The original Dumbo, released in 1941, is an exercise in empathy. In many ways, it’s one of the landmark influencers in animation’s propensity to use animals, or inanimate objects, as a means to convey human ideas and emotions. The new Dumbo, directed by Tim Burton, is a plastic imitation – loud, dizzying, and soulless. Like visiting an amusement park on a cold gloomy day, with only one attraction anyone actually likes; no matter how much fun you’re meant to be having, by the halfway point you just want everything to be over.
The opening of the film introduces us to Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell with a surprisingly non-distracting southern accent) returning from war to the circus troupe he calls home. It’s there he’s reunited with his son and daughter, a melancholy reunion as not only is Holt now an amputee due to battle, but the children are also still grieving over the passing of their mother. Holt and his wife used to have an act in the show involving horses, but the circus’ ringleader Max Medici (Danny Devito) explains that he had to sell the horses after the passing of Holt’s wife. Holt is barely interested in mourning his wife, more concerned with the fact that the horses were sold. His overall tone is “yeah, yeah, it’s kind of sad that she died, now let’s get on with the plot.” Cool, if the characters barely care about her, then I don’t have to.
Medici informs Holt that his duties are now to tend to the elephants, including Mrs. Jumbo, who’s in labor and ends up giving birth to a calf – Jumbo. Medici jumps the gun a bit, rushing out ads for the baby elephant who will be a new attraction to his show. He has buyer’s remorse when he realizes that Jumbo was born with a deformity that has enlarged his ears to a monstrous and potentially comical size. They still trot Jumbo out, in garb that hides his ears, but as you probably already know: shenanigans ensue, and the truth about Jumbo is revealed to an unsuspecting crowd, resulting in the poor calf being pelted with popcorn. There’s also a laughably lazy way in which Jumbo acquires the name ‘Dumbo’ in this scene. It’s most likely intended as humor, but we end up laughing AT the movie instead of with it.
The raucous crowd ends up calling the attention of Dumbo’s mom, who ends up crashing the show in order to protect her child. This results in death, destruction, and terrified customers. Medici has no choice but to ship momma Jumbo off. All the while, Burton has not once persuaded us to care about Dumbo, his mom, or anything really. There’s a scene early on where we’re intended to sympathize with an imprisoned Mrs. Jumbo, but the scene is so dark you can barely make out the digital projection you’re meant to empathize with.
The entire movie suffers from being too under-lit, too dingy. Perhaps they didn’t want to expose the flaws in the CGI, but if that’s the case it calls into question why the film was needed in the first place. Was it best for the story of Dumbo to be retold in such a digital dystopia of a world? The 2D equivalent of these characters were way more expressive and inviting to the audience. Hear, everything is bigger and grandiose, but it’s all so much more sluggish and nonchalant. It’s as if Burton intended to make his most saccharine film yet, but the cast is on Sudafed and the CGI characters feel as solid as the cotton candy that Medeci is likely ripping his customers off with.
The level of apathy directed at the film really starts to set in before the 2nd act even starts, as Holt’s children stumble upon the reveal that Dumbo’s ears actually give him the ability to fly. We do get one quasi-engaging sequence where Dumbo tests his flying skills with trapeze artist Colette Marchant (Eva Green). Once Dumbo’s skills are established, Medeci has found his new featured act. But the success is short lived as an even greedier ringleader (Michael Keaton) attempts to dupe Medeci into letting him use Dumbo for his own troupe.
The worst thing about the new Dumbo isn’t necessarily the content of what can be said about it. It’s that there’s not much to say about it. One could wax poetic about the cinematography, the fact that everyone in it is a charisma vacuum except Devito and Keaton, that the CGI is bad and the CGI characters are completely unrelatable. But much of that could be forgiven, even if just a little, if it wasn’t so BORING. The plot, and the movie as a whole, is just a boring slog.
How does Tim Burton, the director with one of the most unique and distinctive visual styles of my lifetime, come off as a nondescript journeyman filmmaker? I’d honestly rather watch a film like The Flintstones in Viva Las Vegas. That’s a disaster of a movie, but at least a disaster is interesting. There’s not a single performance, scene, moment, line, shot, or cut in Dumbo that you’ll be thinking about 5 minutes after the credits roll. It’s not funny, inspiring, or exciting. There’s one scene where a circus tent goes down in flames. Part of me wishes some brave crewmember would have been inspired to burn down the soundstage of this film. That would’ve at least saved me 2 hours.