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Dumbo – Movie Review

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Dumbo – Movie Review

Rating: C- (Below Average)

Trailer/Thumbnail Courtesy Walt Disney Studios

A large reason for the appeal of Tim Burton’s work has been his support of the outcast. Every one of his films has been about a person or animal living on the outskirts of society and finding a way to succeed on their own terms. The Disney animated film Dumbo is the classic outcast story, with its elephant shunned by the rest of the circus and eventually realising his full potential. It’s a natural fit for Burton’s sensibilities, which makes it all the more surprising that his live-action take would end up as one of the weaker entries in his filmography. The ingredients are there, but the magic somehow doesn’t materialize.

Despite that cute baby elephant’s name being in the title, Dumbo is primarily relegated to being a side character in his own story. Burton seems more interested in the humans. The circus owner and his troupe of performers were often in the background in the animated film, but they are made front and centre here. Since the majority of this film is set after Dumbo’s flying ability is discovered, the film is intent on showing how the circus exploits his gifts. That’s certainly a promising idea and a way to differentiate it from the animated movie. However, the humans aren’t fleshed out or made interesting enough, all fitting into simple archetypes.

The circus performers who might otherwise have been leads in Burton’s other films aren’t given too much focus, as the main protagonist ends up being Colin Farrell’s lasso-tossing star. First shown returning from the war without his right arm, the movie doesn’t quite dig into his dealing with his post-war trauma. His children are the standard kid characters, with his daughter written as just an aspiring scientist and the son given no personality at all. Danny DeVito is just the circus owner trying to save as much money as possible, while Michael Keaton is the obvious villain hoping to take advantage of Dumbo. The characters never go beyond their one-dimensional personality traits. Due to the movie focusing so heavily on the humans, Dumbo is merely a plot device meant to drive them.

As expected from a Tim Burton film, Dumbo is visually impressive. He has never made an ugly film and he employs his usual collaborators to bring this world to life. Dumbo is unafraid of looking old-fashioned as Rick Heinrichs’s production design calls to mind the comics of Winsor McCay, especially when the characters visit Keaton’s amusement park. The visual effects team have certainly put in a lot of effort to translate Dumbo into a computer-generated elephant and they have done a commendable job. However, the needed magic and excitement when Dumbo soars just isn’t quite there. Even the emotions never hit when the famously heartbreaking “Baby Mine” sequence from the animated film is recreated with these new pachyderms.

Tim Burton films are never boring, even the lesser ones, because there is often something interesting and unusual on-screen to be marveled at. Dumbo, shockingly, drags as the attention is paid to the wrong elements. It’s admirable Burton would want to expand the material and put his own spin on it, but he has also left the baby elephant behind. The animated movie Dumbo is a little over an hour long and yet the titular star has a complete arc and character development. This version of Dumbo is about fifty minutes longer and yet everyone’s character progression doesn’t feel fully realised and there are even large portions where Dumbo isn’t on screen. It’s a rare underwhelming effort from Burton, which is disappointing. Thankfully, he is probably already hard at work to wow us the next time.

Stefan Ellison

Stefan Ellison