Dumbo: Big Top Letdown, by David Bax

Tim Burton’s Dumbo is a failure, to be sure, but not because of the poor, stiff child acting around which so much of it revolves. Even if that were the case, it would be mean-spirited to say so. No, the flat, unmodulated delivery on the part of the movie’s two young leads is not a problem so much as is what they’re saying. Milly (Nico Parker), daughter of circus horse trainer Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell), is meant to be wise beyond her years but she’s actually just the screenplay personified. Her supposed insights into the characters and their situations are simply the movie instructing you on how to feel about it. And it’s tedious to be lectured by someone with nothing on their mind.

Preserving only the basics from the original 1941 movie, this Dumbo takes place in the immediate aftermath of World War I. Holt returns, down one arm, from fighting in France to rejoin the circus and reunite with his children, Milly and Joe (Finley Hobbins), whose mother has died while he was away. The Medici Brothers circus, led by Max Medici (Danny DeVito) has fallen on hard times in the aftermath of the post-war recession and the 1918 influenza epidemic, the latter of which is referenced in a super fun and totally lighthearted bit of specificity. Medici hopes to draw attention with the purchase of a pregnant elephant whose soon to be born calf is sure to increase ticket sales on their next stop in bustling Joplin, Missouri. When the newborn, mockingly named Dumbo, is revealed to possess the ability to fly by flapping his gigantic, floppy ears, he draws the sinister attention of amusement park magnate V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton).

Try as they might to make thing interested by hamming it up, DeVito and Keaton, as with most other characters, are defined more by their costumes than anything else. For what it’s worth, they’re good costumes (by the wonderful Colleen Atwood, who’s collaborated with Burton since Edward Scissorhands) but they’re occupied by empty shells. Holt, meanwhile, is a figure of anemic morality. The characters that stand out are in the supporting cast, like Deobia Oparei as Rongo, the circus’ resident strongman, as well as human resources director, comptroller and a multitude of other responsibilities. And, of course, there is Eva Green. As Colette, the star of Vandevere’s spectacle, she once again demonstrates—after Dark Shadows, in which she was also the highlight, and the underappreciated Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children—that she remains on Burton’s wavelength, able to reach phantasmagorical heights while never severing Colette’s heartstrings.

If only Green could help Burton find something to say. Dumbo’s screenplay, by Ehren Kruger, circles around questions of the necessity of fraternity and human (or elephant) interdependence but remains noncommittal. When Vandevere articulates his life philosophy of “Go. It. Alone,” we are given to wonder if, despite his villainy, his words might not hold some truth for young Dumbo, separated so soon after birth from his mother. But quickly the film returns to platitudes of togetherness and good versus evil, like a magician bailing on a new trick and falling back on the reliable but well-known rabbit out of the hat number.

Dumbo’s entire third act takes place within Vandevere’s sprawling park, where towering, plasticine, CGI tents and rides fail to overwhelm the eye. Still, this is the backdrop for the film’s most engaging set-piece, a daring and detailed prison break sequence that is well-paced, elevating naturally from tip-toeing through tents to dodging avalanches of flame.

That fire and the things it destroys, though, are ephemeral and whisper-thin. Burton’s celebrated ability to create fantastic but visceral worlds in movies like Beetlejuice, Batman Returns and Edward Scissorhands, has devolved from the stuff of storybook wonder to the kind of cheaply produced videos you watch while in line for the real ride. There is no substance to mine from his newest film, no foundation on which to build the dreams and nightmares Burton once conjured. Today, he’s so creatively bankrupt that he has Michael Buffer shout, “Let’s get ready for Dumbo!” not once but twice. Really.

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