It’s a busy year for the House of Mouse and its ongoing business model of trudging through its back catalogue of beloved classics in order to pointlessly remake them as live-action movies. As the trailers before Dumbo will remind you, we’ve still got Aladdin and The Lion King to look forward to this summer. Cynical cash-wringing studio tactics aside, Disney’s first live-action adaptation of 2019 is Tim Burton’s reimagining of the misfit flying elephant trying to get back to his mother. There’s an admirable attempt at injecting new narrative beats around the original story, and these storytelling liberties come with a strong production design, some lovely CGI – resulting in an achingly cute pachyderm – as well as the stellar craft of seamstress extraordinaire Colleen Atwood, who clearly had a blast with the costume designs. Sadly, these grace notes are in vain, as aesthetic design and cuteness only gets you so far.
“You’ve made me a child again,” says one character upon having seen Dumbo take flight for the first time. But Burton never conjures enough magic or genuine wonderment to make the film soar as high as it should. It features none of the weirdness and quirky darkness that once characterised the filmmaker’s work, directorial tics that could have worked wonders here. After all, the original 1941 animated movie had a dark side and was actually quite scary in parts, with distressing depictions of carnivals and a trippy hallucination sequence responsible for many a childhood nightmare. There’s also a noticeable lack of awe and enthusiasm throughout; even the climactic rescue mission falls flat, leaving you with the feeling that if younger audience members want to be wowed by this story again, the original animation is still the one to watch.
Regarding the human roster, a one-armed Colin Farrell, a bequiffed Michael Keaton and a miscast Eva Green never generate much chemistry. Nor do the children (Nico Parker, Finley Hobbins), who care for Dumbo and nurture his aerodynamic prowess. In the cast’s defence, they are lumped with a tooth-grindingly limp script by Ehren Kruger, the scriptwriter behind such gems as Transformers: Age of Extinction and the third – and worst – Scream instalment. Quite why anyone thought it was a good idea to give him the job of writing this updated adventure is anyone’s guess. Only the presence of Danny DeVito as the circus ringmaster provokes some thrills. But even then, it’s a performance that just serves to remind you that Tim Burton’s last good (non-animated) film was 2003’s Big Fish, in which DeVito also played a big-top head honcho. Let’s hope that Aladdin and The Lion King deliver the goods; at present, 2016’s The Jungle Book stands as the sole live-action remake that justifies Disney’s shameless strategy.
Dumbo | Directed by Tim Burton (US, 2019), with Colin Farrell, Michael Keaton. Starts March 28.
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