I still feel like Tim Burton has another good movie in him. Previously renowned for kooky, bombastic marriages of gothic aesthetic and themes of isolation and exclusion, Dumbo marks the third and worst directorial collaboration between the director and his longstanding employer, Disney.
While his occasional forays into the obscure (Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, anyone?) offered brief flashes of Tim Burton wizardry, Dumbo is quite clearly the work of a listless and disillusioned filmmaker, with only shadows remaining of the previously zealous and inventive mad scientist.
Burton initially worked as an animator and producer for the studio, developing his uniquely expressionist style with his side projects, the stop-motion animated short films Vincent and Frankenweenie, the latter of which he would later adapt to feature. However, as Burton’s tactile, precise craft of manoeuvring delicately sinister clay models around beguiling sound stages eventually gave in to the allure of the easier yet infinitely less endearing methods of CGI filmmaking. The spark of life usually found in Burton’s filmography has since grown dimmer with each new effort.
Dumbo is perhaps not the culmination of Burton’s waning output, but it’s certainly a lateral move from the likes of Alice in Wonderland. His first live-action remake for Disney inexplicably earned over a billion dollars, mostly thanks to the newly implemented 3D gimmick that allowed audiences to experience another morsel of what James Cameron’s Avatar had to offer the year before, so you can’t really blame the studio for trying to make lightning strike twice.
Having seen the film, it’s really no surprise that Dumbo could go down as Disney’s biggest flop of the year. The 1941 original wasn’t exactly a breezy affair, but the whimsical tone and primary colour palette do wonders to offset some rather miserable sequences of bullying and animal oppression. Dumbo 2019, on the other hand, is almost entirely dismal.
Burton’s crack at the circus classic does reunite his Batman Returns stars Danny DeVito and Michael Keaton for the first time, but aside from an admittedly nostalgic window into the director’s earlier work the remake encompasses the worst elements of Disney’s latest business model.
Lifeless digital models struggle to find presence against a backdrop of deflated, desaturated colours, and everything you loved about the original is slightly more boring. Animals don’t talk, characters rarely break out into song, and a glamorous array of stars give uninterested, incidental performances.
To be fair, DeVito clearly loves working with his pal Tim again, but his madcap, gesticulating performance bears only a glimmer of his comedic best in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Keaton’s half-heartedly maniacal V.A. Vandamere is particularly misjudged. Not quite kitschy enough to go down as a moustache-twirling pantomime great, though so thinly layered and limply performed it can’t really be described as anything other than pantomime.
Plus, Vandamere’s undeniable allusions to the conglomerate Disney machine hit far too close to home. As Disney engulfs 20th Century Fox into its ever-increasing gelatinous mass of film studio detritus, is one of their tentpole releases really encouraging us to boo an entertainment mogul’s plight to turn independent businesses into corporation-driven theme parks that strip away identities and dismisses most its staff?
Ostensibly made for children and families, there’s not a second in Dumbo that isn’t at once distressing, ugly, and unrelentingly repellent. If the titular baby elephant isn’t being harassed or ridiculed, his glassy eyes are enough to set kids’ alarms off, and any scene with even the glimmer of a sense of humour is usually punctuated with Colin Farrell moping in the corner with two of the blandest child performances you’ll see this year.
Yes, Tim Burton can definitely bring it when he wants to, but he’ll need several showers to wash the stench of this one away first.
Written by Lucas Hill-Paul