Disney’s 2013 production of The Lone Ranger had some serious problems. Among other things, director Gore Verbinski opted to construct his own historically accurate trains rather than modifying existing ones, or creating one from CGI, which helped send the movie wildly over budget. His version of The Lone Ranger was a poor and ultimately forgettable adaptation, mostly memorable for Johnny Depp’s assertion that his supposed Cherokee heritage and a Joann Fabric & Crafts fake crow perched atop his head gave him the right to play the character of Tonto.
The Lone Ranger’s single saving grace is, ironically, that overpriced train, the focal point of the third act’s thrilling action set piece, set to a wonderful Hans Zimmer arrangement of the “William Tell Overture.” The train feels real as it barrels through the film’s Western set, and its solidity lets audiences connect with something in the film. The scene clearly features actual, physical people, performing a difficult swashbuckling scene on an actual train. The real peril can be seen on their real faces.
All of which highlights the central problem with Dumbo, Disney’s latest live-action adaptation of one of its animated classics. As soon as a CGI train, billowing CGI smoke, kicking up CGI dust, and sporting a fake-looking engine grill shaped to evoke Alice in Wonderland’s Cheshire Cat barrels into this cartoonish, mostly CGI world, Dumbo is in trouble.
While the original 1941 Dumbo is only 64 minutes long, the 2019 version runs just shy of two hours, and comes complete with backstory that no one was clamoring for. The mid-century cartoon centers mainly on the animal characters, focusing on Dumbo, the loss of his mother, and his friendship with a good-natured mouse named Timothy. It features a cast of supporting characters, most memorably including a trio of Stepin Fetchit-esque crows led by “Jim Crow” himself.
Racist tropes still feel slightly more acceptable in 2019’s Hollywood than a movie that runs under 90 minutes, but Disney decided to avoid both for this remake. Tim Burton’s hybrid CGI / live-action version turns its focus to humanity. Colin Farrell plays Holt Farrier, a Great War veteran who returns to his American circus family having lost an arm on the front. His wife has died in his absence, leaving him to care for their children Joe (Finley Hobbins) and Millie (Nico Parker, doing a truly atrocious Christina Ricci impression), who also live at the Medici Bros. Circus, which is run by Max Medici (Danny DeVito). When Jumbo, an investment elephant, gives birth to Dumbo, the calf with ears large enough to use as wings, the circus attracts the attention of a big-city, Walt Disney-like charlatan, V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), and his trapeze-artist paramour Colette Marchant (Eva Green).
Rendering highly stylized worlds is nothing new for Burton, who’s returning to directing for the first time since 2016’s Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children. His distinct cartoon-gothic aesthetic is fairly consistent throughout projects like Sleepy Hollow, Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and more. He’s often used his “creepy” aesthetic to tell stories about outsiders trying to figure out where they fit in the world, and how to navigate “regular” society.
His interest in that outsider trope made him the perfect director to take on Lydia Deetz in Beetlejuice, Bruce Wayne in two Batman films, and ostensibly, Dumbo, the shy elephant unwillingly forced into the spotlight because of his too-big ears. The visually garish, dynamic worlds Burton created earlier in his career often supported that storytelling perfectly, when rendered with a mix of tangible, practical sets and makeup enhanced with computer-generated effects. But ever since Alice in Wonderland, he’s veered toward mostly digital worlds that have less weight and solidity, and more of a plastic sheen.
Many of Dumbo’s animals have too clearly emerged directly from a hard drive. Dumbo and his mother both look like wide-eyed JPEGs. Neither are quite real enough to trend into the uncanny valley, but they also aren’t real enough to elicit convincing reactions from their talented human costars, who spend the film struggling to act as though they’re engaging with all the green screen elements that surround them. When riding the flying pachyderm, Eva Green looks like she’s holding onto a gymnast’s sawhorse for dear life. Colin Farrell feels as connected to the CGI baby elephant, or the many other artificial animals, as he might to a tennis ball.
It’s particularly frustrating to watch Burton approach moments of greatness before quickly losing the thread. Vandevere’s Dreamland circus teases a Busby Berkeley-esque performance that never comes to fruition. Instead, the Busby-style showgirls assemble to create a group of CGI pink elephants out of bubbles to dance around for the show’s audience, leaving audiences with yet another digital rendering instead of actual performers. Dreamland has such potential: when Vandevere welcomes the Medici Circus in with a procession, the sets and costumes fill the screen with color. The showgirls’ blue costumes catch the camera’s focus in the same way Captain America’s USO girls once did. By contrast, the fake pink elephants are literally pale imitations of the real thing.
That same lurch away from any grounded reality seems to be tethering both Danny DeVito and Michael Keaton. Peppered with sweeping gestures and a dose of great facial tics, Keaton’s villainous Vandevere performance approaches camp, which actually makes him the most watchable person in the film. DeVito isn’t given much to work with in Dumbo, aside from looking occasionally forlorn, or delivering the occasional one-liner with very little gusto. Perhaps their Batman Returns reunion was overhyped, but Burton usually gives his veteran actors more to work with.
But that more would have necessitated a deeper script treatment, and a better-realized world to interact with. At this point in his career, Burton doesn’t seem interested in either. Nor does the script seem interested in the many questions raised by the simple fact of Dumbo’s release date. Just as Vandevere feels like a modern echo of Walt Disney, Dreamland recalls Disneyland. Dumbo debuts a week after Disney finalized its merger with Fox, which got Disney its very own performing elephant — the Fantastic Four and X-Men franchises. As expected, the newly merged entity promptly announced redundancy layoffs. It’s strangely appropriate that after “merging” Dreamland with the Medici Bros. Circus to get his hands on the spectacular flying elephant, Vandevere attempts to fire the circus’ original performers, while placing Max in a figurehead, leadership role at the company. Vandevere is the film’s villain, but does Disney see the irony?
Trailers that highlighted circus performance and relied heavily on the magic of the flying elephant and the colorful world of Dreamland made Dumbo seem like it was meant as a memorable spectacle. If that was Burton’s intention, he failed. Dumbo quickly becomes the Panda Express of films — technically a full meal, but not satisfying or substantial. Audiences will be able to recount Dumbo’s story, but they’re unlikely to remember potent lines or moments (aside from Colin Farrell calling Dumbo “Big D”), or big emotions that would bring them back for a second viewing. The film has no perfectly executed set pieces, stirring musical cues, or even ridiculous performances — like the ones in the 2016 circus offering The Greatest Showman — that stir up significant feeling. Even Parker’s stilted Wednesday Addams impression as the clinical, scientific Millie doesn’t verge into memorably bad.
An unintentional laugh from terrible child acting would have been welcome. A fully camp experience would have been perfect. Even, Jim Crow and his jive-talking bird buddies from the 1941 version might have been a form of release. The rage inspired by seeing that kind of racism on-screen is an emotion, at least, and audiences deserve to feel something. No one ventures out to the cinema aiming to feel dead inside. But Dumbo’s lack of emotional resonance presents a solid argument that Tim Burton finally might be.