Film Review: Dumbo (USA, 2019) returns with slightly less flying fanfare

2019 is going to be a fairly big slate for the House of Mouse with not one but four “live action adaptations” of their intellectual property hitting cinema screens. The first one out of the gate is the film about a baby elephant with overly large ears who can fly. Originally Dumbo was based on a story by Helen Aberson and Harold Pearl and illustrated by Helen Durney for a prototype toy. But it wasn’t until Disney turned it into an animated theatrical film back in 1941 that they made the leap into fantastical whimsical stories for all the family. It’s nearly 80 years since the original, so now the remake comes to reinvigorate the nostalgia and introduce a whole new audience.

It’s 1919 and the Medici Brothers circus run by Max Medici (Danny DeVito) is travelling through middle America struggling to make ends meet. Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) has returned from war with an injury to rejoin the circus troupe and his children Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins) and he’s put in charge of managing the elephants. When baby Jumbo Jr arrives everybody’s astounded to find he has such huge ears earning him the new name Dumbo. Both Milly and Joe take the young elephant in and soon discover there’s more to him than meets the eye. When the rich businessman V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton) takes an interest in the flying elephant for his own theme park, he makes an offer Max Medici can’t refuse. But the wondrous sparkle of Vandevere’s Dreamland hides some dark secrets.

Tim Burton’s direction with the screenplay by Ehren Kruger sees the film take a deliberate shift from the original since it has to incorporate more human characters. Holt, his children and the circus members are in lieu of the talking animals, giving the circus a more homely family feel. And thematically it still pushes for that “outsider wanting to be accepted and loved” tone which goes for the humans and the elephant.  But for the most part we don’t really get that Burton vibe until we enter Dreamland in the final act. For a director that is so well known for his weird, colourful and unique style, the fact that it’s restrained for so long is a shame. The wonders of CGI sure do help with giving Dumbo his bright blue eyes, floppy ears and power of flight though. And it’s fortuitous that he is so adorable and lovable because we need to be invested in him the most. Thankfully he never looks too freakish, which is good, since this is meant to be a family film.

Many of the iconic scenes from the original make it into this new adaptation, some working better than others. There is a blink and you’ll miss it nod to the arrival of the storks delivering baby Dumbo. Whilst the clown sequence and Dumbo atop the burning tower actually provides a thrilling lead-in to seeing Dumbo’s big leap. One of the more emotionally upsetting moments of the original, the “Baby Mine” song, doesn’t quite have the same heartbreaking resonance here when it’s cut down to just a verse and chorus. That could either be a good thing or a bad thing depending on how traumatised you were from the original. More noticeably the omission of the racially stereotyped crows and the “Song of the Roustabouts” that was clearly using African-American workers is clearly a smart decision. What is also a little shocking is how they have practically doubled the runtime of the original, something that will definitely impact younger restless audiences.

The performances by our human cast are to serve as narrative fuel for Dumbo’s journey and at times do feel a bit mish-mashed. Colin Farrell’s damaged and struggling father (complete with awkward American accent) is frustrated and frustrating. It’s not until the film’s climax that he gets a chance to play with heart but it feels like too little too late. Whilst both Danny DeVito and Alan Arkin as the banker investor J Griffin Remington steal all the best comedic moments. They manage to lighten the mood just by being on screen, which says a lot about their pedigree.  Michael Keaton gets to try on his slick and slimy villainous persona. Honourable mention to Keaton’s wig for also being hilarious every time it was on screen. Whilst the young actors Nico Parker (Thandie Newton’s daughter) and Finley Hobbins are charming and clever and are probably the most warm of all the cast.

The cinematography by Ben Davis captures that era of struggling out of World War I and bordering on heading into the Great Depression. Using muted colour palettes and infusing it with old world visuals of steam train locomotives, wide open corn fields, and jalopy cars. Somehow despite looking a little dreary I wanted to see more of the land and cityscapes. Former often collaborator with Burton, maestro Danny Elfman once again returns to provide musical scoring. Though just like the director, he’s not quite hitting memorable notes here that would make the orchestral tunes stand out. Elfman has been known for producing many iconic musical sequences, that it did seem jarring that there wasn’t one that I could recall for Dumbo.

There’s always going to be an uphill struggle to reach the same level of appeal when you’re battling against the toasty comfort of nostalgia. The original Dumbo had some wonderfully memorable moments, that are not quite given their time here in this remake. And whilst this is enjoyable to watch, it doesn’t quite soar to the same lofty but simple heights; instead complicating and lengthening the story unnecessarily. Thankfully the titular character though is captivating and cute, whilst being immersed in a world that would’ve been great to see more of. Sometimes less is more and in this case, Dumbo could probably have been better served keeping it closer to the original.

THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Dumbo is screening in Australian cinemas everywhere from today through Disney Pictures Australian and New Zealand.

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