A film about a flying elephant should not work, but it did once.
Remaking an iconic Disney animated film about a flying elephant definitely shouldn’t work and certainly doesn’t here as director Tim Burton stumbles about the circus world for two hours in a clumsy, largely lackluster iteration of the 1941 film “Dumbo.”
To be clear, this retelling of a Disney classic compartmentalizes the original into about 45 minutes of storytelling, trashing the musical elements and talking animals in lieu of extended commentary about capitalism that will soar like Dumbo himself far over the heads of the young viewers the film is intended for.
The film follows the struggling Medici family circus who make it big when their lonely baby elephant begins to fly using his oversized ears. The novelty attraction perks the interest of entrepreneur V.A. Vandevere, who buys the circus to monetize little Dumbo at any cost.
Despite a big name cast of talented actors, the performances in “Dumbo” are muted, one-note caricatures that fail to draw audiences in.
Colin Farrell is decent as Holt Farrier, a returning war veteran who trains Dumbo with his two children, and Danny DeVito has his moments as circus owner Max Medici.
When Oscar nominee Michael Keaton strolls onto the scene as Vandevere, however, “Dumbo” begins a long stumble as Keaton can’t seem to get out of his own way. His charming snarl of a character feels out of touch and forced.
Burton’s “Dumbo” lacks a dynamic energy and scenes often fall flat when the titular elephant is off-screen. It’s difficult to connect emotionally with the thinly constructed characters whipping by at a breakneck pace.
“Dumbo” is adorably boring and immediately forgettable.
Iconic flying scenes should have a sense of awe to them and yet in “Dumbo,” the magic simply isn’t there.
Screenwriter Ehren Kruger, the mind behind three “Transformers” sequels, fails to be a competent choice to pair with the eccentric Burton for a “Dumbo” retelling as the result is a clunky mishmash of the 1941 original and an absurd caricature of corporate greed that subtly reeks of a takedown of Disney’s business model.
It isn’t just that a $170 million budget for such a bland movie feels exploitative to audiences. There’s a lot of quality artistry to make Dumbo the CGI character a vivid, dynamic work of art on screen.
Rare moments throughout the film, usually in the big top with flying elephants and animals made from bubbles, are genuinely entertaining and yet don’t linger with viewers.
But this is also a film where Farrell’s father figure refers to Dumbo as “Big D” and famed boxing announcer Michael Buffer urges the crowd on with a hearty “Let’s get ready for Dumbo!!!!”
Deliberate, conscious choices like these by Burton and company beg the question if the filmmakers were truly invested in the work or simply as tired of their corporate bosses as the Medici family circus.
The fact that everything around Dumbo, from the underwritten characters to the lack of musical numbers to the grim final third of the movie, is just exceptionally underwhelming makes it easy to question why a film like “Dumbo” got made in the first place.
There’s an obvious intention on Disney’s part to revitalize all their classic animated films with live-action stories.
Audiences have already paid a pretty penny for reboots of “Cinderella,” “The Jungle Book,” “Beauty and the Beast” and an underappreciated “Pete’s Dragon” with “Aladdin,” “The Lion King” and “Mulan” all slated to hit the big screen in 2019.
“Dumbo” could quite easily be the worst of all of these.
Entertaining in a “get the kids out of the house” sort of way, “Dumbo” is exactly the kind of low-energy, simple cash grab that smart audiences will avoid in theaters and wait for its inevitable release as part of Disney’s upcoming streaming service.
“Dumbo” may fly, but there’s simply nothing special about this reboot.