Tim Burton's version of 'Dumbo' is a puzzling mix of commentary and convention
By Andrea Thompson
You have to give Disney credit in “Dumbo,” which is part of its continuing line of live-action remakes of its own beloved animated properties. For this one, it not only includes many homages to the original, it contains a staggering amount of self-critical commentary.
While it varies drastically from its predecessor, Dumbo is still born in a traveling circus, only this time in 1919 in an America fresh from the horrors of World War I. The circus is on hard times, so much so that when Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) returns from the war to his children Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins) sans an arm but still ready to take his place as the circus cowboy, he finds his former workplace worn down and shrunk to half its size, and the horses that made his profession possible sold off.
So instead of his cowboy act, Holt ends up caring for the elephants, putting him and his children in a prime position for the arrival of Dumbo. Unlike the original, Milly and Joe discover Dumbo's talent for flight fairly quickly, though why circus ringmaster Max Medici (Danny DeVito) initially sees his differences as a negative thing is baffling. He doesn't see any potential in a baby elephant with weird, uniquely big ears? No wonder the circus is broke. Anyway, once the audience witnesses Dumbo's abilities, it quickly attracts the attention of V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), who recruits Dumbo and the rest of the performers for “Dreamland,” which is essentially a theme park.
Or at least, what we see of it, although the Farriers' cushy new apartment bears a striking resemblance to the one the Incredibles found themselves in during “Incredibles 2.” We don't see nearly enough of Dreamland for it to truly come alive, but it's pretty hard not to see a dark, East Coast inversion of Disneyland, and what Disney itself has become, with Keaton ruling over it as a kind of megalomanic Walt. The self-criticism is interesting, but there's also quite a bit of the unintentional kind, mostly about how the company is increasingly feeding off itself. It's certainly difficult not to think of Disney's recent acquisition of Fox and the resulting layoffs in how Vandevere completely subsumes Medici's circus and eventually dismisses most of the performers in it.
Disney also cannibalizes its own storylines, with Farriers as yet another Disney family sans a mother. Are mothers contractually obligated to die off after two or three obligatory children now? One family member will also be very familiar to anyone with even a passing knowledge of another of the company's live-action offerings, “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms.” Much like Mackenzie Foy's Clara, Milly is totally interested in science, treasures a key from her deceased parent, and even has a similar hairstyle and style of dress. Nico Parker's performance even echoes Foy's stiff, straitlaced style, one she'll hopefully be able to shed in other films, much the way Foy was able to display far greater range and talent in “The Conjuring” and as young Murph in “Interstellar.”
A happy ending in this “Dumbo” also takes a radically different form. This isn't so much a choice as a necessity, since many of the plotlines that made the 1941 film so beloved would be horrifying to audiences today, and would even (rightly) be considered animal abuse. Perhaps this is why the 2019 version doesn't seem to have much respect for its audience, with disposable villains that are downright cartoonish, along with circus audiences that seem openly disdainful of the animals or just too hungry for entertainment to care much for their well-being.
Come to think of it, a lot of the characters, real and not, get the short shrift here. The Farrier family is bland, Eva Green's aerial artist is barely allowed any development, let alone a chance to make an impression, and none of the performers or the animals they live alongside are given enough time to have any kind of personality. Even Tim Burton's direction is more lifeless than usual, mostly absent his usual flair for the macabre. The issues with the script are to be expected, since Ehren Kruger also penned three “Transformers” movies and “Ghost in the Shell,” but why exactly is Burton playing it so safe? It's rather ironic that a film that's trying to criticize conformity would conform so strictly and safely to conventions, but it's also the sad result of a company that's made it its mission to own and dominate as much creative property as the increasingly lenient laws will allow.