There are a number of best-case scenarios involving Tim Burton directing a live-action “Dumbo” remake. He could give us a hero who is physically unusual on the outside but possessing the soul of a poet, like Edward Scissorhands. He could lean into the 1920s circus atmosphere and create another sinister but seductively designed world.
What we get instead feels more like a lesser 1970s Disney live-action comedy about an animal who can do an extraordinary thing, and the mean people who want to steal him. Burton and his collaborators took the beautiful and moving “Dumbo” and somehow managed to turn it into a throwaway kiddie adventure like “Gus” or “Million Dollar Duck.”
Granted, like many filmmakers who have tried to stretch, say, a lovely 20-page children’s book into a three-act cinematic structure, Burton and screenwriter Ehren Kruger are remaking a beloved film that’s a scant 64 minutes long. (Both movies are based on the book by Helen Aberson and Harold Pearl) And like many of the other recent Disney live-action remakes of its animated treasures — “Beauty and the Beast” being a notable exception — the new “Dumbo” leaves out most of the songs from the original.
The best number from the 1941 film is sung by a group of crows that are problematic racial representations, so out goes “When I See an Elephant Fly.” With about an hour or so of material, then, Burton and Kruger make the original movie’s big finale their act-one climax. And from there, they’ve come up with nowhere interesting to go.
Our human hero is Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell), who lost an arm to World War I and a wife back home to the influenza epidemic. He wants to resume his role as a circus-stunt rider (he and his wife had a double act before the war), but ringmaster Max Medici (Danny DeVito) instead puts Holt in charge of the elephants, including the pregnant Mrs. Jumbo, which Max has recently purchased. When she gives birth to a giant-eared baby elephant, everyone is horrified, with the notable exception of Holt’s grieving kids Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins), who quickly realize that the circus’ new addition can fly when made to sneeze with a feather.
Once Dumbo’s talent is shown to the world, it attracts the attention of amusements magnate V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton) and his aerialist girlfriend, Colette Marchant (Eva Green), who buy Medici’s entire circus just to get their hands on Dumbo. But Vandevere, of course, has nefarious plans — that’s right, parents, you get to see Dumbo and his mom ripped apart not once but twice — and the plucky circus folk must band together to save themselves from this monstrous mogul. (Points to “Dumbo” for giving us a villain who resembles no one as much as Walt Disney himself, even if Keaton plays him with all the snarling excess of Keenan Wynn in “Herbie Rides Again.”)
There are some occasional visual flourishes that stand out, from Dumbo imagining a herd of flying elephants in some giant soap bubbles (a crafty way to weave the hallucinogenic “Pink Elephants on Parade” song from the original) to the art-deco Disneyland — er, Dreamland — that Vandevere oversees. And while the digital creation of Dumbo himself has real weight and tangibility, so many of the film’s digital effects (and there are so, so many of them) have that glossy, shiny neither-here-nor-there quality that so often turns contemporary movies into visual mush. Not even the circus atmosphere provides any kind of flair.
The performances are mostly negligible, with the notable exceptions of Green, so often the rare highlight of a mediocre movie, and Parker, who resembles her mother Thandie Newton not only physically, but also in her charisma and gravitas. Farrell is mostly misused here, and DeVito and Keaton seem to be phoning in their “Batman Returns” reunion. (The front plate of the circus’ “Casey, Jr.” train also resembles that movie’s Schreck’s Department Store logo.)
And while I’ve never made it through the original movie’s “Baby Mine” sequence, where a chained-up Mrs. Jumbo rocks lonely Dumbo with her trunk, without sobbing, this version (performed this time around by Arcade Fire) left me thoroughly dry-eyed. Tim Burton’s “Dumbo” lacks the heart and innovation of Bonnie Raitt’s 1980s cover of “Baby Mine,” let alone the 1940s animated classic it seeks to recreate.