What happens when you take all the magic and fun out of a children’s movie? If you’ve ever wanted to experience the answer to that, look no further than the live-action remake of Dumbo, which is fake to its very core, from its obvious CGI trappings to its actors who can’t decide if they wanted to be there in the first place or they’re just there for a paycheck. Rarely does a movie make you feel absolutely nothing; in this, Dumbo is a rare achievement, especially coming from the master of whimsy, Tim Burton.
The problem with Dumbo isn’t merely that it’s dry and emotionless; it’s that it almost delights in being so. You can almost see genuine feelings being reined in and replaced with mediocre moments straining to be touchstone scenes. We’re supposed to get behind Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) and his two children Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins), but the film gives us no reason to truly believe them – or believe in them. Holt, a newly-returned WWI veteran, comes back to his circus home only to find his kids being raised by the others, as his wife has died from influenza.
Right away, Dumbo makes sure we know about what it really prizes: appearances. During the war, Holt has had his left arm amputated, which is apparently enough for his kids to be apprehensive about greeting him at the train station and giving him a hug. Thus, he has to spend the whole movie trying to buck up and carry on, putting on a brave face when he’s demoted from the circus’ star cowboy to shoveling elephant feces out of the cages. Meanwhile, his kids discover the new baby elephant has the gift of flight, using its extraordinarily large ears as wings.
Forget even so much as telling ringmaster Max Medici (Danny DeVito), who’s already decided this baby’s a freak and shouldn’t be seen by his audiences. But as soon as Dumbo – so named after a sign mishap changes his name from “Jumbo” – spreads his ears and shows what he’s worth, Max spins this into gold, parlaying it into a partnership with wealthy entertainment tycoon V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), whose very existence rides on appearances. The movie hints at Vandevere’s homosexuality, yet he makes sure to be seen in the company of fine-looking women, notably trapeze performer Colette Marchant (Eva Green), who doesn’t seem to be totally on board with everything Vandevere says.
Appearances. That’s all this film cares about. It looks like a kid’s movie, acts like a kid’s movie, and has all the requisite adventure and poop jokes of a kid’s movie… and yet, there’s nothing vital about it. There’s nothing grounding us or wanting us to stay rooted in any of the characters’ stories. Everyone’s a caricature of something, and the film is an empty shell decorated with lively accoutrements.
Burton has always had a way of making us care about his characters, from Pee Wee’s Big Adventure to Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children. (I never saw Big Eyes.) However, he gives way to visual spectacle and the very basics of storytelling, with the shortcomings of Ehren Kruger’s script being made painfully clear. There are no moments in which we feel any which way about our apparent heroes – not even Holt’s journey of redefining his own purpose seems to make any sense. Sure, he says all the right things at the right times, but they’re never more than skin deep. He seems to be fighting several different battles – to gain his own self-worth, to be a father to his kids, and to (literally) get back on the horse, even with his amputation.
Yet he’s merely a johnny-on-the-spot when you need him to do anything, be it turd-scooping or elephant-wrangling or being the linchpin figure in the film’s climax. Farrell doesn’t seem to be allowed to carve him into anything more. Likewise, the children are merely facilitators for Dumbo to do his flying thing. Unless, of course, Milly’s there to pull disapproving faces and continue to be a grownup in a child’s dress. The “kid too smart to be where they are” trope adds nothing but annoyance to Dumbo, as Parker is given no sense of wonder or delight; true, her character has had to be a mother in her own mother’s stead, but she’s written and performed as a near-robot, even when she’s in obvious danger.
Max Medici is a somewhat reprehensible man, but he’s balanced out with a kind-of concern for his circus family. We honestly don’t know what’s turning his wheels or which way they’re going to turn, but all he can think about is money and the bottom line. So, too, goes Vandevere, with Keaton chewing each scene with some kind of fanatical mania inherent in a guy who establishes a fun park for all the wrong reasons. Keaton stays too much in the middle, making himself the villain, but not going far enough to make him truly memorable. Yes, this Batman Returns reunion flips Keaton and DeVito’s hero/villain roles, but it’s far less interesting than a tête-à-tête between Batman and The Penguin.
Dumbo and Holt’s stories intertwine, each having to deal with some kind of disfigurement which leads to their eventual redemption, yet nothing is done with this angle. It’s all lost underneath shots of Dumbo’s wide eyes taking in every sight before him, which seems to be how the filmmakers hope we’ll take the film. No doubt the younger audiences will be more than thrilled by these sights, but adults trying to find purchase with this story can only watch as it slips through their fingers. The Greatest Showman – the story and vibe of which Dumbo follows fairly closely – was a more substantial film than this, the first of four – FOUR! – live-action remakes of previously-animated Disney films in 2019. Here’s hoping they all turn out more satisfying than this filling-less cannoli shell.