Easily one of the most powerful scenes from 1941’s Dumbo is the scene where the big-eared, titular elephant longs for his mother’s touch. Locked behind bars, Dumbo’s mom can still reach her son by extending her trunk out of the window and gently cradle her child. The sweet melody of “Baby Mine” plays as Dumbo cries massive tears while being held. It’s a sweetly sad moment in Disney animation history. Now Disney attempts to replicate that same story and scene in their live-action adaptation of Dumbo and it just doesn’t fly. Dumbo is too heavy to cradle, too real to cry massive tears, and the familiar song is played with a mere fraction of the same emotion.
Tim Burton thankfully gives this version just a little bit of that cinematic magic he’s known for. He turns the story into a moving spectacle of outsiders, per his usual strength. Naturally, Dumbo is too simple a character to encompass the entire film and human characters are added into the mix. Colin Farrell plays Holt, a man who just got back from the war, sans one arm. He returns to the circus where his son and daughter have been trying to get by after the loss of their mother. Danny DeVito plays the circus manager Medici who is willing to take Holt back into the fold, sticking relatively close to his co-workers despite his swindling nature.
Medici’s latest addition to his troupe is an Asian elephant dubbed Jumbo who soon bears a baby elephant. But the baby is far different from other elephants, namely for his comically long ears. Even more different, Dumbo can use these ears to soar through the skies, thanks to a little confidence from feathers. But he’ll need to keep that confidence up if he hopes to impress the circus crowds and maybe see his mother again.
Dumbo has such an odd appearance in live-action that takes some getting used to. When you first see his expression and mannerisms, they float between a real baby elephant and an incredibly expressive and vivacious one, drawing a uneven line between fantasy and reality. One moment that really takes some getting used to is when Dumbo is all done up in clown makeup. With all the wrinkly elephant skin complete with runny clown makeup, I don’t think I’m exaggerating too much when I say I got Heath Ledger’s Joker vibes.
The performances are relatively solid despite some boldly clunky scenes in the first act. I liked Farrell as a concerned and learning father but we spend so much time with what seems to amount to more of a supporting player to Dumbo and the Holt’s children. Sadly, his children don’t get very big roles either. Finley Hobbins as the son Joe has aspirations that are not as developed and Nico Parker as the daughter Milly has so little time to showcase her dreams of science we have to take it almost in the form of a PSA. For what could’ve been the star human attraction, Nico’s character is presented with the same inspiring-little-girls lip-service as Disney’s A Wrinkle in Time and The Nutcracker in the Four Realms, despite mellowing into a more subtle and improved approach in the second half of the film.
But most of the movie is eaten up by the central villain of V. A. Vandevere, a corporate man with a big and bold amusement park where he wants Dumbo to be a real star. Vandevere is played by Michael Keaton, given a role that allows him to get nuts but almost too nuts. His scenery-eating feels all over the place at times where it is often hard to pin down his accent if there is indeed one under all that sneering and cackling. Alan Arkin shows up as another droning rich guy with an even nuttier personality and Eva Green fulfills a more grounded role as French trapeze artist Colette, despite having to be the one who is expected to jump on Dumbo’s back and fly him around the ring.
There were a few times when Dumbo has a pinch of that Burton magic. The scene where Dumbo finally takes flight and zooms across crowds amid that obligatory Danny Elfman score of a choir gave me a mild jolt of what the film could be. And there were a few times when the weirdly doe-eyed Dumbo did melt my heart a tug. But these scenes are often clouded by call-backs, as with the pink elephant sequence being restaged, and distracting human actors. Imagine my shock when a ringmaster played by wrestling announcer Michael Buffer pops up to spout “Llllllets get ready for Dumboooo!” What an odd addition, even for a Tim Burton film brimming with colorful visuals and a sweeping sensation of the slightly scary.
It’s the winking and story-breaking moments like those that took me out of a film that could’ve been more about the sweetness and love for a flying elephant and less about a greedy businessman with his Tomorrow World style park of wonders that turns to terrors. Burton just loves to paint such a vividly scary fantasy when he turns out the lights but this aspect, unfortunately, feels more like filler for the film’s true heart. It is perhaps in the film’s more chaotic third act of fire and destruction that I start questioning if Burton was the right choice, considering his film feels more like a Burton showcase than a Dumbo movie.