Dumbo **1/2

Tim Burton's pleasantly retro live-action adaptation of Disney's proudly cartoonish 1941 classic expands the source material with gentle assurance and disarming showmanship -- but to get there, it faces major hurdles along the way, the biggest of which is being unable to match the original's elemental power.  

Is it worth $10? Yes  

If anyone tells you “Dumbo,” Walt Disney Studios' 1941 gem about a big-eared elephant and his quest for self-confidence, is strictly kids' stuff, you have my blessing to give them the stink eye. They probably don't remember how visceral and wrenching this tale of circus life actually is. Clocking in at just 64 minutes, Disney's fourth animated feature was driven by the fierce bond between a mother and her son, and what happens when they're torn apart.

Family also lies at the heart of the 2019 “Dumbo,” a live-action (but CGI-heavy) feature billed as another triumphant collaboration between the Mouse House and Tim Burton, the animator-turned-auteur who got his start as an apprentice at Disney in the early 1980s. That marketing decision might make sense from a publicity standpoint, but it's problematic insofar as Burton hasn't really been able to recapture the dark magic of his early work in decades, and while Disney has had considerable financial success with retooling its animated classics for crossgenerational global consumption, it's unlikely most of these big-budget productions will stand the test of time the way its predecessors have.

And for at least a good 40 minutes or so, the new “Dumbo” plays like a listless, curiously inert addition to this spotty roster. The new production's 1919 setting places this retelling squarely in Uncle Walt's idealized Main Street USA era, but some nifty art direction and Rockwellian imagery aside, Burton doesn't appear interested in exploring the time period.

And that disinterest extends to the central characters, not the titular pachyderm and his mother, as one might expect, but showbiz cowboy-turned-WWI vet Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell, struggling with what sounds like a Texas drawl; your guess is as good as mine), and his estranged children, wholesome Joe (Finley Hobbins) and science nerd Milly (Nico Parker, daughter of Thandie Newton). Dad returns from the front to resume a traveling circus life, but he's come back missing an arm and a wife. An influenza outbreak claimed her in his absence, circus owner Max Medici (Danny DeVito, effortlessly stepping into the enterprising ringmaster's shoes) reminds his former horseback star.

Shifting the focus to the human characters might have seemed like a sound conceptual move on paper, but screenwriter Ehren Kruger hasn't found a way to make us care about this dysfunctional trio. Their interaction feels too contemporary, thus making it difficult for viewers to lose themselves in the period. It also doesn't help matters that the movie keeps thrusting Milly up front and center. This glum bookworm with dreams of becoming the next Marie Curie is such a wet blanket that it's hard to become invested.

But Medici's newest acquisition, a pregnant elephant from the Far East, eventually enters the picture, and even though “Dumbo” spends too much screen time with no Dumbo, the character makes his unceremonious entrance (not by a stork, as in the original, but under a bed of hay), and it doesn't take too long to realize he's about as endearing as his animated forbear. When the movie allows him to be.

It's clear Burton views Dumbo as another of his misunderstood freaks, but at least during the film's first half, he falls back on visual motifs borrowed from his own previous work, “Big Fish” in particular. (Danny Elfman's score also feels astonishingly phoned in.) I kept sensing a desire from Burton's to go in his own direction with the material, but it's as if he feels duty-bound to keep paying homage to the 1941 film. Those scenes, most glaringly the new production's equivalent of the “Baby Mine” mother/son reunion, feel half-hearted. They possess little of the spark that made the original such a treat.

But just as I was getting ready to give up on “Dumbo,” Dumbo comes flying to “Dumbo's” rescue. The CGI work on the character is so seamless that, despite the film straining to achieve “magic,” this winsome digital creation takes us there anyway. The original film's climax, showing Dumbo finally taking flight for all the circus folk to see, is here placed smack in the middle. More intriguing still, it represents a turning point that takes the movie in a different direction that's barely hinted at in the trailers.

High-powered impresario V.A. Vandemere (Michael Keaton, completing the “Batman Returns” reunion) catches wind of Medici's flying elephant and comes knocking with a devil's bargain, his star performer Colette (a game Eva Green) by his side. From this point on, the less you know story-wise, the better. Suffice it to say that “Dumbo” becomes a much more ambitious undertaking, driven in part by a not-so-veiled jab at Disney's theme park culture. That particular narrative strand, however, comes across as a little naive, if not dishonest, in the context of a $170 million production that aims to fill the coffers of the empire at which it's ostensibly poking fun.

The film's depiction of what feels uncannily like a portrait of the birth of theme park culture is drowned out by one of Burton's patented overwrought climaxes where characters run into danger, because, well, they kind of have to in order to create tension. Or something. A sturdy narrative spine, after all, has never been one of Burton's strengths. But visual splendor definitely is, and “Dumbo,” at least during its much stronger second half, delivers the goods with visuals that occasionally recall silent cinema and even Busby Berkeley. (If you go, make sure to catch it in IMAX or a large screen format. This one is worth the upcharge.) Then there are those closeups of an endearing baby elephant with the giant ears and the bigger heart, which are as beautifully detailed as a longtime Disney fan could hope for. Only a real Grinch, or a Beetlejuice, could resist those baby blues.

IIs it fair, then, to say cuteness wins the day in the new “Dumbo?” Guilty as charged. Burton's latest might lack the sinister playfulness of his best work, but even if it doesn't quite soar to the heights it set out for itself, it glides confidently into your good graces. By a trunk.

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