Dumbo movie review: Tim Burton's remake is let down by a complicated screenplay, lack of emotional heft
Dumbo, his latest seemed like the perfect fit for his incredible visual style and proclivity for gloomy outcast themes, but is let down by a screenplay that depends more on over plotting
No one in Hollywood makes films like Tim Burton, which is why no one else disappoints as much as he does when the film turns out to be a missed opportunity. Dumbo, his latest seemed like the perfect fit for his incredible visual style and proclivity for gloomy outcast themes, but is let down by a screenplay that depends more on over plotting than emotional heft.
This is, of course the latest live action remake by Disney and is based on the 1941 animated classic about a flying elephant. We’re introduced to a circus whose showman Max (Danny Devito) is struggling to keep things afloat, and Holt (Colin Farell), a soldier who lost his arm in combat and joined the circus to support his children. Max discovers Dumbo, a baby elephant whose ears are freakishly huge and whose look automatically qualifies it to be a part of a circus. The moment Dumbo’s fame soars, the villainous New York City entrepreneur Vandevere (Michael Keaton) decides to get his hands on the little elephant for his own shady gains.
What made the original film memorable was its stripped down, simple storytelling which presented its themes in a matter of fact manner (if you ignore the racist elements); the essence is lost in the remake because writer Ehren Kruger over complicates the plot and twists the themes into a mangled and bloated mess. Burton is good at telling a story about an outsider who is vilified for the way he looks – he has made an entire career out of this – so Kruger’s underlining of already established themes for a supposed larger commentary does not give Burton time to focus on the moments. And like in Kruger’s other scripts (Transformers 2,3,4) the focus annoyingly shifts away from the main magical character to the humans whose presence is just grating, and making the elephant a supporting character in a movie about him is problematic to say the least.
The frustrating thing is that there is a good movie hidden inside this movie – Burton’s balance between the grim and the cute is perfectly executed here, and the visuals are absolutely stunning, and a bit of jettisoning of the Jurassic Park like third act could have turned this into a classic like Big Fish. The titular elephant is impossible to look away from, rendering the same emotion of helplessness in us that Edward Scissorhands did. Dumbo’s plight is extreme, and combined with Danny Elfman’s score it’s easy to melt away into a syrup of manipulated empathy, but every time such a moment arrives it is pushed aside for a big screen CGI set piece whose synthetic spectacle sucks away the energy.
Keaton, working with Burton after Batman and Beetlejuice overpowers with his presence, flitting between the lunatic and the hammy – truly becoming a cartoon villain. Burton sort of kick started the Disney live action remake strategy with Alice in Wonderland, and watching Dumbo feels like the closure of a theme park whose foundations were always shaky. Style over substance is a term that may be overused but unfortunately that is precisely what Burton has been indulging in during the past decade.
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