By Jeffrey Sanzel
In viewing Tim Burton’s “Dumbo” it is hard not to compare it to Disney’s animated feature that served as source and inspiration. The delicate and wonderful cartoon ran 65 minutes and was both enchanting and heartbreaking. Like all of Disney, there is delicacy about this 1941 film that has made it an enduring classic.
The story in both cases is that of the baby elephant, Jumbo Jr., a pachyderm born with giant ears. It is what makes him different that ultimately proves him special. These giant appendages give Jumbo Jr. — crowned Dumbo — the gift of flight. Ultimately, it is a tale of the “other” — a being ostracized for being different and then finding success, and, more importantly, joy in this distinction.
The original film ends with Dumbo’s rise to fame and his reuniting with his mother. Burton’s version extends the length and the plot to a bloated two hours. The film is stunning to watch with incredible CGI in the creation of the title character. Dumbo is a wholly realized creation with eyes that are mournfully soulful. The film (in 3-D) is visually satisfying but comes up short on character development.
The story is set just after the end of World War I. Wounded soldier Holt (a brooding but sympathetic Colin Farrell) returns to a failing circus and to his children, Milly and Joe (Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins, in nicely understated performances). He has lost his arm to the war and his wife to influenza. The circus is run by a roguish charlatan, Max Medici (Danny DeVito, doing what he does and does well), and is populated by the expected archetypes — the mermaid, the strongman, the snake charmer, etc. Instead of pursing this world and background lives, Burton opts for broad strokes and frenetic action.
It is the children, and, in particular the scientific Milly, who discover Dumbo’s gift. After the reveal of Dumbo’s talent, the film shifts with the arrival of a villainous entrepreneur V. A. Vandevere (scenery-chewing Michael Keaton with an impenetrable and unrecognizable accent). Vandevere fools Medici into signing away his company so that he can headline Dumbo in his Dreamland amusement park. Here, the world becomes even bleaker as it segues into a clumsy indictment of corporate greed. What ensues is often tense and dramatic, but there is a desolation that pervades, only lifted by the final images of freedom.
While there are plenty of homages to the original (the lullaby “Baby Mine,” the pink elephants are particularly clever and a mouse in a uniform harkens to the antecedent’s sidekick), the film has a very modern point of view, especially on the issue of caging animals. It is an important message and one that needs to be heard, but rings oddly false in its period setting.
Finally, the question one must ask is, “Who is this film for?” The answer: It is a children’s film that is perhaps too dark for the children.
Rated PG, “Dumbo” is now playing in local theaters.
Photos courtesy of Walt Disney Studios