More sweet-natured than soaring, the Tim Burton-directed “Dumbo” never completely takes flight, but it doesn’t descend into a tailspin either. It has some undeniably magical moments, but how many of these there are depends on the eyes — and age — of the beholder.
Though its story of an aeronautically minded baby elephant is a beloved standard, the original “Dumbo” was just 64 minutes long, which doesn’t give remakers much to work with.
Also, that first film was released in 1941, just a few weeks before the attack on Pearl Harbor, and, as Burton himself has admitted, “the things everybody I know remembers about ‘Dumbo’ are all the politically incorrect things.”
Everyone involved in this project, including stars Colin Farrell, Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito and Eva Green, have worked hard, perhaps too hard, to obviate those difficulties while retaining the unabashedly sentimental teaching of life lessons to the very young.
So the script by Ehren Kruger, which expands a one-hour cartoon to a two-hour dramatic feature, deals in familiar Disney tropes like the foolishness of adults and the power of believing in yourself. Not to mention being a story, the publicity material emphasizes, where “differences are celebrated, family is cherished and dreams take flight.”
Perhaps to counter the bromides, Disney turned to Burton. A veteran of these cartoon-to-feature experiences (his “Alice in Wonderland” was a blockbuster in 2010), he did what he’s done before, mixing the sinister with the sentimental. If you don’t remember a place called Nightmare Island in the original “Dumbo,” you’re not alone.
One of the reasons “Dumbo” seems familiar is the presence of those Burton has collaborated with before, starting with actors Keaton, DeVito and Green and also including production designer Rick Heinrichs, editor Chris Lebenzon and composer Danny Elfman.
One place where “Dumbo” feels energized is in the visuals, including the creation of the big-eared little guy himself, a marvel of CG inventiveness that was combined during filming with a life-size Dumbo maquette and even live performer Edd Osmond.
As to that plot, set in 1919, it’s both simplicity itself and a bit over-complicated.
It begins in the winter quarters of the Medici Brothers Circus — Max Medici (DeVito), proprietor — an outfit whose shabby trappings define “seen better days.” As the circus train starts to wend its way through the small towns of the South, the troupe is joined by one of its former stars, equestrian Holt Farrier (Farrell), now a decorated but one-armed World War I veteran.
Though Holt’s wife has died in his absence, his kids — science nerd Milly (Nico Parker, daughter of actress Thandie Newton and director Ol Parker) and adorable young Joe (Finley Hobbins) — are still on board and happy to see their dad.
With his horses having been sold to pay bills, Holt is put in charge of the elephants, including a very pregnant Mrs. Jumbo (also a CG creation). That means that Milly and Joe get to spend a lot of time with the big-eared infant soon to be known as Dumbo, a woebegone youngster universally mocked for his looks. They’re also the first to learn that, with the help of a feather as in the original, this beast can fly.
It takes Dumbo a while to get the hang of aerial activity, and in the interim Mrs. Jumbo gets locked away for inadvertently causing a catastrophe. That enables the new film to reprise the great success of the original, the song “Baby Mine,” sung here by Sharon Rooney and the group Arcade Fire.
Once Dumbo figures out the mechanics of flight (spoiler alert: he does), seeing him cruise around the packed circus arena is a thrilling, hard-to-forget moment, almost worth the price of admission by itself.
Dumbo’s antics come to the attention of hyper-ambitious entertainment mogul V.A. Vandevere (Keaton), who wants the flying elephant for Dreamland, his gorgeous amusement park named in tribute to a real, though ill-fated, Coney Island pleasure dome.
It’s here that French aerialist Colette Marchant (Green) enters the picture as part of Vandevere’s entourage. “I’ve been to France,” Holt, initially unimpressed, tells her. “It wasn’t a good experience.”
Whether this iteration of “Dumbo” is a good experience for you will depend on your tolerance for the familiar and the sentimental, and the joy you take in what is visually striking and beautiful. For much of this film, from the wonders of Dreamland to Dumbo cruising by the Brooklyn Bridge at night, is exactly that.
“You put on a hell of a show,” someone says to Vandevere, and when he replies, “That’s what you pay me for,” it’s hard not to hear Burton talking about himself in the exchange.
Rating: PG for peril/action, some thematic elements and brief mild language
Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes