Tim Burton’s Lush, Shallow, and Cynical Live-Action ‘Dumbo’ Feeds the Disney Machine
“Well, this is a disaster,” says the always-droll Alan Arkin in Tim Burton’s Dumbo. Too true.
The original 1941 Dumbo, the product of indie animation pioneer Walt Disney, is a slender, 64-minute animated delight populated by sassy anthropomorphized animals and bursting with catchy songs. The modest and simple story focuses on a misfit who discovers that the physical trait which makes him different is also what makes him special. It’s a lovely ode to tolerance and self-worth. Oh, except for those crows talking in Ebonics. That’s just Uncle Walt laying down some straight-up racist shit.
DUMBO ★★ (2/5 stars)
Directed by: Tim Burton
Written by: Ehren Kruger
Starring: Colin Farrell, Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Eva Green, Alan Arkin
Running time: 112min
This new 2019 Dumbo, the product of a multi-billion-dollar conglomerate also known as Disney, excludes the jive-talking crows, so at least that’s progress. Otherwise, it’s a hijacked fairy tale that jettisons all the goody-goody inclusion nonsense in favor of a disingenuous parable about how corporate interests are always trying to exploit true artistry. Ironic? More like opportunistic.
What else do you expect from Burton? Dumbo is yet another familiar piece of pop culture that he’s retooled, stretched, warped, and distorted. It joins the dubious ranks of Batman, Sleepy Hollow, Planet of the Apes, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Alice in Wonderland, and Dark Shadows. Burton’s mind is Hollywood’s favorite recycling center.
Once upon a time, Burton’s quirky take on the misunderstood misfit wasn’t just a schtick. In older movies like Pee Wee’s Big Adventure and Ed Wood—even as recently as Sweeney Todd—Burton proved his knack for crafting darkly sweet odes to non-conformity. But he’s also carved out a very lucrative niche as the Dark Lord of the cinematic mulligan.
Storytelling isn’t really his forte, anyway. He gets his kicks whipping up insanely opulent set designs and wildly baroque costumes. Thankfully, despite its flaws, Dumbo looks terrific. Dazzling nuts-and-bolts craftsmanship and CGI wizardry went into its striking 1919 milieu, here reimagined as a cross between a gothic carnival and a steampunk reverie. It’s all impeccable, from the oddly grim outfits of the circus clowns to the sartorial splendor of Michael Keaton’s phony-baloney impresario.
But make no mistake: this Dumbo is grotesque. It’s cute to watch a cartoon baby pachyderm fly around on oversized ears. Watching that same elephant rendered into live-action flesh is borderline terrifying. All the physics are alarmingly off. One false tumble and that unsteady mammalian projectile weighing hundreds of pounds will seriously pummel the audience. Eva Green even jumps on Dumbo’s back and rides him, which seems so wrong for so many reasons.
Burton basically flattens the original film’s intent to make room for a bite-the-hand-that-feeds cautionary tale of big-business exploitation. But it’s so half-hearted. The first shot of a vendor selling plush stuffed-animal Dumbos comes off as an obvious, low-hanging-fruit jibe. But when we see the vendor again, a few minutes later, it seems more like a friendly reminder to pick up some movie merch.
Keaton’s evil-genius capitalist is known as “The Columbus of Coney Island,” because..Why? Did he discover Coney Island? His Big Idea is that Danny DeVito’s small-potatoes troupe should stay in one place and make people come to them, instead of traveling from town to town. Like in Coney Island! In fact, Keaton’s Disneyland manqué, here dubbed “Dreamland,” is in New York. Like in Coney Island! Even in 1919, the corporate vision is apparently to redo other people’s creative accomplishments.
On paper, Dumbo strives to have heart. Colin Farrell’s one-armed WWI vet, a widower taking care of two kids, finds himself also tending to Dumbo. Lather on that sympathy! But Burton hardly develops his character in any substantial way. Same for his precocious, science-loving older daughter and generically plucky younger son. It’s not surprising that the actors give mostly robotic contributions. The kids in particular deliver line readings that are so nonplussed they’re virtually somnambulic.
This new Dumbo is the work of a filmmaker only vaguely concerned with the human condition. The animals fare a bit better, since (spoiler alert!), Dumbo and his mom are eventually reunited and almost magically deposited back into the wilds of South Asia. And DeVito’s circus ends up becoming a 21st-century, enlightened, cruelty-free, human-only affair, with people dressed up as animals. All except for the horse that Colin Farrell rides with his replacement steampunk arm. Because fuck horses.