A dull and disappointing elephant in the room
By Casey Lee
Despite being nearly 80 years old, Disney is not sparing any expense in producing a live-action remake of one of its most iconic animal characters. The star-studded cast of this film includes Colin Farrel, Danny DeVito, Michael Keaton, Alan Arkin and Eva Green. Not to mention, an a-list crew consisting of Disney/Marvel mainstay cinematographer Ben Davis, Oscar-nominated editor (and frequent Burton collaborator) Chris Lebenzon, music composer Danny Elfman, Oscar-winner costume designer Colleen Atwood, and director Tim Burton. This film was indeed no less ambitious than 2016's adaptation of ‘The Jungle Book’. With that amount of resources, potential and talent, expectations were at an all-time high. The reality however, is that ‘Dumbo’ is arguably a dull and downtrodden product resulting from a corporate monopoly’s lack of innovation.
Doubling its original runtime, Dumbo is still a material that has its worth in exploring disabilities and discrimination. Set after World War I and switching out the anthropomorphism with some human drama, circus horseman Holt Farrier (Farrel) returns to the Medici Brothers' circus and loses his arm, his wife, his horse and essentially his job. With times being hard for the circus, Holt is forced to be the caretaker for his two young children, and the prized elephant of the circus (who was expecting). Soon came the big-eared elephant calf whose deformity shakes ringmaster Max Medici (DeVito), but the calamity turns to an opportunity when ruthless entrepreneur V.A Vandevere (Keaton) steps in to invest in Dumbo's entertainment potential (if Vandevere is able to convince his banker (Arkin) to pour in more investments).
All of the hands of those involved are in gaudy display. Burton brings his peculiar sensibilities in the art design, especially in the opening, to turn the CG-laden landscape into a dream circus of quirk and wonder, allowing us to believe that elephants can fly. If Farrel portrays the heavy heart of the movie, the emotional train wreck is uplifted by DeVito's comedic grumpy demeanor and a heart of gold. Keaton and Arkin ironically draw on their mean streak as shrewd robber barons who believe that they can force a performance with the power of capitalism, while Eva Green's seductive Parisan aerialist grows into becoming the mother-figure that Holt's children misses dearly, while dressed in sparkly and showy costumes.
The main attraction, as seen in ‘The Jungle Book’, is the employment of the CG-technology used to create expressive life-like animals. Dumbo's flappy ears and crystal blue eyes for were adorable and believable. The refinement of this technology continues to set the bar higher for the upcoming remake, ‘The Lion King’. However, rather than building character or giving compelling reasons to follow the story, Dumbo reads like a textbook formula with uninspired cutting and camerawork as well as too much focus on style than having any worthwhile substance of storytelling. All of these send any soaring moments down to a splash as they probably can only impress children who have never seen a Disney movie before (and there aren't many left).
In a nutshell, the most suitable analogy to describe the movie is like how Vandevere thought that by pulling enough levers, he can feed a power-hungry machine and spark more creativity only to realise that he has burned the entire dream down instead.