On March 20, the Walt Disney Company completed its acquisition of 20th Century Fox, thus making Disney the biggest, most powerful, most unkillable behemoth in the media landscape, and strategically positioning it for the upcoming launch of Disney+, a Netflix-rivaling subscription streaming service. Eight days later, the newly engorged corporation released Dumbo, a live-action remake of one of its oldest and most beloved cartoon properties.
I can’t actually believe that this new Dumbo is, in fact, a direct commentary on Disney’s far-reaching corporate tentacles and a pointed allegory of what happens when a little whiff of magic gets subsumed by big-money interests. And yet, here Dumbo is—a strange, lumbering, overcooked thing that takes a sweet, slender story about a flying elephant and blows it out to jumbo proportions, all while delivering a meta-text precisely about why such an undertaking is a misguided and morally corrupt idea.
And it’s directed by, of all people, Tim Burton, a genuinely gifted visual stylist who conjured up some brilliant stuff before selling his talents, over and over, to the highest bidders (including, notably, Disney, for whom Burton did the 2010 live-action remake of Alice in Wonderland, one of the most successful and awful movies ever made).
Burton seems to be atoning for his past cinematic sins with this Dumbo, even as he commits a few new ones. The result is a truly bizarre artifact in which artistic vision collides with corporate slurry-making, with both fully visible on screen.
The story of the 1941 Dumbo, which was barely over an hour long, is told more or less in its entirety during the new Dumbo’s first half—with a few judicious edits, like the racist crows, and the memorable interlude where Dumbo drinks champagne and hallucinates “Pink Elephants on Parade.” (Those pink elephants survive in an unnecessary bubble-blowing sequence that halts the movie for two minutes, although Dumbo does not get drunk this time.)
There are quite a few new additions, though, including Colin Farrell as a soldier who returns from the war to pick up his old job at the circus, where his motherless children are waiting. One of the first things he says to his kids is “Sorry,” although it’s unclear if he’s apologizing for their mom dying or for the fact he’s now missing an arm.
Those kids, unfortunately, are soft-boiled eggs that drag the movie down every time they’re on-screen. There’s two of them, although I’m not sure why, when one would’ve made just as much sense—the girl’s identifying trait is that she likes “science,” while the boy isn’t provided with one at all. Fortunately, they’re offset by Danny DeVito, who plays the tawdry little circus’ ringmaster, and he’s just flat-out great in this, especially when he's being outsmarted by the tiny monkey that lives in his desk. The computer-generated Dumbo, too, is cute and expressive—about as good as it could be, considering how horribly it could have gone awry.
The second half of Burton’s Dumbo is a new concoction altogether, in which Michael Keaton buys DeVito’s circus so he can put little flying Dumbo in the center ring of his Dreamland, a gigantic circus-slash-theme park. Dreamland is, unmistakably, meant to represent Disneyland and the assorted Disney parks across the globe. It’s also a canvas for Burton to unleash his trademark visual flair, and he makes Dreamland a diabolically enchanted, demented place with more nooks and crannies than can fit into the movie. (Indeed, it feels like large swaths of exposition were cut, as we only really get a chance to explore the most interesting corners of Dreamland during a hectic, climactic action sequence.)
This second half of Dumbo is, as you might have guessed, overstuffed to a fault, with unnecessary plot complications in order to pad out a very slim story. The most unnecessary addition is probably Eva Green's trapeze artist, who's assigned to ride on Dumbo’s back, as if a flying elephant on its own isn’t enough of an attraction. Better is Alan Arkin, who turns turns up as an investor in the circus, and he spends the entire time glaring around the set as though nobody told him there would be CGI to fill in all the gaps. And boxing announcer Michael Buffer makes a strange, brief cameo; if you think Burton and Disney are above having him shout, “Let’s get ready for Dumboooooooo,” you are sorely mistaken.
Still, some sparkles of magic remain. DeVito is fantastic, and Keaton’s villainous performance is wild and fascinating—his scenes with DeVito are pure gold. And Burton’s spiky, madcap visions keep this family movie from congealing into treacle. To be sure, this new Dumbo is a deeply weird, hugely imperfect movie, and it's confused and off-putting for much of its runtime. But, against the odds, there’s a genuine thrill every time this updated, ungainly little elephant takes flight.