Not even the flying elephant magic of Dumbo can reignite Tim Burton's dwindling imagination
The career of Tim Burton, once Hollywood’s most prolific weirdo, is a tragic tale of almost Shakespearean proportions. He entered the industry with a triumphant bang, owning the 80s and 90s with some of the most successful and beloved films of that era, works that were marked by a unique sensibility that was all his own. But as his vision grew, so did his brand: the rise of Hot Topic and scene culture turned Burton’s style into a commodity, and after a series of commercial failures in the early 2000s he tried to cash in on the popularity. The result is some of the worst blockbusters of the past decade, from the garish Alice in Wonderland to the barely existent Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. Desperate to regain his former glory using the sensibilities he thought his fans wanted, he swung for the fences and struck out every time.
Dumbo, Burton’s live-action reimagining of Disney’s 1941 animated classic of the same name, is perhaps his most depressing work yet. It’s not because it’s one of his worst films; in fact, it doesn’t even come close. It’s because this is the work of a once wildly imaginative artist who feels tired, even defeated, after years of failure. For better or worse, almost nothing here has the markings of a Burton work. This is a studio-mandated picture from a director who used to rally against that very system.
It’s worth noting that this is a remake barely in tune with the original work: outside of the beloved flying elephant himself and his mother Mrs. Jumbo being taken away from him, this is largely a new story focused on the human characters that surround the titular character. In many ways, that’s a welcome decision. The original film has aged badly, rife with racism and in some ways defined by a deeply weird sequence where Dumbo gets wasted on champagne. The choice to either omit these moments or give them tongue-in-cheek references reflects a smart sensibility from Burton and screenwriter Ehren Kruger to re-adapt this tale for a new era. However, their decision to focus the script on thinly drawn human characters and effectively sidelining Dumbo in his own story prevents this tale from truly soaring.
It makes sense why Burton would take on the material, as he clearly sees Dumbo as an outsider much like himself. The problem is he feels the need to filter this view through the Farriers, a circus family plagued by demons of their own that is tasked by ringmaster Max Meidici (Danny Devito) to take care of the elephant. Patriarch Holt (Colin Farrell) is a recent World War I veteran reeling over both the loss of his arm and his wife, struggling to connect with the two children he left behind, Milly and Joe (Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins). Farrell does a decent job of buying into the sad dad trope we’ve seen countless times in Disney films, but his children are the true victims of under-baked writing. Joe barely exists at all, while Milly is defined by a single personality trait: she wants to be a scientist. Her obvious role as a pro women-in-STEM lighting rod is the sort of inauthentic pandering masquerading as progressiveness that Disney is so often criticized for.
The Farriers mostly exist to ooh and ahh at the admittedly precious Dumbo, a CGI elephant whose oversized ears give him the ability to fly. His unique talent makes him a national sensation, prompting the strange industrialist V.A. Vandemere (Michael Keaton) to seek out Dumbo as the star of his new amusement park, Dreamland. Vandemere himself is the most energetic, interesting part of the whole affair, brought to hammy life by a totally locked in Keaton. Reuniting with the director that arguably made his career, Keaton brings the film life every moment he’s on screen, turning in a screwball performance that’s one of the most fascinating Disney villains in quite some time.
Keaton’s crackling role makes it all the more apparent that everyone else is phoning it in here. Everyone has bad case of Farrier syndrome, from Danny Devito shouting every line to Eva Green doing next to nothing with her role as Collete, a French trapeze artist tasked to Vandemere to create a show around Dumbo. Everyone in the film is more or less an audience surrogate, tasked solely with basking in the glow of Dumbo taking flight. Burton, once such a master of blocking characters in interesting situations and bringing them to life through dialogue, has no idea what to do with any of them.
The lack of any sort of real emotional resonance is at least somewhat shrouded by the film’s visual aesthetic, which is easily it’s greatest strength. Dumbo himself is a marvelous little feat of visual effects, animated like the world’s loveliest puppy and gleaming with personality in every scene. The production design is particularly eye-catching, with Dreamland standing out as a twisted steampunk Disneyland given an enormous attention to detail. It’s all very pleasant to look at, but it’s all style and no substance. The now infamous meme of Aretha Franklin only mustering up the words, “Great gowns, beautiful gowns” when describing Taylor Swift’s career could easily be applied here.
What really makes the disappointment of Dumbo sting is the fact that only time Burton seems to come alive is when he’s using the film to critique Disney, using Dreamland and Vandemere as Us like doppelgangers for the House of Mouse itself. It’s a special kind of insulting irony when the world’s largest media conglomerate releases a movie about how bad it is while obviously ignoring that message entirely. Burton is just a sad cog in the machine, trapped between the rock of buying into his worst sensibilities and the hard place of accepting his place as just another studio yes man. The fact that not even Dumbo can give this man something to say is just as damning a condemnation of the current state of the media industry as it is of the film itself.