It’s been a while since a Tim Burton film has captured the imagination in the same way they did in his ’90s heyday. What used to feel exciting and different about the gothic auteur gradually became formulaic and slightly tiresome to the average viewer somewhere around Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, and his past attempts at franchise filmmaking in Planet Of The Apes and Alice In Wonderland have been less than beloved by critics (though box-office return is another matter).
It’s a lovely surprise, then, that Dumbo delivers both as a remake of a Disney classic and a modern family film that stands on its own. The film captures the whimsy and tragedy of the original but goes so much further and, while the story is still rather slight, it feels like a worthwhile update.
The film follows the titular baby elephant as he is separated from his mother, exploited for the physical deformity that allows him to fly, and cared for by the Farrier children (Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins). Running parallel to this is the story of Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell), who returns from the war to find his wife gone and his livelihood in serious jeopardy. When circus ringmaster Max Medici (Danny DeVito) is offered the chance to incorporate his acts into the corporate behemoth owned by the slippery V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), they all must decide what is most important to them.
First and foremost, the film looks great. It has all of Burton’s visual flair but far less of his more outlandish quirks, making for a more measured aesthetic that retains its character while still – in a good way – being very much part of the Disney machine. In a lot of ways, Burton was born to make a full-blown circus movie, and he presents a more muted but no less enchanting expansion of his ideas in Big Fish’s similar setting – driven home by DeVito’s identical position as the troupe’s leader.
DeVito isn’t the only reunion here either, with former Dark Knight Keaton the most notable other, and along with Farrell the three of them are what make this version of the story as joyous as it is. Playing second fiddle to a CGI elephant, Holt Farrier is still a compelling adult protagonist who carries the darker, more adult themes that all the best Disney films contain. Though this is Dumbo’s story through and through, there is more here touching on PTSD, found family and the pitfalls of show business.
The film is as much about the uncertainty of this life, the fickle nature of audience adoration, and the temptations provided by money and acclaim as it is about not mistreating elephants. When it comes to the background performers, while they’re not in any sense real, developed characters, they’re somehow treated more fairly than they were in a similar thread of The Greatest Showman. They’re props, but they’re props with heart.
But the film would be nothing without the CGI creature at its centre, and you’ll fall head-over-heels for Dumbo from his very first moment on screen. There’s no uncanny valley here, and the adorable elephant feels as flesh-and-blood as everyone around him. On the flip-side, Keaton steals the show in a role entirely devoid of nuance. He’s a cartoon villain that kids can boo and adults will get a kick out of, and he’s clearly having a wonderful time.
As you may have gathered, this adaptation goes far beyond the ground covered in the animated Dumbo film, with the main character learning he can fly in the first act and the remainder of the movie following him as he navigates the loss of his mother, his newfound fame and the cruelty and kindness with which he’s treated by those around him.
The world presented here is not perfect or even particularly kid-friendly, and it’s not all tied up in a bow by the end. At an early point, Farrell’s character is given a fake arm to cover his amputated one, so as not to “scare the children”, and that sums up the film’s attitude more than anything. That’s become a rare thing in family films outside of animation, and Dumbo is much stronger for its commitment to telling the story without talking down to its audience.
Of all the Disney remakes already released, this is one that feels like slightly more than a cash-grab. When family trips to the cinema are dominated by superheroes and animated sequels, it’s a novelty to find a live-action film like Dumbo with its heart firmly in the right place.
Dumbo is in cinemas from 29 March.