Can you believe that Dumbo is almost 80 years old? No, not the live adaptation film which is being reviewed today. I literally meant that the animated film of Dumbo came out almost 8 decades ago, in 1941. Walt Disney, which was not as gigantic as it is today, released Dumbo as it’s fourth feature film, which makes Dumbo one of the great grandfathers in animated film, beaten in age only by a few earlier films like Pinocchio and Snow White.
It is no secret that Disney has been upping their tempo recently, and 2019 will be one of the most significant years for Disney with the massive influx of live-adaptations for its classics. Some have been criticized even before they hit the cinemas, namely Lion King and Aladdin. There’s been a fierce debate whether the spectral blue genie teased in the trailer of Aladdin (played by Will Smith, nonetheless) does invoke a sense of awe or is plain fearsome.
And there are still groups of people who are not convinced that the almost complete CGI approach of the upcoming Lion King fits the definition of live-adaptation. Dumbo has been quit a lucky kid so far, having not being casted into the limelight of controversy as with its siblings. Still, being the first kid to perform on the virtually enormous stage, how does Dumbo play out under the magical hands of Tim Burton?
The plot is based rather loosely on the animated film, and as being foreseen by many, humans now make up the majority of the characters in Dumbo. The cast line-up is surprisingly catchy; Colin Farrell, Michael Keaton, Eva Green and a CGI baby elephant. Who can even ask for more? The involvement of Keaton and Green is not that surprising, given their previous collaboration with Burton. Particularly for Keaton, his recent foray into villainous roles, most memorably as Vulture in Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017), boosted his versatility to take up roles from the darker side. The inclusion of Colin Farrell, however, is a pleasant surprise.
The plot kick-starts with a train ferrying equipment, performers and animals of the Medici Brothers’ Circus, heading to Joplin, Missouri for their upcoming tour. As they arrive at their destination, two siblings, Milly and Joe Farrier, find out about another approaching train, that turns out to be the one boarded by their father, Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell), now an amputee and a World War I veteran, on his journey back to the circus. Having a long awaited reunion but still coming into terms with the passing of Mrs Farrier, the trio have to battle through emotionally taxing moments despite being reunited. Then enters Dumbo, a miracle baby elephant with proportionally huge ears, who is born just days before the group is scheduled to perform in Joplin.
Being labeled as ‘ugly’, and turning out not quite as what the circus head, Max Medici (Danny DeVito) has anticipated, Dumbo learns about the cruel reality of the world confined within a circus, and being his caretaker, Holt and his children have to find ways for Dumbo to blend himself into various performances of the circus. Of course, things turn out to be more interesting as V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), a celebrity in the entertainment world makes sudden appearance, expressing his interest in Dumbo. Accompanying him during his visit is the enigmatic Colette Marchant (Eva Green), a French circus performer which Vandevere has been keeping under his wings.
The first act couldn’t be further away from being picture-perfect. Yes, understandably, certain elements have to give way for the direction of the plot, and how Burton envisioned the introductory part of Dumbo should feel like. But beyond that (supposedly) immense grief faced by the Farriers and the misfortune that befalls on poor Dumbo, there is a clear-cut uncertainty which stretches deeper below the fabric of the plot.
Farrell’s star-power aside, it’s pretty darn hard to be convinced that his character is Milly and Joe’s father in Dumbo. There’s a hard disconnect between the Farriers in the movie, fictionally or indeliberately. Yes, at certain times, the kids look like they are not at all excited to be reunited with their father, which is fine, considering the ambience of the story at that time. But, as I subscribed to those scenes a couple more times, I caught a whiff of what can possibly be a rocky collaboration between the trio. Also, Milly and her constant blame-all-on-her-father can be a little over the top and pesky, perhaps more than what the audience has signed up for. On the contrary, Joe’s yes-boy persona seems to cast an invisible spell on him throughout the duration of Dumbo, save for the last few moment before curtain falls.
Sadly, these stutters and hiccups during the first act unfortunately takes its toll on what is supposed to be the most magical moment in Dumbo; the discovery of little Dumbo’s flight capability. I can imagine kids and adults alike waiting anxiously for the moment when Dumbo tweaks his aerodynamics right and soar with his magical ears, but alas, that defining moment comes and goes sans any meaningful excitement or pixie-dust. It certainly doesn’t feel that astonishing as what the circus crowd in the film may suggest, what more with the fact that it’s merely an egocentric tool for Milly to prove her father wrong all the while.
Many will undoubtedly hope that the entry of Keaton’s Vandevere and Green’s Colette will save Dumbo from sliding even further. It does work, up until a certain extent, but, mind you that it is definitely not a drastic turning point of the movie. With more characters in rotation and the establishment of a bigger sub-plot, the duo’s entry is merely distracting the audience from their increasingly tiring focus on the Farriers. Still, character-arc remains non-existent, save for Vandevere whose true colors become more apparent as the screen time ticks. Perhaps he is the only survivor of the massive character-arc cleansing act which took place behind the screens, but then, Vandevere’s corrupt mind comes as zero surprise, as his appearance has been shouting “I’m the villain!” since day one.
That said, if you brave through the irregularities of out-of-place dialogues and questionable supporting actors, and finally arrive at the final act, things do actually get better. Fortunately, most of the earlier bumps have been ironed out before the final conflict hits, and the execution feels a lot more proper and accurate this time. Dumbo is in dire need of any good contrast, be it in the form of character arc, or the contrast between the good and the bad guys. The latter is starting to take shape, but it’s such a shame that it only happens when Dumbo is approaching the end of its flight. Now, with a final resolve that exudes an Amblin-esque mood, and even teasing the recollection of Free Willy, the film feels a million more times more beautiful than before, and twice as engaging.
Though I walked out from the cinema hall feeling somewhat satisfied, thanks to the final third of the film, I couldn’t help but to wonder around a single disturbing question: would Dumbo feel the same if any of the major characters were to be replaced by someone else? Despite being one of the rare, few movies that feels and gets better as the screen time advances, Dumbo still can’t fly away from a dreaded fact; that almost everyone in the cast list, Keaton included, feels replaceable. Colin Farrell could be Steve Carrell or John Hamm and it wouldn’t make a significant difference. Keaton could be Ben Mendelssohn and it’s still going to turn out the same. Eva Green? Apart from her lovely, natural French accent and her ever gorgeous face, nothing else is memorable. Can’t believe that I have to mention that, but, sorry Eva.
Addict Verdict, AV:
Dumbo boasts a sparkling cast-list of stars but doesn’t quite shine like it should. Blessed with an artistic palette and and at times nostalgic, the film’s earnest plot is nevertheless bogged down by a monotone voice. Through most of the duration, Dumbo literally struggles on the runway, running at erratic speeds, plagued by boring execution and lack of depth that make you wonder whether it was actually Burton who pulled the strings or someone else. And when Dumbo is finally starting to take off, the film ends–The Film Addict
*This review was originally published on The Film Addict