Over the past couple of years, Disney has been going in on the idea of turning its animated classics into star-studded live-action blockbusters. From Jungle Book and Beauty and the Beast to The Lion King and Aladdin, every movie fans loved growing up is going to get a live-action remake at some point in the near future. Of all these reboots, Dumbo seemingly had the most potential, as it was perhaps the only one that wasn't set to be a shot-for-shot remake of its animated predecessor. With a slew of human characters and a number of big set pieces, the Dumbo trailers promised that, for better or worse, this movie would tell a different story. Unfortunately, if you predicted "for worse," you were spot on. This Dumbo tale trips over its ears far more often than it soars above our heads.
Directed by Tim Burton, Dumbo follows the Farrier family, whose patriarch Holt (Colin Farrell) has just returned to the travelling circus where they work after fighting in the war and losing an arm. While he was gone, his wife lost her life to influenza, leaving him to take care of his two children, Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins). Max Medici (Danny DeVito) runs the circus that they work for, though he's fallen on tough times and is struggling to pay the bills. Enter Dumbo, a flying baby elephant that wows crowds and gets the attention of amusement park entrepreneur V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), who decides to purchase the entire circus and make Dumbo the star of his new show alongside his current leading lady, trapeze artist Colette Marchant (Eva Green). As you can probably guess, Vandevere's intentions are far from pure, and he has more than a couple of secrets hidden behind the curtain.
On the surface, this is a fun and exciting direction to take a feature-length Dumbo film. After all, the original film -- just over an hour in length -- ended with Dumbo learning how to fly, thus reuniting him with his mother. This remake offered the opportunity to actually develop the character and introduce an entire world full of interesting circus workers, offering the same important life lessons along the way. But Burton was clearly more interested in how this movie looked, instead of what it had to say, because it ultimately says nothing at all.
At the beginning of Dumbo, there is effort to establish a theme about outcasts, and not being too quick to judge others that look different than you. That's an honorable direction, and certainly fits the Dumbo story, but it's handled poorly from the jump. Holt's kids have a hard time looking at him because he lost an arm while at war, Dumbo is called a monstrosity because his ears are too big; it's a strange way to handle the topic. Not long after that, the film abandons the issue altogether, and instead tries to focus on the idea that family comes in all shapes and sizes, and bonds built out of love can run deeper than blood. Again, great idea for the movie, but the film's ending completely contradicts the point it spent an hour trying to make and instead turns into a lesson learned about animals not being in kept in cages? In case you're wondering, that initiative was not once mentioned or even hinted at during the entire movie. Ehren Kruger's script lacks any clear theme, and Burton is too busy chasing pink elephants to try and bring it all together.
That said, there are a couple of things about Dumbo that are really worth admiring. The visual effects are spellbinding, particularly in the bigger set pieces. The "firefighter Dumbo" sequence is especially magical, though "pink elephants" is a bit disappointing. This film also makes you realize that it might be truly impossible for Collin Farrell to deliver anything less than an earnest and fantastic performance. Even when the rest of the movie is burning to the ground around him -- literally -- Farrell could not be more captivating. With the adorable merchandising juggernaut that is Dumbo at his side, Farrell almost saves the entire movie with his convincing performance. Almost.
Think of Dumbo like a beautifully crafted ship out at sea; it's stunning from afar and its intricate design is worth admiring. When you get closer however, you realize that the ship has no sail and its captain has no wheel. The ship can't go anywhere, but even if it could, there's way to steer it and no direction to follow. It's completely and utterly lost.
Rating: 2 out of 5
Disney's Dumbo hits theaters on March 29th.