Wednesday, March 27, 2019

An elephant flies but 'Dumbo' doesn't soar

Director Tim Burton takes a crack at a classic Disney story.

I first saw Dumbo as a child in one of its re-releases, but haven’t seen it since, although I did watch selected clips on YouTube as I readied myself for director Tim Burton's new live-action remake.

Even with only a brief refresher, it’s clear that the Burton-directed Dumbo doesn’t match the great set pieces of the 1941 original, falling short in such crucial areas as humor, charm, and enchantment.

In telling the story, Burton has taken what Disney accomplished in 64 minutes and turned it into a 112-minute live-action feature with a CGI Dumbo. To expand on the original, the movie’s screenplay makes a deeper foray into the human world that the animated version wisely minimized.

The story begins when a World War I veteran (Colin Farrell) returns home. Newly widowed, Farrell’s Holt Farrier joins his two children (Nico Parker's Milly and Finley Hobbins' Joe) as he tries to resume his career as the star of a horse act in the Medici Circus, a rundown show that travels the US offering typical circus fare and what its mildly sleazy ringmaster (Danny DeVito) calls a "fake freak show."

Absent some of the musical numbers that enlivened the 1941 movie and including a less-than-impressive bow to the original’s famous Pink Elephant fantasy sequence, Dumbo occasionally yields to Burton’s darker instincts, though not entirely.

Dumbo also uses its story to illustrate what it seems to regard as the exploitative rise of the theme-park era, an interesting twist considering that Disney isn't exactly unfamiliar with theme parks.

Michael Keaton, who worked with Burton on Beetlejuice and a couple of Batman movies, plays a con man who wants the flying baby elephant to become the centerpiece of his new theme park, Dreamland. Keaton’s character doesn’t amount to much more than a weird hair cut and a faux accent. I wasn't sure what he was trying to do in giving the movie its hiss-boo villain.

As a veteran who lost an arm in the war, Farrell seems a bit lost. The kids are ... well ... Disney-style kids. They replace Timothy, the mouse of the original who encouraged Dumbo to fly on his own, putting aside the feather that the elephant believes enables him to flap his big ears and take flight. The feather helps explain how Dumbo discovers he can fly in the first place.

If you’ve forgotten, Dumbo's over-sized ears initially cause him to be scorned but eventually solidify his special place in the world.

Burton finds flashes of emotion in the story of a baby elephant separated from his mother -- Mrs. Jumbo -- tugging on the same heart-strings as the first movie, although I doubt whether you'll need to bring a full box of tissues to the new addition.

The CGI Dumbo isn’t as endearing as his predecessor, but Burton’s movie isn't particularly sweet nor does it allow the director fully to give himself over to his weirder impulses. An awful lot of energy seems to have gone into the film’s retro production design, and Danny Elfman's score strains to achieve a level of enchantment that the story doesn't always deliver.

Dumbo winds up taking us on a journey without the kind of surprises or stirring uplift that mark Disney at its best. I wouldn't say live-action versions of animated classics shouldn't be made, but this could be one case in which Disney might have done well to pass.

The original includes some dated material -- crows portrayed in racially stereotypical ways, for example -- but the bold creativity of Disney's animators still impresses. That makes the original feel fresher than much of what Burton and his team have created some 77 years later.

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