It’s set to be a busy year for live action Disney remakes, with Aladdin and The Lion King already lined up for release this year. Kicking things off though, is this reimagining of the 1941 classic Dumbo, with Tim Burton directing.
It’s 1919 and Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) has returned from World War I, arriving by train to join the Medici Brothers Circus, where he worked before the war as a performer. But Holt has a number of issues to contend with on his return, the least of which being the loss of one of his arms while in service. He’s greeted at the station by his two young children, Milly and Joe, who lost their mother, Holt’s wife, to influenza while he was away. On top of that, he learns that while he was away, the cash strapped circus owner, Max Medici (Danny DeVito) decided to sell the horses that were part of Holt’s star act. Holt is put in charge of pregnant elephant Jumbo, with Max hoping that the arrival of a cute baby elephant will bring in the much needed crowds. It’s a lot for Holt to come to terms with and adjust to.
Soon after, the baby elephant is born. But with clumsy, oversized ears, he’s not quite the crowd pleaser they had all hoped for. Attempts to hide his ears only end in disaster, and ridicule from the circus crowds. Milly and Joe fall in love with the new arrival, and when they discover that he has the ability to use those big ears for flying, interest in him is quickly renewed.
The flying elephant not only draws in the crowds, but also the attentions of V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), who offers Max a deal for him and his circus troupe to join his huge fancy theme park. It’s at this point that the movie should really begin to soar, having introduced the circus family and their new arrival. Unfortunately, the arrival of Vandevere signals a sharp downward spiral in terms of story telling. The circus cast are all but forgotten, with the story focusing instead on the tired, familiar tale of sleazy, greedy businessman who is only interested in money and success, at the expense of the poor, trusting people who believed him.
The computerised Dumbo is simply oozing cuteness and technical wizardry. The eyes and the facial expressions are wonderful and he manages to steal every scene he is in. Every time he takes flight, it is a joy to watch. Unfortunately though, this version of Dumbo is trying to add a lot more to the original story and ends up becoming bit of a drag at times. The human characters are poorly written and mostly forgettable, and the movie really only soars when Dumbo himself does. While trying to steer clear of being a straight up remake, opting instead for the addition of plot and characters, it ultimately loses a lot of the charm. As with the recent remake of Beauty and the Beast, it’s another case of style over substance.