There are nice nods to the twee opening of the original “Dumbo” as we’re treated to knowing shots of storks flying across the sky to portend the less romanticised arrival of baby Dumbo but in nodding to the animated classic so soon, this live-action remake tips just how weak its hand is.
When circus impresario Max Medici (Danny DeVito) buys a pregnant elephant, he hopes the impending arrival will deliver a welcome boost to his dwindling audiences. He entrusts the care of the elephants to recently returned veteran Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) and his two children but when the baby is born with comically oversized ears, it seems like a disaster for the circus. But when the baby elephant surprises everyone with the ability to fly, it’s not long before the Medici Brothers circus attracts attention from the big leagues.
In seeking to carve out something new for this reimagining, Director Tim Burton – and screenwriter Ehren Kruger – find themselves leaning too heavily on the original version early on, racing through its main plot points in a brisk half-hour blighted by too many things which happen because they happened in the original story. It’s all a little bit inorganic, feeling rushed and forced in order to get us to the point where we’re telling a new story. A plethora of supporting characters are introduced but then barely used and while this version broadly switches the focus of the story away from the animals and on to the humans, those humans remain as crudely drawn and superficial as the forgettable background characters of the 1941 animation.
It’s all very pretty and nice but also predictable and unremarkable, evoking earlier, better Burton films – particularly “Big Fish” and “Batman Returns” without bringing anything that feels fresh or new. At times, it comes perilously close to evoking “The Greatest Showman”, although if you’re on the lookout for the familiar big musical numbers, you’ll not find them here. Well, not really in the way you might expect. “Baby Mine” makes an appearance and we get an Elfman-ised instrumental of “Pink Elephants On Parade” but “When I See An Elephant Fly” only gets a passing mention.
Of course, the cast are tremendous fun, especially Eva Green and Danny DeVito who bring sparkle and vitality to their roles and Michael Keaton brings his usual edginess to the initially beneficent façade of V A Vandevere.
Not without its charms but too simple to sustain its runtime, the one area where this Burton-esque reimagining is absolutely simpatico with its progenitor is in its satirising of its creators. Where the original took a satirical swipe at the agitating animators, Keaton’s Vandevere feels like a sly shot at Disney himself, especially as the contemporary movie builds its plot upon a dominant entertainment conglomerate buying out its smaller rival for the sole reason of seizing control of its valuable acts and discard the rest. It’s a little on the trunk, don’t you think?