As live-action remakes go, director Tim Burton's Dumbo is easily Disney’s most original. The choice to abandon anthropomorphic circus animals, and add a human cast and storyline in their place, marks the biggest deviation from the source material of any live-action reimagining to date. The alterations succeed and stumble in equal measure, but the doe-eyed flying elephant in search of his mother still tugs at heartstrings enough for audiences to ignore anything that doesn’t land smoothly.
The bones of the original story remain, as an elephant with comically large ears is born into the most judgmental circus ever. His mother loses her temper when she witnesses the ridicule he's subjected to, which results in their separation. But instead of Timothy the Mouse becoming Dumbo’s mentor and bolstering the little guy’s confidence, the job falls to Colin Farrell’s Holt Ferrier, a World War I veteran. He’s faced with his own challenges of self-acceptance, so the two make a natural pair when Danny DeVito’s Max Medici insists Holt train the elephant once it become necessary to sell Mrs. Jumbo, in hopes of getting some sort of return on investment. (Spoiler alert: Circuses are terrible for animals, even in Disney films.)
Holt and his children eventually discover Dumbo’s unique talents, and Medici can’t believe his good luck. It’s not long before Dumbo is making headlines and attracting the attention of theme park pioneer V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton). From there the story evolves from a simple journey of self-acceptance and found family to a bombastic treatise on the intersection of talent, entertainment and big business. It's there Dumbo falters.
Now is a good time to point out that CGI Dumbo is probably the most squee-worthy Disney creature since Bambi. He’s rendered in such a way that evokes a realistic elephant while also conveying the cartoonish sweetness of the original. You will cry when he’s separated from his mother; your blood will boil when people inexplicably reject his adorable visage; and you will coo with delight every time he masters a new trick. It’s blatant sentimental manipulation, but does it ever work. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of the humans who surround him.
Despite the proven talent of this cast and its director, Dumbo's human characters suffers from the same weird flatness that plagues so many of the other live-action remakes. It’s as though in trying to capture the spirit of the cartoon classic, human actors eliminate the inner life that animated characters don’t need, but live-action portrayals desperately do. Eva Green’s Collette Marchant, a stunning trapeze artist in a gilded cage, never conveys any real pathos, and despite his entertainment value, Keaton never approaches the heights of villainy we want him to. That ultimately leads to the back half of the film feeling extraneous, and serves to remind everyone that the 1941 original required just 60 minutes to tell a timeless story.
That said, we couldn’t very well expect Dumbo to emerge at an hour long, and while the second half of the movie does collapse a bit under its own weight, it also sneaks in a treatise on the dangers of soulless big entertainment swallowing up all the talent it can buy simply to exploit. It's pretty prescient for a movie remaking an 80-year-old film about a flying baby elephant. If this weren’t a Disney film, it could be called a blatant critique of the conglomerate’s recent activity. That it is a Disney film makes Dumbo pretty ballsy.
Ultimately, the title character’s search for acceptance, and for his mother, is still the effective beating heart of this film, just as he was in the original. And despite that the film isn’t as recognizably Burton-esque as the rest of the director's body of work only serves to remind us how the story of an outcast searching for a home is vintage Burton in a way we haven’t seen tackled with such sensitivity since Edward Scissorhands. And as a live-action remake, Dumbo’s an example the rest of Disney’s planned nostalgia binge would do well to follow.
Directed by Tim Burton, Disney's Dumbo stars Colin Farrell, Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Eva Green, Alan Arkin, Finley Hobbins and Nico Parker. The film opens Friday nationwide.