audience pandering, does Dumbo cut loose and soar.