Is Dumbo a flying start for Disney’s 2019 live-action remakes?

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Copyright: Disney

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By Adam Brannon
Film Reviewer from Movie Metropolis for What’s On Hub

If you had told me 15 years ago that Tim Burton would be directing a live-action adaptation of Disney’s classic, Dumbo I would’ve been overwhelmed with excitement. The director, famed for his unique sense of gothic style and visual flair has directed some of the best films ever made.

Edward Scissorhands, Sleepy Hollow and Beetlejuice are just a few classics on a resume populated by cracking movies. However, over the last decade Burton has become a director that has focused on style over substance. Charlie & the Chocolate Factory was a pale imitation of the original and his live-action remake of Alice in Wonderland was successful but hollow.

Therefore, we arrive in 2019 with a slight sense of apprehension. Dumbo is a classic Disney cartoon and there’s a risk of a little too much Burton for the little elephant’s good. But is that fear unfounded?

Copyright: Disney

Struggling circus owner Max Medici (Danny DeVito) enlists a former star (Colin Farrell) and his two children to care for Dumbo, a baby elephant born with oversized ears. When the family discovers that the animal can fly, it soon becomes the main attraction — bringing in huge audiences and revitalizing the run-down circus. The elephant’s magical ability also draws the attention of V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), an entrepreneur who wants to showcase Dumbo in his latest, larger-than-life entertainment venture.

Updating Dumbo for the modern age was always going to be a difficult task. At just over an hour long and with some shall we say, less than PC story elements, the original needed some serious padding and editing to turn it into a fully-fledged feature film and while there are moments of brilliance here, Dumbo suffers from a disjointed script, flat characters and you guessed it, too much Burton.

We’ll start with the good. Dumbo is a beautiful film, filled to the brim with striking imagery that harks back to some of Burton’s previous work. The cinematography is absolutely astounding with stunning sunsets and vivid colours populating the screen at all points during the 112-minute running time. The opening in particular, a hark back to the original in which a train crosses a map of the US is inspired and nicely filmed.

For the most part though, Dumbo pushes the limits of visual effects to the point where everything feels far too artificial. The baby elephant himself is on the whole very good, and as adorable as you would expect, but there are moments dotted throughout the film that suffer from the limitations of CGI. A scene in which Dumbo gets a bath is terrifying. In fact, there are multiple sequences towards the finale in which the CGI is so poor that it looks like something out of a second generation video game.

Elsewhere, the cast is by far the film’s weakest element. Colin Farrell is a disappointingly forgettable and miscast lead. Arriving home after losing his arm in the war, Farrell’s Holt is completely flat, not helped by some poor acting from the usually dependable star. Michael Keaton doesn’t get to do much apart from smile menacingly and Danny DeVito hams it up to 11 as struggling circus-owner Max Medici; oh dear.

There are some positives cast-wise however: Nico Parker as Milly Farrier, Holt’s curious science-minded daughter, is very good, even if the script beats you around the head with the fact that she’s an intelligent girl who wants more out of her life, but this is brought right back down to earth by Eva Green’s horrific French accent.

Then there’s Burton himself. While the shots of Dumbo circling the circus tent in the air are breath-taking, and scenes of the pachyderm covered in clown make-up as he’s abused for profit are as heart-breaking as they are in the original, they’re ruined by unusual story-telling choices. As the film steamrolls to its climax set in a theme-park that’s a third Scooby Doo, a third Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory and a third Jurassic Park, Burton piles on his usual tropes far too thick – it just doesn’t fit with the tale of the magical flying elephant.

Some of the more touching elements are handled well however. Dumbo’s separation from his mother is devastating and he feels like a real personality throughout the entire film, but for a film titled Dumbo, it needs more Dumbo!

Overall, Dumbo is a perfectly enjoyable adventure ride that’s spoilt by Burton’s once trademark filming style and a roster of flat and forgettable characters. With the boundaries of CGI being pushed to the max here, some of the film feels a little unfinished and as such, this live-action adaptation is a touch disappointing. One can only wonder what this film would have been like with a different director at the helm.

Our score: ★★★

Watch if you liked: The Jungle Book, Beauty & The Beast.

Dumbo is showing now at Odeon Luxe Cinema, Hull

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