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Film Review: Dumbo

14 April 19 words: Ian C Douglas

Do you believe an elephant can fly?

Director: Tim Burton

Starring: Colin Farrell, Danny DeVito, Michael Keaton

Running time: 112 mins

It sounds an interesting premise. Tim Burton takes Disney’s evergreen animated movie, and reboots it as live action. Burton’s best films ooze darkness, think Beetlejuice, Sweeney Todd, or The Nightmare Before Christmas. Now he teams up with Disney, the epitome of American, family-friendly entertainment. However, this movie shows they were made for each other.

Colin Farrell stars as a circus cowboy returning home from World War One, minus his left arm. His wife has died. Luckily, their two children are being raised by the circus troop. Circus folk, after all, being one big happily family. Danny DeVito plays circus boss Max Medici, in desperate need of a new act to bring in the punters. Dumbo is born, accidentally flies, and Farrell’s adorable children train him for the big top. Cue Michael Keaton as a ruthless impresario, who lures the entire circus away to his sinister theme park called Dreamland (uncomfortably reminiscent of Disneyland).

Keaton’s girlfriend, played by Eva Green, is a trapeze artist. No surprise then, that he forces her to fly the elephant (should that be pilot the elephant?) and without safety nets. In other words, Keaton’s greed puts Eva, Dumbo, and basically everyone, in peril. Meanwhile Keaton is secretly arranging to have Dumbo’s mother put down. Will the plucky circus folk save the day?

Colin Farrell turns in a solid performance as Holt Farrier. The issue of his disability and rehabilitation, gets lost in the plot, but it is there. His two children are played by Nico Parker as Milly and Finley Hobbins as Joe.  Nico is the focus of the script, coming to terms with her mother’s death. At the same time, she struggles to assert a girl’s right to become a scientist. Before the end, she’ll find a parallel between her character’s arc and that of Dumbo’s.

The CGI is excellent; Dumbo totally convinces as a living, breathing elephant

Danny DeVito is at his most loveable. Maybe a touch more venom to his character might have spiced up the conflict. When Michael Keaton arrives in the second act, we all sigh with relief. He brings what was lacking, a wicked villain we can boo and hiss. As such, he just as about keeps this movie on track.

Burton commendably brings this classic story into the twenty-first century. Farrier’s amputation surely reflects the stream of disabled American soldiers coming back from the Middle East. Milly’s fight for equality is on the money. Towards the end, the issue of keeping animals in captivity is acknowledged. The closing scene redresses this issue beautifully.   

The teeny problem is that these important themes are never fully developed. The potential to make Dumbo more than a movie about a big-eared elephant is missed. And Tim Burton fans looking for his sense of ‘otherness’ will not find it. This is about as dark as a sunny day. Dreamland’s funfair is pure Burtonian, but that’s about it.  

On the other hand, he tones down Walt Disney’s pathos; this version skips the original’s weepy moments. Nonetheless, the movie holds the audience’s attention throughout and the pace never flags. The CGI is excellent; Dumbo totally convinces as a living, breathing elephant. Burton weaves into the tale a few nods to the original cartoon to delight long time Dumbo fans. Dumbo is the underdog, sorry, under-elephant, whose goodness triumphs over adversity. A good family outing for Easter.   

Did you know? A swear jar was placed on set during filming, and any actor that swore was required to put money in it, which was to be donated to charity after filming had concluded. Colin Farrell was responsible for the vast majority of the final amount. 

Dumbo is screening at Broadway Cinema until Thursday 18 April

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