Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe Farrier (Finley Hobbins) are siblings whose parents work for a travelling circus. Night after night, their parents would put on stunning performances as the show’s star attractions. But their dad, the all-American horse-riding showman Holt (Colin Farrell) was called away to fight in the war. While Holt was gone, influenza ravaged the circus and took their mom’s life. Struck by hard times, the circus sold Holt’s horses. Making matters worse, he lost his arm while at war. And when Dumbo begins, Holt returns home to the circus as a one-armed cowboy with no horses. His boss, Max Medici (Danny DeVito) places Holt on elephant duty, and he must care for a new purchase, a pregnant elephant.
Her child, the titular Dumbo, is unlike any other elephant. His huge ears and big blue eyes unnerve the people around him. He’s destined to draw laughs as the star attraction in the circus freakshow. After a cruel trainer causes Dumbo’s mom to freak out during a show, Max sells her to another circus, which leaves Dumbo heartbroken. But there’s hope they may reunite. Dumbo’s large ears allow him to fly like a bird, and he becomes Max’s star attraction. Milly plans to use Dumbo’s fame and the money earned from ticket sales to buy back his mom. But before that happens, they draw the attention of V. A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), a sleazy businessman who wants Dumbo all to himself.
Dumbo serves up the perfect elements for a Tim Burton movie. Many people dislike the term freak, but Burton wears it like a badge of honour. Burton loves tales about outsiders, weirdos, and outcasts. His best work (Batman, Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood) highlights people who exist on the fringes of society. And a travelling circus, with its family of snake-charmers, mermaids, and strongmen fall right into his wheelhouse.
If this film didn’t land squarely in Burton’s comfort zone, I’m not sure that it would overcome its problems. Unlike the animated Disney classic, this version of Dumbo doesn’t feature talking animals. Dumbo himself is as spunky and adorable as you expect, and Burton returns to many of the story beats you remember from the original cartoon. But the movie spends a large chunk of time with the humans, relegating Dumbo to a limited role in his own story (like Bumblebee in the recent Transformers film).
We spend time with Milly, Joe, and Holt, but these characters aren’t strong enough to carry the picture. Milly is the sort of distant and precocious child that only exist in Burton’s movies. She has no desire to live in the circus spotlight. Instead, she idolizes Marie Curie and dedicates herself to the pursuit of science. I was excited to spend the film with a character like Milly, but Burton never truly hands over the story’s reigns to the humans. Her brother Joe is little more than a sidekick. Even Farrell, the film’s biggest star, doesn’t get many leading man things to do. The film exists in an odd phantom-zone where Dumbo and the humans aren’t the most compelling things about the movie.
Dumbo comes across like a live-action cartoon; a fun distraction but not terribly deep. The broad and shallow performances don’t make an immediate impression, and nobody rises above the uninspired script. DeVito shines the brightest as a huckster with a heart of gold. Keaton goes big with his cartoonishly evil businessman, and at times it’s fun watching him work with the likes of Alan Arkin and Eva Green. But the cast feels like animated caricatures brought to life.
I can write a checklist of all the things this movie can do better, and still, I enjoyed every minute of the experience. Dumbo reminds us of how filmmaking is a collaboration between many people. And although the picture lacks in some areas, it’s offset by exceptional contributions in others. The generic characters and the mediocre script didn’t ruin my experience. Chalk it up to Ben Davis’ arresting cinematography and Danny Elfman’s spirited score. But most of all, I enjoyed experiencing the love and camaraderie shared among the Medici circus family. Burton hits on a magical tone that transports you into Dumbo’s world. And the result is a movie that’s better than the sum of its parts.
Dumbo offers a lavish mix of costumes, production design, and visual effects. The picture’s distinct look sits somewhere between a grounded real-world aesthetic and dreamlike fantasy land. Films that rely on too much CG never look quite right. Their big set pieces come across as cartoony, and the characters seem almost weightless. Dumbo looks like it’s happening somewhere between a physical set and a fantasy land – like an Instagram photo but with the beautify sliders pushing the image into surreal territory. The Medici circus’ rickety old trains, with their faded logos and chipped paint, looked like images from an old-timey newsreel. And when the action shifted into the city, the art-deco production design, with its sharp edges and stark lighting, made my heart flutter.
Dumbo isn’t a perfect movie, but its pros outweigh its cons. Burton updates the material with powerful eco-conscious themes and a scientifically-minded heroine. What the characters lack in personality they make up for with charm. Does Burton’s reimagining top the original? It doesn’t have to. He throws in plenty of nods to the original while making a version that feels unapologetically Burton-esque.
So make sure you watch this gorgeous picture on a giant screen. Dumbo’s parade of dazzling images, whimsical locations, and thrilling set pieces are the reason why we go to the movies.