Of all the animated classics that Disney has adapted into live-action (or at least photo-realistic) features, 1941’s Dumbo offers probably the loosest framework for a modern large-scale blockbuster. Running just 64 minutes, it was produced on a limited budget to make up for the box-office failures of Fantasia and Pinocchio, and its story is more a series of cute vignettes than a longform narrative. So unlike other recent Disney live-action remakes (including Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast), Tim Burton’s Dumbo diverges significantly from its source material, presenting a condensed and remixed version in its first 40 minutes, and then shifting gears to become essentially a sequel to the original story. The two halves fit together awkwardly, sidelining characters who seemed essential while introducing others who end up taking over the narrative.
At first, Dumbo is a bland, rote adaptation, substituting cutting-edge CGI for hand-drawn animation but populated by characters who are curiously lifeless. The title character, a baby elephant with freakishly huge ears, is surrounded by a supporting cast of humans who exist mainly to stand around and gawk at him, as he first wreaks havoc on the circus run by Max Medici (Danny DeVito) and later becomes a sensation thanks to his ability to fly by using his massive ears as wings. Dumbo’s main supporters are the Farrier family, led by stunt rider and World War I veteran Holt (Colin Farrell), who returns home from the front to discover that his wife has died of the flu and his kids Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins) resent his absence.
With his horses sold, Holt finds himself in charge of the circus’ elephants, and Milly and Joe form a special bond with Dumbo, discovering his ability to fly when he chases after a stray feather. The movie is full of those half-hearted allusions, echoes of the original that don’t serve much purpose other than to remind the audience that this is a new version of a beloved classic. The kids are largely blank slates; Joe has no personality whatsoever, and Milly’s only character trait is a vague interest in science. Holt himself isn’t much more interesting, and the family’s investment in protecting Dumbo and reuniting him with his mother (who’s sold off after destroying the circus tent to protect her child) is purely a tool to move the plot along.
That plot really kicks into gear once Dumbo’s talents reach the outside world, and entertainment impresario V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton) descends on the humble circus with the goal of purchasing the entire enterprise to get his hands on Dumbo. Keaton is clearly having fun with a role that is at least partly inspired by Walt Disney himself, playing Vandevere as a combination of the dirtbag charm of Beetlejuice and the oily opportunism of The Founder’s Ray Kroc. Keaton dominates the movie so thoroughly that DeVito’s scrappy, well-intentioned ringmaster gets essentially nothing to do once Vandevere shows up.
Vandevere whisks Dumbo and everyone from the circus off to Dreamland, his gorgeous Art Deco amusement park, and Dumbo finally turns into a Tim Burton movie. Burton has been on autopilot for the majority of his projects in the last 15 years, and Dumbo is one of his least distinctive efforts, but he does bring his flair for goth-cute design to the Dreamland sequences, and Burton favorites Keaton, DeVito and Eva Green (as a sensuous French acrobat who becomes part of Dumbo’s Dreamland act) get the movie’s liveliest, most entertaining roles.
Dumbo himself is an impressive CGI creation who is equal parts grotesque and cute, but he doesn’t make for much of a protagonist, and there’s very little about the movie that’s emotionally affecting. With a running time more than 45 minutes longer than the original, Burton’s Dumbo is slow-paced and frequently dull, and may have trouble keeping the attention of the young audience it’s aiming to enchant. It’s a smart branding exercise for both Burton and Disney, but it exhibits about as much soul and passion as V.A. Vandevere’s Dreamland.