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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 April 2019

Review: ‘Dumbo’ may be Tim Burton’s sweetest movie to date

The director is the ideal ringmaster to bring to the big screen a story about a freakish outsider

Eva Green in a scene from 'Dumbo'. Disney via AP
Eva Green in a scene from 'Dumbo'. Disney via AP

From the imagination of Tim Burton, as the advertisements would have you believe, comes the latest Disney remake, Dumbo. Of course, it’s not so much his imagination but that of Helen Aberson and Harold Pearl, who wrote the original story which inspired the 1941 cartoon.

Burton, as he has done with Alice in Wonderland, Planet of the Apes and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, is simply giving an old favourite a spit-and-polish.

Still, the American-born, British-based director is the ideal ringmaster to bring a story about a freakish outsider to the big screen. He’s made his entire career from such themes, right back to the days of Edward Scissorhands. Taking on the story of a baby elephant with giant floppy ears who can fly seems like an all-too-natural fit.

A scene from 'Dumbo'. Disney via AP
A scene from 'Dumbo'. Disney via AP

Like the recent live-action versions of such Disney animated staples as Beauty and the Beast and The Jungle Book, this is all about spectacle and showmanship, craft and care. The original cartoon – just the fourth Walt Disney animated feature – was only 64 minutes long. Here, Ehren Kruger’s script takes the idea of Dumbo and, well, flies with it.

The film bucks Disney’s animated tradition – we don’t find any anthropomorphised creatures here. So gone is Timothy Q. Mouse, the talking rodent who befriends Dumbo in the original cartoon. Instead, we have Joe (Finley Hobbins) and Milly (Nico Parker), children to Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell), a one-time stunt horse rider for Stallion Stars, one of the acts at the Medici Brothers’ travelling circus.

Set in 1919, the circus is run by Maximilian Medici (Danny DeVito), who is desperately trying to combat an ailing business. When he buys a pregnant elephant, Jumbo, little does he realise that her soon-to-be-born baby – Jumbo Jr. – might be just the ticket to save his circus.

Blessed with “a face only a mother could love,” as Medici says, Jumbo Jr.’s giant ears make him a laughing stock.

While this baby elephant is soon to be cruelly nicknamed ‘Dumbo’, Joe and Milly discover he has unique aerial abilities, as long as a feather is shoved up his trunk. Suddenly, this “wonder elephant”, as the papers call him, is the talk of the nation and audiences flock to see him. So too does scheming showman V A Vandevere (Michael Keaton), who wants Dumbo for his own business empire.

This being Disney, the theme of family looms large. Dumbo is separated early on from Jumbo and desperately wants to be reunited, just as Joe and Milly must contend with the loss of their mother and a father who returns from the First World War missing an arm.

Danny DeVito, Nico Parker and Colin Farrell in a scene from 'Dumbo'. Jay Maidment / Disney via AP
Danny DeVito, Nico Parker and Colin Farrell in a scene from 'Dumbo'. Jay Maidment / Disney via AP

“Still me,” says Farrell’s Holt, when he arrives at the circus, but his troubled relationship with his kids – particularly the scientifically minded bright spark Milly – drives the film.

These days, it’s easy to take the skills of the visual effects wizards for granted in Hollywood movies, but the realisation of Dumbo is quite extraordinary.

From Jumbo Jr’s baby-blue eyes to the texture of his thick grey hide, the detail is remarkable and the shy character of this cute elephant comes shining through. The scenes featuring him and Eva Green’s trapeze artist Colette flying through the air are exhilarating to watch.

These days, it’s easy to take the skills of the visual effects wizards for granted in Hollywood movies, but the realisation of Dumbo is quite extraordinary.

The chance, meanwhile, to see Burton reunite Keaton and DeVito for the first time since 1992’s Batman Returns will probably give adult fans a kick as much as the baby Dumbo will please younger viewers. DeVito is sheer perfection in his role, while a silver-haired and maniacal Keaton continues his hot streak after Birdman, Spotlight and Spider-Man: Homecoming.

Intriguingly, this is Disney’s first release since the March 20 finalisation of the company’s takeover of 21st Century Fox, swallowing up a long-established rival studio. Call it coincidence if you want, but it’s hard not to think of this as Vandevere acquires the Medici Brothers’ circus for his vast ‘Dreamland’ complex and then promptly lays off a bunch of the performers.

That ‘Dreamland’ even sells toy Dumbos to the paying audiences again feels like the merchandise-peddling of Disneyland sites across the globe. It’s ironic that Disney paints Vandevere and his exploitative corporation as the villains here. It feels a little too close for comfort.

Colin Farrell, Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins in a scene from 'Dumbo'. Disney via AP
Colin Farrell, Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins in a scene from 'Dumbo'. Disney via AP

When it comes to the final act, there’s plenty of big-scale colour. “Rule Number 1,” trumpets Medici, “always have a big finish.”

Perhaps the movie never quite manages that, lacking in nerve-shredding drama despite Dumbo’s attempts to be reunited with his mother, whom he discovers has been chained up in ‘Nightmare Island’, one of Vandavere’s beastly attractions.

Yet with solid work from Green and Farrell, who impresses by riding his horses one-handed, Dumbo has charm to spare. True, it’s not as innocent as the original, but it’s a treat for younger viewers. For Burton, it’s arguably the sweetest movie of his career.

Updated: March 26, 2019 08:22 PM

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