Since the original Dumbo is only 60 minutes long, it was inevitable that Tim Burton’s 2019 update would veer from the scant story line of the first.
Max Medici (Danny De Vito) is the owner of a rinky dink circus where little Dumbo is born and immediately considered a monstrosity, despite the fact that our eyes tell us that between his big, sad, blue eyes and his soft, floppy ears, CGI Dumbo is perhaps even cuter than his hand-drawn cousin. A couple of kids, Millie and Joe Farrier, befriend Dumbo and together they discover he can fly. Their father Holt (Colin Farrell), a former trick pony rider and current one-armed vet, cares for the elephants but isn’t particularly warm to them, or to his own motherless children. When Dumbo’s mother, Mrs. Jumbo, is in the middle of an incident, she is labelled ‘mad’ and sold away. This is the straw that broke the circus’s back. It gets eaten up by a new amusement park called Dreamland, owned by Vandevere (Michael Keaton) and featuring the beautiful Colette (Eva Green).
As you can tell by cast alone, all the trappings of a Tim Burton movie are there, but sadly, almost none of the magic.
The first thing working against it, at least in my mind, is a circus scene in the movie Big Fish. It’s only a small part of the movie but it’s completely wonderful. Shouldn’t the wonder just multiply when set entirely at the circus? But no. Things start off relatively well at DeVito’s flea circus, but once it gets swallowed up by the soulless Dreamland, things go off the rails.
Second, I despised seeing Dumbo ridden. Dumbo is a flying baby elephant. Isn’t that enough? But no: 2019 needs to subjugate his whimsy by physically climbing aboard. It also doesn’t help that the sight of Eva Green on Dumbo’s back is some of the worst CGI work in the movie.
Mostly though, the movie just doesn’t feel coherent. Dumbo isn’t really even the star. Burton decided against the whole talking animal schtick, and while that makes sense for a live-action remake, it means a lot of improvised human characters and actor egoes who need screen time and dialogue and character arcs.
But when Dumbo himself is on the screen, the movie puffs its little chest and feels bigger for just a moment. Dumbo is irresistible, particularly in his clown makeup. My heart practically grows arms that yearn to embrace the poor little guy. Unfortunately, this little heart of mine just can’t quite make its way to liking this movie. It has everything going for it but the sum isn’t more than the parts. The sum is messy, and a little cold. Burton’s Dumbo is BYOH – bring your own heart.