It is my considered (and mildly educated) opinion that Tim Burton is one of the most overrated directors of his generation. Most of the films he is revered for would all be legally allowed to drink if they were people, and his contestant aesthetic over narrative approach is sometimes quite nauseating.
His last film that I am willing to say is good would be 2008’s Sweeney Todd, and even them I am being generous, arguably, so when a new film comes along purporting to be ‘from the imagination of Tim Burton’ that sets off one of my cynical warning lights, as Tim Burton’s imagination hasn’t evolved in 30 years.
But it’s also a Disney film, and Disney have a respectable record of not letting just any old tat into cinemas (usually, the tat is released straight-to-DVD) so we shall see if Disney manage to rein in the more obnoxious aspects of Burton’s films.
It’s the late 1910’s and theatre owner, Max Medici (Danny DeVito) welcomes back his former top act back from service in the army, Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell). He quickly puts him to work in training the elephants, including one special new arrival with an extraordinary ability.
While, as the first few paragraphs state, I am not a great fan of Tim Burton, when he gets it right, it is something special, while he was in his stride making films in his vision he was a leading light, and while Dumbo does not reach the heights (no pun intended) of his peak, it’s a step in the right direction. A shaky step, but a step nonetheless.
The biggest question when it comes to this film is: did it need a remake? Which is a difficult question in itself, as updating an old film property does have potential, simply remaking it without updating it doesn’t really serve a purpose. Simply remaking a film in live-action isn’t enough, to me, it needs more of a reason to exist.
To that end, it isn’t a direct remake, but much rather a re-imagining of the story that was first brought to the screen almost 80 years ago. Much more than a visual re-imagining, it being live-action now, but there are several story differences also, there’s no talking animals, the dismissive talking elephants are replaced with dismissive humans, who are even more unlikable for it.
The story has its peaks and troughs, some moments reach for an emotional impact, some hit and some miss, he parts between Dumbo and his mum hit the hardest, which is impressive for two exclusively CG’d characters. Where it over-reaches is in the human side of the story, it establishes that the children’s mother, Holt’s mother, had died, and it’s so classic cliched Disney that it’s almost painful, it’s not as if they do anything new with that concept either, it’s quite dreary, as a matter of fact, almost like they’ve been lifted out of a catalogue.
Where Burton does excell is in his visual style, even when his films are less than stellar, they’re interesting to look at. If I had to describe Dumbo’s visual style in one word it would be: busy.
It’s filled with colour, life and brightness, in many ways it juxtaposes some of his past, more Gothic work, and it works when the colours are saturated and drained in the run-down Medici circus, it becomes overly busy when the plot shifts to Wonder Land, the park owned by Michael Keaton’s character, V. A. Vandevere, it starts to become almost nauseating, when you go from the starchy feeling of the older circus, to the modern, shiny world of tomorrow, filled with bright lights and visually-clashing styles.
The acting in the film is another thing that is very hit and miss, Danny DeVito and Colin Farrell are the highlights, DeVito is so effortlessly charming in everything he does, even the shades of grey in his character seem lovable. Michael Keaton however, chews so much scenery that I was surprised there was any of Wonder Land left. His over-acting in some scenes was almost painful, especially opposite the naturally likeable Farrell. His character is written to be deplorable, but his performance is probably the weakest thing about him.
So, in conclusion, it’s not a home run for Burton or Disney, while it has its charms and nice moments, it’s nothing really ‘special’ about it that sets Disney films apart, it lacks the spark of other successes. You wouldn’t miss much if you missed it, but there might be something in there for people to enjoy.