WHAT IT'S ABOUT:
A former circus star named Holt finds his life turned upside-down when he returns from the War. Circus owner Max Medici enlists Holt to care for a newborn elephant whose oversized ears make him a laughing stock in an already-struggling circus. But, when Holt’s children discover that Dumbo can fly, persuasive entrepreneur V. A. Vandemere and aerial artist Colette Marchant swoop in to make the peculiar pachyderm a star.
WHAT WE THOUGHT:
The original Dumbo was one of those Disney films that was sweet and traumatising at the same time - from the mother being chained up, to the terrifying pink elephant nightmare - but it had a heart at the centre of the bizarre. But in live action? It was honestly one of the strangest and confusing films I have seen in a while.
The script, the director, certain characters and even the CGI elephant all seemed to be in their own film separate from each other. Instead of an endearing film that upgrades the story of a flying elephant for a modern anti-circus audience, Dumbo became some off step-child that doesn’t really fit into either of the Disney or Tim Burton families.
A war veteran (Colin Farrell) returns to his circus to find his act cut and starts taking charge of the elephants. His children (Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins) discover that a new baby elephant with oversized ears has the potential to take flight and start training him. Eventually, the superstar catches the eye of an amusement park entrepreneur looking to add him to his Dreamland performances.
You know sometimes Burton is a little too much Burton in his movies? Well, in Dumbo’s case he isn’t enough. This story has always been a little on the strange side, and instead of embracing that wholeheartedly, the director (or the studio) held back with just a little bit of darkness seeping through that didn’t fit in anywhere. The dark moments stood out like sore thumbs, lost in the PG bizarreness surrounding it, but as a whole it remains too terrifying for any kid under the age of 10. You have someone dying horribly (??) early on in the film, and then there’s some nightmare island in the amusement park that could have been fantastically creepy, but instead just makes you feel sad. At one point you just start laughing nervously because you just don’t know what feelings you’re supposed to be having - it’s not sad enough to elicit any tears, but you also don’t particularly feel joy either.
As for the script, someone started pouring a touch of sass onto it and then accidentally spilt the whole bottle. Anyone being spoken to would get hit with at least one shady remark, and no one was safe. In any other film it might have been hilarious, but in a supposed Disney film about a cute flying elephant, it came out of left-field completely out of place, making you wonder who hurt the scriptwriter during preproduction.
Burton also had some questionable directing choices throughout. The daughter felt like she escaped from an insane asylum, while the son was a non-existent entity that said like two words throughout the movie. Michael Keaton was playing a nightmare version of Walt Disney that would have been great in any other film, and then there was the bizarre mermaid scene that reminded you suddenly that you’re watching a Tim Burton film. As for Danny DeVito, Colin Farrell and Eva Green, they fitted the most into what the film was supposed to be, trying hard to keep a semblance of sanity in this terrifyingly bizarre (in a bad way) hotchpotch of a film.
And the famous pink elephants scene? Beautifully done but still creepy enough to freak you out for the rest of the day.
As for the issues surrounding animals in circuses, it luckily doesn’t glorify that part by addressing it head-on and also Burton refused to include any real animals in the shoot. The CGI was well-done and Dumbo really was the cutest little thing with the most adorable mannerisms that will make you go 'awww' a few times. While they got this one part right - which is the star of the show - it’s the humans that turned it into the weird mess that it is.
The live-action Dumbo is truly a confusing movie that feels stitched together from all the different kinds of movies it could have been - either a sweet feelgood film or a dark Tim Burtonified look at circuses. The two together did not mix well, and ended up producing a Disney film that is too terrifying for little kids and too confusingly light for Tim Burton fans. It just proved that we never really needed a Dumbo live-action in the first place.