Entrusting Dumbo to Tim Burton, one of the most experienced, passionate and eccentric filmmakers, immediately felt like a natural move by Disney, and perhaps even a smart one. Although there's an almost thirty-year collaboration between the Edward Scissorhands director and the US media giant, an often difficult love-hate relationship that Burton has never hidden, it was always only a matter of time before the company commissioned him to direct this update as it continues to transform its animated classics into live-action spectaculars. After all, the themes Burton loves the most are all in there making this a great fit, and all we had to do was wait for the director to tell this moving Disney tale in his own way. Because we wouldn't want it any other way.
The first trailer suggested that Dumbo would be an impressive movie full of atmosphere, almost akin to Big Fish, although perhaps this impression is partly because of Danny DeVito, who plays circus director Max Medici and who undoubtedly channels the spirit of Amos Calloway from the aforementioned 2003 film. Instead, what we have is actually an unexpectedly different movie. Building on a screenplay by Ehren Kruger that focuses on the story of a disconnected family of acrobats and aspiring scientists rather than on the little elephant, Burton sets up a story that mixes (too) many issues that, even if they are in a sense homogeneous, give the impression of having been put there to satisfy an excessively intrusive client and/or to ride the wave of fairytales that have to end happily ever after or else.
While this is a Disney-branded movie inspired by an animated classic that itself was carried by good vibes and its desire for redemption, what unfolds in Burton's Dumbo is somewhat confusing. From the ecologist/animalist themes through to the dichotomy of dream vs. science, with a difficult father-son relationship thrown in for good measure, it's hard to say what the ultimate goal of this film actually is. Instead, the titular main protagonist seems to disappear, engulfed by a mixture of themes that cannibalise each other. The feeling is almost that Dumbo is a pretext to tell another story, but this new narrative simply isn't as interesting as the one about a little pachyderm that's able to use his huge ears to fly. The one we came to see.
Of course, we didn't expect Burton to slavishly copy the original, and at least some of the original themes expressed in the 1941 original remained intact. In fact, we actually appreciated the decision not to shoot a frame-for-frame reenactment of the animated classic, and there were some delicious tributes, including the iconic Pink Elephants scene. However, even in the face of suggestive imagery, which mixes an almost Fellini-like sense of atmosphere with an exquisitely art-decò world, what Dumbo lacks is its deepest core theme, the one that tells the story of a freak mocked and ridiculed by all - which is surprising given how Burton has been able to tell these kinds of stories so eloquently in the past. Even though Dumbo is able to enchant us visually - also thanks to excellent performances from the likes of Michael Keaton in the role of avid entrepreneur Vandevere, and the disturbing femme fatale Colette, played by Eva Green - the plot isn't impressive and it's overflowing with ideas that aren't articulated properly nor given the room they need to be explored.
Although Dumbo is better than Burton's Alice in Wonderland and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, it's not able to excite and entertain as much as it should. By this we don't mean that there aren't some touching moments, such as the harrowing sequence with Dumbo and his mother where 'Baby Mine' plays in the background, but what we have at the end of the day is a film that is only half successful in its aims and fails to shine as it could have, which is strange considering the fact that it's directed by a visionary director who has always managed to explore and celebrate diversity in his movies. It's somewhat paradoxical that despite the fact that Burton's Dumbo is full of oddballs (which we mean in the broadest sense, not just those who hang around the Medici brothers' circus) it's incapable of telling their stories and doesn't give them the time and substance they deserve.
Each scene is pure poetry from a visual perspective and some of Burton's ideas are rooted in his past works (and even a bit self-referential, such as we see here in the brilliant opening sequence), and in addition, there's an excellent score composed by the ever-present Danny Elfman. However, the heart and soul of the original work is somewhat missing, and finding that would have undoubtedly made this aesthetically interesting film a convincing return for Burton to the brand of storytelling where he excels; stories of deviance, of the marginalised, stories about the dreamers who made us fall in love with his cinema more than three decades ago.