Disney’s crass and aggressive efforts to repackage its classic animated titles into live-action special effects bonanzas are obviously geared toward boosting the bottom line, first and foremost.
Trying to separate the creativity from the commercialism, however, Dumbo pales in comparison to its beloved 1941 animated predecessor, and not just because of its ironic anti-capitalist message. This is a much different movie, told more from the perspective of its two-legged rather than four-legged characters.
There’s a more complex nonmusical narrative, too, which happens when you almost double the running time of the original. Alas, director Tim Burton (Alice in Wonderland) seems like more of a hired hand overseeing a project with little evidence of the offbeat sensibilities that characterize his best work.
Although a new generation of youngsters might be exposed to the material for the first time, there’s not much nostalgic value for those who fondly remember the original.
This version is set in the Deep South during World War I, where Jumbo Jr. is born to an elephant in a traveling circus, then given his nickname because of his oversized floppy ears that render him an outcast. The ringmaster (Danny DeVito) calls him a freak, separates Dumbo from his mother, and assigns an amputee war veteran (Colin Farrell) to train him.
Once Dumbo discovers he can use his giant ears as wings, crowds flock to see the flying elephant act, and a wealthy investor (Michael Keaton) swoops in to profit via some shady dealings.
Dumbo is a visually enchanting mix of meticulous period detail and seamless special effects that delivers the obligatory lessons about acceptance, animal rights, and the importance of family.
The predictable screenplay features moments of whimsical charm and poignancy that should resonate with kids and adults alike — such as the first time we glimpse baby Dumbo, and his initial flight around the circus tent.
Yet as it turns out, trading talking animals for more talking humans is not an upgrade. The actors can’t enliven such thinly sketched characters — although some moviegoers will delight in seeing Keaton and DeVito reunite after playing adversaries in Burton’s Batman Returns almost three decades ago — and the final act bogs down.
Whenever the focus shifts to Dumbo, the result is more consistently amusing. And, like the titular pachyderm, it even musters a little magic. Still, bearing the weight of ill intentions, the film rarely gets off the ground.