How do you stretch a 64-minute animated film from 1941 into a 112-minute live-action feature for modern audiences? Apparently by telling the story twice.
In its first 45 minutes, Dumbo—written by Ehren Kruger and directed by Tim Burton—dutifully ticks off the plot points covered in the original (giving unconscionably short shrift to the first film’s lovely “Baby Mine” musical number). As before, a baby elephant is born with big ears, derided as a freak, and separated from his protective mother. But when he learns to use those ears to fly, he transforms himself into a famous circus act. With a good hour to go, I looked at my watch and thought, well, that was uninspired, but at least we’ll be heading somewhere new. At which point Michael Keaton appears on the scene as the impresario of a larger, more established circus, buys Dumbo’s troupe, and we go through the whole cycle again—only on a grander, louder, more garish scale. Nothing is really new or improved, only amplified.
This Dumbo is so hamfistedly told that it’s as if Kruger and Burton thought kids left the first film mystified and needed things loudly explained to them. The villains are meaner, the laughs are broader, the sentimentality is syrupier. In his early films, Burton brought a childlike wonder to adult stories—Edward Scissorhands being the primary example—but here, working with kids’ material, he doubles down on the childlikeness until it dissolves into childishness. Then he tops it off with a bombastic finale that feels like a Marvel CGI space battle, even though the sequence takes place in 1919 Coney Island.
There are grace notes, mostly in the performances. Keaton has fun as V.A. Vandevere, who talks a smooth game but can’t help ending each sentence with a malevolent, Beetlejuicesque smirk. Colin Farrell gives a sweet turn as Holt Farrier, a horse trainer who returns from World War I missing an arm. He has the nicest moment with the CGI Dumbo, in which the elephant tries to pull off Holt’s sorry, stuffed fake arm, encouraging him to live into his “disability” the way the little elephant has. Also strong are Danny DeVito, who brings a comic delicacy to the part of Dumbo’s first ringmaster, and Eva Green, who has a poignant physicality as a trapeze artist who, like Dumbo, is trapped by Vandevere.
I suppose if you wanted to be really generous to the film, you could argue that this Dumbo takes a subversive swipe at Disney, its own corporate overseer. That climax is set at Vandevere’s futuristic theme park, called Dreamland, parts of which are clearly modeled after Disney’s Epcot. And so the villain here is essentially a giant corporate entity that has vacuumed up something small and sweet, inflated it for maximum exploitation, and nearly killed it in the process. But if Dumbo is an insurgent, it’s also, ultimately, a victim. This is Vandevere’s world now; we’re just buying tickets in it.