There was some shock when director Tim Burton was signed up to helm the live-action remake of Dumbo for Disney back in 2015. A few years before, he had been charged with bringing Disney’s first “remake” in the form of Alice in Wonderland in 2010 which has gone on to be hugely successful ($1billion at the box office, due in no small part to the film being the first 3D film after Avatar) but it wasn’t universally loved, with many citing it as a visual treat but not much underneath. Not that Burton would have cared too much about the reaction from critics. However, it did make it slightly puzzling that after one House of Mouse remake he would be lured back again.
But the eccentric filmmaker does love a story about outsiders so, in many ways, this is more of perfect fit than we previously thought and, some eight decades on, the elephant with the giant ears is back and while he soars high himself the film, much like Alice, doesn’t quite hit the dizzying heights many have hoped. At just 64 minutes, the original film is one of the shortest in Disney’s catalogue so, unlike, say, The Lion King, you can see why its prime for a re-imagining and, as such, screenwriter Ehren Kruger and Burton have done just that whilst still keeping the core intact.
In Dumbo 2.0, we are still at the circus, namely Danny DeVito’s Medici Brothers roadshow, but the story shifts focus onto the Farrier family – dad Holt (Colin Farrell), returning from active duty in World War I, daughter Milly (Nico Parker) and son Joe (Finley Hobbins) – who are tasked with training their newly born elephant Jumbo into a big-top sensation, and soon discover his innate ability to fly. The circus begins to thrive and its success alerts the interests of theme-park mogul V.A. Vandervere (a gleefully over-the-top Michael Keaton) who wants the newly monikered Dumbo for his huge Disneyland-esque wonderland, itself already a cornucopia of strange creatures, and sees him as the perfect new attraction to fill his money shoes.
If you have seen the trailers for the film, you’ll already be expecting a visual wonder, just like Alice was, but those were just the tip of the iceberg for Dumbo is a smorgasbord of stirring images and dreamy landscapes that fill the screen to the brim, almost bursting at the seams. It’s typical Burton in many ways, everything feeling just off centre without being jarring or overly gothic (the final act, in particular, is pretty murky stuff) but his artistry touches every minutiae of the frames, and with usual collaborators Rick Heinrichs, Danny Elfman and Colleen Atwood, as well as new DoP Ben Davis (Captain Marvel), it’s rich in affluent colour and striking design that capture both the original film and the new settings beautifully.
And yet, something is lacking throughout and as the film soars into its second half, it starts to lose altitude quite quickly: adapting the original film is something of a herculean task given the limited sources from the film and the book (itself only 36 pages long), and in stretching it out to a good two hours the themes and magic of the story get sadly diluted. Indeed, the focus shift away from Dumbo’s story and more towards the Farriers’ doesn’t help its cause, despite superb turns from Parker (for a debut, this is as impressive as they get) and Farrell, and moving the most pivotal moment of the film – Dumbo flying – to the middle of the film, takes away the crescendo it deserves. When all is said and done, it all feels like a bit of a disappointment.