Aside from some gross racial caricaturing the original Dumbo (1941) is an unusually hand-made cartoon. Here in 64 minutes is not just the elephant child’s tragedy at being separated from its mother, but the sweat and stink of a circus, and a squad of clowns who are dangerous and who really know their business. In the magnificent “Pink Elephants on Parade” sequence, the animators went after the pretensions of Fantasia, with strobing color and surrealism. It’s the rare instant of Disney being as funny as a Bugs Bunny cartoon.
Director Tim Burton’s new live action version is, by contrast, cluttered and starchy and not about to make risky jokes about drunken animals. In 1919, the trick rider Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell, appealing) comes back from WW1 missing an arm. He returns to the battered circus run by Max Medici (Danny DeVito). His late wife left behind their two kids: young Joe (Finley Hobbins) and Millie (Nico Parker, Thandie Newton’s daughter). Parker does her lines in a clipped, precocious Wednesday Addams diction—she’s a science geek with little interest in circuses. They are there to be kids in a family movie that doesn’t have a lot of interest in the kids’ characters.
The down and out circus is saved by the birth of an elephant with freakishly big ears who can fly. The wondrous beast attracts the attention of a tycoon (Michael Keaton) who owns a Coney Island-style park. He brings with him the French aerialist Collette (Eva Green), who is by a mile Dumbo’s most redeeming quality. Green excels at the New Vaudeville look, leggy, glittery costumes, with bobbed hair and a ceramic-hard mask of charm: the chosen face of a performer meant to be seen from 50 feet away. The soaring pachyderm does not intimidate her: “I know how to fly, ever since my childhood.” It was an inspiration to give Dumbo a partner, someone to calm the creature. A satisfying moment after a tumble from the heights into the net: the elephant and the lady bounce into a cozy position, like a couple greeting guests from a couch.
Disney’s Dumbo is a three-ring circus that needs ring mastering; Burton’s preference for atmosphere over lucid storytelling means that it’s hectic; the circus folk given a quick display and then the plot mislays them. Disney’s Dumbo isn’t Burton’s worst—that’s Dark Shadows—but it plays more like Spielberg doing kid-fodder with the help of Burton as production designer. The movie is a white elephant.
‘Dumbo’ is playing in wide release.