‘Dumbo’ (2019) Review: An Aggressively Bland and Disappointing Affair

By Steve Pulaski

We can talk about how Tim Burton essentially helped pioneer this recent surge of live-action “reimaginings” of Disney’s most treasured properties with the massively successful Alice in Wonderland at the dawn of this decade. And we can talk about how the anti-corporate subtext of his latest offering is a real howler given it comes from an empire trying to own the multiplex after the controversial acquisition of 20th Century Fox. Hell, we can talk about how I kind of zoned out two-thirds of the way in, focusing on the subtle humor of another “Michael Keaton vs. Danny DeVito” conflict at the center of another Tim Burton movie. Just about any conversation would be more compelling to have than the one where we address Dumbo, an aggressively bland and disappointing affair.

Dumbo continues Disney’s streak of remaking their most coveted properties, extracting stories and characters out of the “Disney Vault” and bringing them into the real-world through the wonders of CGI and marquee names. While Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast were indeed serviceable affairs, they were not remarkable enough to warrant another viewing, at least from me. If I crave to see these stories play out for the umpteenth time, I’ll gladly reach for the animated classics a handful more times than I’d even consider rewatching these bedazzled costume parties. I cannot speak for the new generation. Just like the same reason we’re getting a Toy Story 4 in a couple months, I can imagine it’s difficult for Disney theme-parks to make rides for today’s youth when they have no nostalgic connection to the bygone films that makeup our childhood favorites. At the same time, that means we must endure these amusing but mostly soulless cash-hounds, and the fact we have both Aladdin and the admittedly intriguing but nonetheless needless Lion King awaiting us later this year just makes me internally sigh.

Once upon a time, Tim Burton was a staple of Hollywood counterculture, making dark, stylish big-budget movies with Gothic undertones that resembled film noir. He punctuated these releases with films like Edward ScissorhandsBig FishBig Eyes, andSleepy Hollow, which proved that besides being a dazzling showman capable of handling cinematic tentpoles with nine-figure price-tags, he could also make investing dramas with rich commentary. Lately, when so many blockbusters possess this grittier style and audiences demand more textured messages in their films, Tim Burton has fallen out of favor in the game he used to orchestrate as oppose to simply play. Dumbo shows he still deserves his status as a visionnaire, but leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to justifying taking a simple, satisfying parable, making it nearly double in length, and distracting us with too many merely adequate, unmemorable characters.

Unlike the timeless animated film from 1941, Burton’s Dumbo gives us a plethora of human characters, with our lead being Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell), who lost his left arm in World War I and his wife to an influenza outbreak. He returns home to his children, Milly and Joe (Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins), hoping to pick up his role in a local circus-show despite the loss of his wife, but ringmaster Max Medici (Danny DeVito) has fallen on hard times and demands he help with the elephant acts, particularly the pregnant Mrs. Jumbo. Jumbo gives birth to a giant-eared pachyderm much to the chagrin of everyone. An initially dismayed Max, however, sees dollar signs when both Holt’s kids discover that the baby elephant, nicknamed “Dumbo,” can fly when his trunk is tickled, specifically with a feather.

Once Dumbo becomes the hot ticket, it attracts the attention of V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton) and his girlfriend Colette Marchant (Eva Green), who specialize in amusement parks. The two cut Max a check in order to get a piece of Dumbo and the riches he brings, but because every story needs a villain, of course Vandevere has bad intentions, for he plans to rip apart the circus act and push poor Dumbo to his absolute limits, regardless of safety and protocol.

Never let it be uttered that Tim Burton has no eye for visuals and a talent for bringing his imagination to life. There’s a sequence in Dumbo that shows a herd of elephants come to life in giant, sudsy soap bubbles that’s as dazzling as anything he’s ever committed to film. But the majority of Dumbo is dark and dingy; like a cross between retro-futurist art and steampunk postmodernism. It’s a jarring combination that makes the film look as if we’re watching it through 3D glasses that dim the brightness of the given film. The effects on the elephants are quite good, I’m pleased to say. Dumbo is capable of emoting in such a way that makes you still believe that CGI is equipped with the ability of achieving pathos in and of itself.

However, Dumbo is so drab and dingy visually that it ostensibly does all it can to suck you out of the liveliness happening on-screen. Consider another flagrantly theatrical production like The Greatest Showman, which tantalized with its setpieces, and although captured in the same retro-modern light, still nonetheless kept things clear and elaborate. The human characters are largely forgettable to boot. Even the vivacious Eva Green is cloaked under the washed out palette, only really showing any humanity when she’s left careening from a high platform, with her clench of Dumbo’s flabby ear the only thing keeping her from plunging to the ground below. For a film to house this many proven performers and with one of the most extraordinary visual directors at the helm, Dumbo should’ve been a rousing success on several levels as opposed to such a deflating bore.

Grade: C-