Special Effects: B
Trafficking in nostalgia is one thing, but how many people are even still around to feel nostalgic about the original Disney animated feature Dumbo, which came out seventy-eight years ago? Certainly there are some; even I, as a 42-year-old, watched that 1941 movie many times as a child. But was it my favorite? And now, consider people half my age now — themselves adults — and, more importantly, kids a quarter my age. They have no context for this as a longstanding intellectual property, and plenty will see the 2019 live-action Dumbo as their introduction to the character. What reason do they have to care? Not a whole lot, honestly.
And then we get to Tim Burton, the greatest director of the eighties and nineties, whose output in the 2000s was spotty at best, and who hasn’t given us a film even close to great since Sweeney Todd in 2007. That’s twelve years ago, if any of you are counting. Since then, he has phoned it in and cashed in with pretty much every project, even Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2016) only hinting at the great works of his past.
One might think Tim Burton a perfect choice to direct the live-action remake of Dumbo, which, the few people still familiar with it probably remember, had some pretty dark elements to it. And to be fair, some of the nods to the original film here work very well, not least of which is the circus bubbles show that harkens back to the “Pink Elephants On Parade” sequence.
That said, a peculiar element of this iteration of Dumbo is how, more often than not, the countless nods to the original in its first half rather drag it down rather than lift it up; and it’s the second half, with original concepts that expand on the story, that actually won me over. I’m not sure it won me over enough to make me say anyone should rush out to see this movie in the theatre, but it did win me over.
The sad thing is, Dumbo succeeds in large part in spite of itself. Because it’s got a lot dragging it down, not least of which is a first quarter or so that struggles to be even interesting, let alone genuinely compelling. And I sure hope the two kids who star in this movie never see this review, because I don’t particularly want to hurt their feelings, but frankly, as actors, they suck. In fairness to the kids, the responsibility here ultimately lies on the director, who really wanted totally wooden and emotionless delivery from them, I guess?
There is also the script, the dialogue itself, to consider. Once was a time Tim Burton worked with script writers who gave his movies an eminently quotable, dark wit — and Dumbo, which could have soared on such strengths, has no such wit. It’s also nice to see familiar Burtonian faces: Michael Keaton an Danny DeVito are both working with Burton here for the fourth time; Eva Green for the third. Clearly there is deep affection among actors for Tim Burton as a director, and vice versa. It’s too bad not one of the perormances in Dumbo stands out in any way.
It’s Dumbo himself who is the standout here, an endlessly adorable and stunningly rendered CGI baby elephant who can fly thanks to his oversized ears. But when it comes to the special effects, there remains something oddly static about the rest of the effects shots in this movie, which it has in common with all Burton films to come out in the digital age. This is a man who truly excelled back in the days of practical effects, but when digital effects exploded, his skill level did not quite blossom in the same way.
And it kind of pains me to say these things, as I said for years Tim Burton was my favorite director. Is he still? He remains the best of the eighties and nineties, and even today, in spite of his recent frequency of missteps, I will literally see anything with his name attached. That’s about loyalty more than quality, sadly.
There’s just so much unrealized potential here. From the beginning of Dumbo, Danny Elfman’s characteristically wonderful score brings high hopes. We see the circus train on its way around the American South, and the front of the engine car is rendered with a grinning grill that gives it a design element reminiscent of The Nightmare Before Christmas. That is where this potential begins and ends, as we spend about half an hour struggling to find one thing a character says interesting.
It must be reiterated, though: Dumbo himself lights up the screen, and even without any actual lines — unlike the animated feature, none of the animals talk — he proves to be by far the most adorable and expressive character. This even includes the usually very expressive Colin Farrell, as the injured WWI veteran father of the aforementioned children. Eventually there are sequences of Dumbo flying under the Big Top in circus performances, and these scenes are genuinely exciting. The problem is just how long it takes to get there.