For the past decade, Disney has hired many of Hollywood’s most successful filmmakers to direct live-action remakes of the company’s animated classics. The studio has adeptly assigned directors to projects that can highlight their particular strengths––Tim Burton’s gothic fantasy paired nicely with “Alice in Wonderland,” Kenneth Branagh’s costumed Shakespearean elegance shone in “Cinderella,” “The Jungle Book” benefited from Jon Favreau’s ability to capture childlike wonder, and Bill Condon’s affinity for the big-budget musical provided “Beauty and the Beast” with dazzling theatrical set pieces. Later this year, Guy Ritchie’s flair for street-level adventure will hopefully outshine the Genie memes when “Aladdin” debuts in May, while Favreau will attempt to make lightning strike twice with his adaptation of “The Lion King” in July.
But before Disney begins its unstoppable summer season (which also includes “Avengers: Endgame” and “Toy Story 4”), audiences get to see Burton’s “Dumbo,” which marks his first film with the studio since “Alice.” Released this week, Burton’s “Dumbo” reimagines the oft-forgotten 1941 animated film as an art-deco family drama starring Colin Farrell and Eva Green.
Unfortunately, Burton’s distinct vision and style are nowhere to be found in “Dumbo.” The film spends far too much time focusing on its bland human characters and devotes a shockingly small amount of attention to its titular lovable elephant. Farrell seems to be doing an impression of “Seven Psychopaths” costar Sam Rockwell in a performance that fails to evoke any meaningful emotion. Burton also seems to have lost his touch directing child actors that was present in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” as the children of “Dumbo” are given very little interesting material with which to work.
The supporting actors deliver much more entertaining performances. One of the film’s greatest triumphs is introducing a new generation to the cartoonish magnificence of Danny DeVito, who fully commits to his role as a struggling circus ringleader. Eva Green also enchants as a trapeze artist with a heart of gold, and Michael Keaton seems to be having a blast during his bizarre performance as an entertainment entrepreneur who exclusively delivers dialogue via mumbles and screaming. There’s also something a little poetic about Burton reunion with DeVito and Keaton, who made his early films “Beetlejuice” and “Batman Returns” so memorable.
Visually, the film begins pretty bleak, with a dreary rural circus troupe surrounded by mud and misery. The only saving grace is the impeccably cute design of the title character, who is both physically believable and impossibly adorable. Then, suddenly, when Keaton’s character arrives, the film’s design does a complete 180, and “Dumbo” becomes a wonderland of aesthetic, albeit not the kind audiences have come to expect from Burton. Keaton’s world of entertainment is a shiny, kinetic paradise of design that is endlessly engaging to look at.
Ultimately, though, “Dumbo” should achieve one primary goal: entertaining children in the audience. It is a family movie, after all. Films like “Dumbo” can justify poor dialogue and silly logistics if the overall experience is fun for the kids. Unfortunately, on this front, the film fails. It’s by no means a bad or low-quality movie, but on the whole, “Dumbo” is just painfully dull. It feels about thirty minutes too long, which makes sense given that the original animated film clocks in at a mere 64 minutes. The human characters are not nearly engaging enough to warrant the amount of screen time they take up, and kids will wonder why Dumbo isn’t more present throughout his own movie. “Dumbo” is simply a forgettable film and a disappointment by both Burton’s and Disney’s standards, and probably doesn’t warrant a theatrical viewing for most audiences.