At first glance, Dumbo feels like an odd choice for Tim Burton, a filmmaker more typically taken with headless horsemen, scissor-handed loners, and demon barbers. What could Hollywood’s kookiest, spookiest auteur possibly have in mind for Disney’s adorable flying elephant? On closer inspection, it’s an inspired pairing — this is the story of a pure-hearted oddity who, like Edward Scissorhands, is simultaneously welcomed, ridiculed and exploited by so-called civilised society. Chuck in a sideshow circus setting, and Dumbo is a tale primed for Burton-vision.
The director’s off-kilter sensibilities mesh surprisingly smoothly with Disney’s soft, warm heart. There’s sentiment and sweetness here, but also cruelty — themes from the 1941 original that Burton extrapolates and reshapes through his unique lens. Given the animation’s slight 64-minute runtime, Dumbo 2.0 makes significant changes — extending the story, jettisoning Timothy Q. Mouse (and those crows, thank goodness), and surrounding Dumbo with a human cast.
When Keaton and DeVito share the screen in an unlikely Batman Returns reunion, it’s a hoot.
Colin Farrell’s wounded war vet Holt Farrier proves a disappointingly forgettable lead — the idea that he relates to Dumbo’s otherness while coming to terms with his own recent disfigurement is an interesting but undeveloped thread. Thankfully the supporting characters are a riot. Danny DeVito is on rip-roaring Matilda form as ringleader Max Medici — part sadsack salesman, part conniving con-artist — and even better is Michael Keaton, who arrives at the point where the original Dumbo ends. When the flying elephant becomes a media sensation, Keaton’s entertainment mogul V.A. Vandevere swoops in to buy out the Medici circus and incorporate them into his ironically named Dreamland theme park. Hamming it up in an exquisitely awful iced-gem toupée, Keaton is Dumbo’s greatest showman — he injects a thrillingly weird energy into his scenes, even digging out his old Batman growl, clearly relishing the audacity of playing Evil Walt Disney slap-bang in the middle of a Disney movie. Whenever Keaton and DeVito share the screen, in an unlikely Batman Returns reunion, it’s a hoot.
And then there’s Dumbo himself, near-impossibly cute with those huge, heartbreaking eyes and gigantic floppy ears. Every time he takes flight — in spine-tingling sequences delivered with thunderous momentum — and the circus audience erupts, you’ll want to applaud with them. If anything, with so many additional humans around (Eva Green’s trapeze artist Colette is likeable but superfluous), Dumbo could occasionally use more, well, Dumbo.
Still, with gorgeous production design — from its initial hazy purple sunsets to the second half’s retro-futuristic aesthetic — Dumbo is another visual treat from Burton, with wit and emotion to boot. Enough of the original story remains, with a trippy new bubble-centric riff on the Pink Elephants sequence and a swooning Arcade Fire cover of lullaby ‘Baby Mine’ over the end credits, but it’s when Dumbo ventures into Burton’s Dreamland that it really soars.