Dumbo is the story of a baby elephant that happened to be born with enormous ears. As the newest member to a floundering circus run by Max Medici (Danny DeVito), the crew wrestles with what to do with the pachyderm initially embarrassed by the giant auricles on its head. After a young pair of siblings (Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins) discover that Dumbo can actually fly, his popularity rises. Dumbo even attracts the attention of V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), a wealthy entrepreneur who offers to buy out the entire circus with the promise of riches but whose actual schemes may not be on the up and up.
What works in Dumbo is the adorable elephant and the family fun he provides. Director Tim Burton wisely chose not make Dumbo photorealistic, and the result is a rather endearing creation. When Dumbo soars, so will the spirits of the audience as faces young and old light up with glee. There’s indeed some magic in watching the young elephant flap its ears and fly. And with that core tenet, Burton creates “oohs,” “aahs,” and plenty of light humor sprinkled throughout the entirety of the show.
While Dumbo takes flight whenever the attention is on the title character, the film is mostly a spectacle full of star power but lacking substance as Burton assembles a great cast with very little to do. In crafting an adaptation, Burton indeed made some strong decisions about which elements to excise (i.e. problematic racist and psychedelic undertones prevalent in the 1941 animated version) but fumbled a bit in terms of what to fill back in. His solution was to create new human characters for the audience to connect with, but nearly all of them lack any particular depth or arc.
For example, the first name on the Dumbo poster is Colin Farrell, playing Holt Farrier. Holt is: a) a recent widower; b) trying to reconnect with estranged kids who; c) grew up in the circus he once worked in, but he since left because he; d) went to serve in the Great War where he; e) lost an arm which means he can longer; f) have his old rodeo act in the circus, which is furthered by the fact that; g) Medici sold his horses while he was away because the circus is failing. That is a lot to unpack, and most of it doesn’t really develop or resolve. Similar fates befall trapeze artist Colette (Eva Green) and financier J. Griffin Remington (Alan Arkin), with the latter just kind of showing up near the end of the film for no great reason.
Admittedly, not all family films need to have messages or lessons, but Dumbo feels like a missed opportunity to talk about respect and inclusion in the context of being in a minority. And Dumbo shows glimpses of this, but with only disjointed hints to the point where one wonders if Burton had an exceedingly longer cut in mind. The characters don’t grow, and Burton seems oddly restrained in making strong statements about things like diversity, acceptance, or even the premise of captive animals being forced to perform. He sets the table, but never serves the meal.
Dumbo has plenty of cuteness to keep younger audiences engaged, but older viewers may find it a bit vapid. Visually, it’s quite sharp and colorful (with thanks to Academy Award-winning costume designer Colleen Atwood), but unfortunately, much of the proceedings are devoid of much else.
Recommended if you enjoyed: Big Fish, The Greatest Showman, Alice Through the Looking Glass