Disney’s 1941 animation Dumbo is one of the House of Mouse’s greatest achievements. The simple tale of a baby elephant with oversized ears and the mouse who gives him the confidence to fly, it’s also one of the most affecting films ever made. Only the hardest of hearts can sit through the scene where Dumbo goes to visit his captive mother, without collapsing in floods of tears. Continuing the trend for making live action versions of Disney cartoons, Tim Burton offers us a much more complex reimagining of the original, devoid of its snappy songs, its inspirational mouse and, I’m afraid, also bereft of any real sense of emotion.
It’s 1919, and the little travelling circus belonging to ‘the Medici Brothers,’ pluckily makes its way across Florida, just about managing to survive despite the economic ravages that have laid the country low. There is actually only one Medici, ringmaster Max (Danny DeVito) and he’s doing everything he can to hold things together. Former stallion-master, Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) returns from the great war minus an arm and is reunited with his children, Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finlay Hobbins), who he has left in the care of a couple of other entertainers. To add to the family’s woes, their mother has recently died after succumbing to the Spanish flu.
Holt soon learns that his beloved horses have been sold and he is now expected to take control of the circus elephants, one of whom, Mrs Jumbo, is heavily pregnant. The result, of course, is her son, Dumbo, who’s oversized ears make him the subject of much derision, but who, it turns out, has an amazing skill.
Matters become even more complicated when that skill comes to the attention of V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), an entertainment entrepreneur who senses an opportunity to make some money. He swiftly incorporates Max’s circus into his unfeasibly massive Dreamland complex on Coney Island and teams Dumbo with another of his acquisitions, French trapeze artist, Colette (Eva Green). Vandevere is an interesting addition to the story. With his fake hairstyle, his predilection for making money and the fact that he is in hock to the banks up to his eyeballs, he is the very embodiment of a certain Mr Trump, and Keaton plays the role with evident relish.
I emerge feeling strangely conflicted about this film. On the one hand, I’m delighted that Burton hasn’t produced a cut and paste imitation of the original – on the other, I fail to understand why it’s so curiously dispassionate. There’s so much potential sadness here, yet Burton and his screenwriter, Ehren Kruger, seem unable to bring it out, often having to resort to characters telling us how sad they are just to make sure we haven’t missed the point. The problem is, I need to feel that sadness and try as I might, I do not – and trust me, I’m usually a sucker for that kind of thing
This is, of course, by no means a complete dud. As ever with Burton, the film looks absolutely stunning and the acting is pretty good throughout. Dumbo himself is a marvellous CGI creation, cute but not sickeningly so. It should have been a contender.
But without the heart that lies at the core of the original, the film is fatally skewered. Though it occasionally flaps into life, it never really soars.