“Dumbo” is a droopy-eared dud. A film aimed at children should take you on an adventure, make you believe in magic, stir lots of laughs and deliver a few life lessons along the way with little lecturing. “Dumbo” director Tim Burton, known for his endless imagination, fails on just about every count. It prevents his flying elephant story - a live-action remake of Disney’s precious 1941 animated classic - from ever getting off the ground.
He eschews whimsy, wonder and anything remotely real. A bland script courtesy of Ehren Kruger (“Ophelia,” “Dream House”) adds to the tedium. It’s PG and PC, right down to its pro-animal rights message, which I don’t think was even a thing in 1919. You won’t find Dumbo drinking too much champagne and seeing pink elephants in this version, either.
Burton and Kruger craft a story featuring Colin Farrell as Holt Farrier, a doughboy who lost an arm in World War I. In the opening scenes, he returns to his two motherless children and rejoins the traveling Medici Brothers Circus. No longer the stallion-riding star he was, Holt must find a new purpose as an elephant wrangler. He also must figure out how to be a single dad to precocious, science-minded Milly (Nico Parker, daughter of Thandie Newton) and her younger brother, Joe (Finley Hobbins).
In typical Disney fashion, the kiddos miss Mom, a woman who “always knew what to say.” The mommy issues don’t end there. Danny DeVito’s ringmaster Max Medici is banking on the impending birth of Mrs. Jumbo’s baby elephant to boost the circus’ rapidly dissipating audiences. Instead, a floppy-eared “baby monster” is born. Disaster sets in - until Dumbo’s hidden talent is discovered, thanks to a wayward feather. “Wonder Elephant Soars to Fame,” reads the headline. It’s ka-ching for Max.
Enter Michael Keaton’s V.A. Vandevere, a ruthless, walking-stick toting businessman with an agenda to exploit Dumbo for his own financial gain. In his tow is the gorgeous French acrobat Colette “Queen of the Heavens” Marchant (Eva Green).
Keaton always makes a good villain, sneering and preening is his modus operandi. The circus finds a permanent home at Vandevere’s awesome New York City amusement park, Dreamland. In a too-small part, Alan Arkin comes aboard as the money man, J. Griffin Remington.
The characters don’t show much originality on the part of the screenwriter, but the roles do what they’re supposed to do - come together to stand against the status quo. A running line is “we make the impossible possible,” which I swear I just heard in December’s “Mary Poppins.” Here it pertains to the circus family, a menagerie of misfits (Strongman, Snake Charmer, Mermaid) banding together for an all-hands-on-deck third act that plays like an action movie.
The actor who runs away with the movie is Farrell, traveling the farthest by evolving from a passive snowflake to a man of action who ultimately rides again. Green is terrific, too, filling the surrogate mom part, to the children and Dumbo.
“Dumbo” is tinged with sadness. The Farrier kids mourn the mom they lost to influenza. Dumbo is separated from his mother, who is seen in shackles and chains. Burton is the type of director who isn’t afraid to get a little serious, a little dark. With its colorful circus setting, oddball characters, and family themed story, “Dumbo,” in theory, is right in the director’s sweet spot. Burton is so skilled at creating these fantastical settings (“Alice in Wonderland,” “Big Fish”), and I expected to be swept away by the adorable CG-ed pachyderm. It was shocking how fake the elephant looks, especially in the all-important flight scenes, which are real clunkers. Disney stories often evoke powerful emotions, but this “Dumbo” is more glum than endearing with not enough heart and humor to ever achieve liftoff.
Dana Barbuto may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @dbarbuto_Ledger.
Cast: Nico Parker, Colin Farrell, Michael Keaton, Eva Green, Danny DeVito.
(PG for peril/action, some thematic elements, and brief mild language.)