Last year, arguably the best film to come out was a remake of A Star is Born. It served as an example that there is nothing wrong than a re-imagining of a timeless classic as long as the time and effort and creativity needed was put to good use. Dumbo is the other side of the coin, a film that’s only descriptors include insipid, bland and creatively stagnant. The irony here is that director Tim Burton has attempted to tell a story about rampant capitalism using a film actively trying to rob you of both your time and your money.
Telling the classic story of Dumbo, an elephant born with unfortunately larger ears, the kind of defect that finds him ridiculed and cast aside until two smart children Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins) discover with them he can fly. When this wondrous secret gets out everyone wants a piece of Dumbo, including famed businessman V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), intent on profiting off of Dumbo’s abilities. With the help of their father Holt (Colin Farrell), Milly and Joe set out to keep Dumbo safe.
My knowledge of the original Dumbo goes so far as knowing that the titular ‘hero’ never speaks and it has a questionable moment with some xenophobic crows. The concept of a remake didn’t have the same kind of draw as it would to a generation who grew up with it. The notion of a flying elephant and a troupe of misfits seems like the kind of optimistic, limitless storytelling that Burton gravitates towards and prospers in.
Yet the film itself cannot move past the very simple notion that its story is about a flying elephant. Burton is enamoured by the simplicity of it so much so that when asked to add depth and meaning to the little man’s life he searches for it in other people. Dumbo himself proves a footnote, a plot device in his own story. A lifeless creature who just so happens to fly, Burton dispels the notion of magic by making Dumbo just as depressive and monotonous as the rest of the film’s characters.
Burton, much like in his last outing Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, is telling a story of misfits, the ones looking for a family through their own shared misfortunes. Dumbo has this in spades but what it doesn’t have is the same character or effort as his prior adventure. It lacks dimension with Farrell reduced to the role of troubled war hero and Eva Green playing the same enigmatic woman of allure Burton has trapped her in for almost a decade.
Despite having two talented child actors in Parker and Hobbins, Burton squanders an optimistic opening act for a lifeless slog through an ‘American Dream’ that feels more like a nightmare. Dumbo’s world becomes on devoid of colour, energy or the youthful vigour it started with. To argue this was the point, a scathing diatribe of uncontrolled capitalism is not only ironic but half baked.
Despite being the only fully realised character in a crowd of empty faces, Keaton is the only real emphasis Burton uses to sell his story and his campy, over the top oeuvre doesn’t mesh with the underdeveloped, anti-establishment hogwash Burton, and by extension screenwriter, Ehren Kruger, are foisting upon us.
While the notion of a flying audience is perfect fodder for the younger generation, Dumbo can’t bridge the gap between children and adults. In the end, it suffers trying to add social commentary to a film not asking for it. Despite needing to pad an admittedly thin story, Burton leads you to a question any film should never have you asking. Why should I care?