Call it Disney’s New Wave. As the Mouse House has been pretty busy in the recent decade with their project of revamping their classics into
cash live-action adaptations, they have created an unwieldy atmosphere of family blockbuster. In terms of reception, their rosters of live-action adaptations had been hit-or-miss, even when most of them were box office hits. In this kind of atmosphere, visionary director, Tim Burton—who had previously worked in a loose adaptation of Alice in the Wonderland—returns for another gig: Dumbo, a live-action adaptation of the 1941 animated classic about a baby elephant that can fly. While his latest work is delicate, it belongs to the lukewarm side of Disney’s live actions.
Most of Burton’s work, albeit magical, deals with more sombre nature as in Beetlejuice or Edward Scissorhands; even, his previous Disney’s tenure is a wicked rendition of a classic children story full of wayward subliminal message. Dumbo belongs to his lighter visions alongside Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. A flying elephant is, indeed, a Burtonesque creature; but, a cute, loving elephant looking for a mother might not be the kind of story that fits Burton’s visionary mind.
Dumbo revolves around the life of a traveling circus troupe managed by Max Medici (Danny DeVito). A one-handed ex-army, Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell), is among the performers along with his two children (Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins). The family was the first to discover that the circus’ elephant, Jumbo, had given birth to a peculiar calf with floppy ears. Max wants to get rid of the defected elephant, but Holt’s children insist to keep it. It wasn’t until Dumbo, the baby elephant, starts to fly that Max finds out his new star.
The titular elephant immediately steals the attention when it’s entering the movie. Not only that it’s overly cute with that big eyes (reminding me of Burton’s Big Eyes) and skin details, Dumbo is literally the crown jewel of the movie. The character design along with the movement (the rational one and the irrational one) was magnificently crafted. The CGI to animate Dumbo is astonishing – it’s able to create a photorealistic creature that acts like an animated creation, which it is. Dumbo is the cutest when it sneezes, but it can also become elegant when it finally flies (despite the minimalist trajectory).
With or without the human character, Dumbo should’ve always been the epicenter of the story; but, it hasn’t actually been one. Dumbo focuses too much on the human characters, even when their portions were fluctuated in the background. At time, the movie will focus on Holt’s children just like Mary Poppins sets its focus to Banks children. When Michael Keaton’s V.A. Vandevere was introduced on-screen, the story shifts on how Vandevere’s greed engulfs all other characters. On that episode, Dumbo shifts the focus again to how the elephant bonds with a trapeze star portrayed by Burton’s latest muse, Eva Green. Meanwhile, the main focus was and has always been Dumbo’s quest to seek for its mother, who got separated after an attempt to save Dumbo.
At times, it feels as if Burton is more eager to invest on a more Burtonesque persona in Keaton’s Vandevere. And yet, Dumbo is not the story of an evil businessman. It’s a story about familial bond, which is misinterpreted. It’s not that Dumbo is a big, dumb movie; it’s a good one, a visually likable one, but it wasn’t charming, let alone magical.