The movie, sadly, never soars.
The latest example of the Walt Disney corporation cannibalizing itself, “Dumbo” is a live-action/digitally animated remake of one of the company’s oddest but most endearing legacy projects. The story of a little elephant with very big ears, the first “Dumbo” came out in 1941 and served as a back-to-basics project to refill the coffers after Walt bet the farm on “Fantasia” and lost. The original movie’s all of 64 minutes long, simple as a story about a flying elephant can be, and every person I’ve talked to who saw it as a child says they wept.
Under the surprisingly faceless direction of Tim Burton, the remake is nearly twice the length of the original and comes in 3-D and 2-D flavors (only the latter was available for review). And they’ve filled it with so much stuff: backstories and love interests and city-slicker villains and a high-octane chase climax at the end of which (spoiler alert) Coney Island appears to explode and sink into the sea. It’s awfully hard to lose sight of an elephant, but that’s what happens here.
So. The year is 1919, and the Medici Brothers Circus is plying the back roads and hick towns of America. There’s only one Medici brother, named Max, and he’s played by Danny DeVito in what amounts to a great favor extended by the filmmakers to the audience. The horseback trick rider, Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) is back from the Great War minus an arm, his children Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins) welcome him back minus discernible acting talent (harsh but fair), and their mother is dead BECAUSE IT’S DISNEY.
The circus’s fortunes turn when a baby elephant is born and, initially bullied for his oversize ears, becomes a celebrity when it’s revealed he can fly. The original “Dumbo” pretty much ended right there, but the new one keeps rolling. Enter Michael Keaton, in one of his broadest and weakest performances, as V.A. Vandevere, a New York big-top impresario and toupee’d dandy who lures the troupe to his giant steampunk theme park on the Brooklyn shoreline. Along with Vandevere come a scary bald enforcer (Lars Eidinger) and a sharp-eyed trapeze artist played by France’s Eva Green (“Casino Royale”) in the second of the movie’s favors.
Here’s what the new “Dumbo” doesn’t have: Any talking mice named Timothy and definitely any shuck-and-jive black crows. Here’s what it does have in Ehren Kruger’s multi-tasking script: a few of the original’s songs dusted off and made new, the celebrated “pink elephants” sequence retooled into a head-scratching bubble dance, STEM ambitions for the young heroine, and more contortions than a sideshow to get a pro-conservation, anti-animal-exploitation theme into a movie about an early-20th-century circus. Also a delightfully crusty late-inning appearance by Alan Arkin: Favor No. 3.
Will your children be entertained? Of course they will. The new “Dumbo” adheres to the more-is-better mentality that drives modern corporate entertainment and that all kids naturally share until they’ve eaten too much cake. Will they be charmed by the realistic pachyderms and the semi-realistic Dumbo himself, pebbly pixellated skin and all? I’m not so sure. Disney is well into its long-term project of remaking the company’s celebrated animated properties as “live-action” CGI extravaganzas, but what worked with “The Jungle Book” and “Pete’s Dragon” (less so with “Beauty and the Beast”) seems formulaic and cluttered this time out. It’s better than Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland,” at least.
Next to come: “The Lion King,” “Aladdin,” “Mulan,” and an even tighter death-grip on popular culture, now that Disney has completed its merger with Fox and controls over a third of the movie market. Not that that has anything to do with the experience of watching “Dumbo,” unless you count the ads for “American Idol,” Radio Disney, a Marvel superhero show, and a Disney Channel TV movie sequel that ran before my screening and will probably run before yours. There’s still something to be said for a simple cartoon simply told, but I don’t think anyone at Disney is listening any more.
Directed by Tim Burton. Written by Ehren Kruger, based on the 1941 movie. Starring Colin Farrell, Eva Green, Nico Parker, Danny DeVito, Michael Keaton
At Boston theaters, suburbs; Jordan’s IMAX, Reading and Natick. 112 minutes. PG (peril/action, some thematic elements, brief mild language)