Hard landing: Tim Burton’s handling of Dumbo doesn’t fly

Despite the star power of Michael Keaton and Danny DeVito, the live-action remake of Dumbo falls flat. Photo courtesy Walt Disney Pictures Despite the star power of Michael Keaton and Danny DeVito, the live-action remake of Dumbo falls flat. Photo courtesy Walt Disney Pictures

The hollow shell where human joy ought to be is a fantastically creepy thing. It’s what Tim Burton spent his early years satirizing—the self-satisfied stability (read: stagnation) of suburbia through the eyes of an outsider who finds no satisfaction in it. The smiling husks felt like prison guards enforcing order in a void of lawns and checkered pants, crushing the artistic soul of Burton’s characters. His films became a rallying point for anyone who felt like they didn’t belong.

Somewhere along the way, Burton’s films themselves began to hollow out, retaining the form of his whimsical grotesques but with a deadness inside (and not a fun Beetlejuice kind). His work seemed more about delivering on his brand, and less about connecting with like-minded people across the world. Inspired insanity gave way to predictability; of course he’s doing Willy Wonka, of course he’s doing Sweeney Todd, of course he’s doing Alice in Wonderland.

Dumbo, his latest for Disney, may be a less obvious choice, but as soon as you heard it announced, you knew how it would look—and you are absolutely right. The carnival setting, the exaggerated characters, the cute protagonist who is initially shunned as a freak, and the beginnings of a clever satire are all there, but never coalesce into anything worth recommending. The least interesting parts end up overtaking the charming elements, like a delicious garnish on a bland entrée. The cast is well-assembled but also totally misused, which is disappointing when you have Eva Green as a plucky French acrobat and a Batman Returns reunion of Michael Keaton and Danny DeVito with hero and villain switched.

Dumbo

PG, 112 minutes

Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX, Violet Crown Cinema

The film begins with former three-ring star Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) returning from World War I having lost an arm, no longer able to ride horses, and therefore a gimmick in Max Medici’s (DeVito) circus. In Holt’s absence, Max bought a pregnant elephant so they could train the baby from birth. When baby Dumbo enters the world, his giant ears are a source of derision, until it’s discovered they enable him to fly. Meanwhile, V. A. Vandevere (Keaton) seeks to purchase Max’s entire operation and fold it into his theme park, Dreamland—but his murky intentions and ruthless business tactics endanger not only the circus troupe’s careers, but Dumbo’s very life.

The extent to which Vandevere and Dreamland are a dig at the Disney operation is enough to raise an eyebrow—he is a razzle-dazzle showman who acquires other people’s intellectual property and capitalizes on public domain stories, then subjects them to his own corporate culture. The intent is clear, but it bites about as hard as a teething puppy. For a movie about a flying elephant, the spectacle is surprisingly reined in, and the go-for-broke performance by Keaton has nowhere to go. Holt’s kids, ostensibly the heart of the story and the ones who discovered Dumbo’s gift are bad even by Disney standards—this may be a script and direction issue, because it’s not the actors’ fault that their characters have no defining characteristics.

The elephant is cute, though.


See it again: The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus

NR, 70 minutes

Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, April 3 & 5


Local theater listings:

Alamo Drafthouse Cinema 377 Merchant Walk Sq., 326-5056

Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX The Shops at Stonefield, 244-3213

Violet Crown Cinema 200 W. Main St., Downtown Mall, 529-3000

The least interesting parts end up overtaking the charming elements, like a delicious garnish on a bland entrée.