Film Review: Dumbo (2019)

Last year I wrote about why I wasn’t looking forward to this movie, so I need to be honest here and admit that I was wrong, and this movie worked rather well. It’s probably the Tim Burton movie I’ve enjoyed most in years, landing with me in a way that many of his other films haven’t with me.

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The original movie, is Disney’s shortest animated movie, and so there’s a lot that has been added to this version. Set in 1919, we see Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) returning from the war, it’s been a rough few years, with Holt’s wife passing away while he was in Europe and him having lost an arm during the fighting. He discovers that his old job at the circus isn’t waiting for him, as the horses he performed stunts on have been sold by his boss Max Medici (Danny DeVito).

Holt struggles to connect with his kids, Milly and Joe (Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins, respectively) as he finds it hard to be emotional and is trying to find a practical way to survive. Max gives him a new job tending to the elephants, including Mrs Jumbo, his latest acquisition who is due to give birth soon.

The baby is born with unnaturally large ears and is mocked by audiences, who dub him Dumbo. The mockery, and cruel treatment by one of the elephant handlers, leads Mrs Jumbo to rush to her calf’s aid, creating havoc and inadvertently killing the handler. Max sells Mrs Jumbo to get away from the bad publicity and decides to put Dumbo with the clowns. The kids are devastated by this, and angry that Holt can’t do anything to stop it.

Milly and Joe form an attachment to Dumbo, and discover that his ears enable him to fly and glide. They realise that this will allow him to become a success and if they earn enough money they can buy Mrs Jumbo back. Dumbo flies and the crowd are amazed.

At this point V. A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), who runs an amusement park in New York takes an interest and approaches Medici with an offer, he will pay for Dumbo and the entire troupe to perform at his park, with Max as his partner. Max agrees and they relocate, but Vandevere announces that Dumbo will fly with his star performer, French trapeze artist Colette Marchant (Eva Green).

Can Dumbo perform under pressure? Is Vandevere on the up-and-up? Will Dumbo be reunited with his mother? Can Holt salvage a relationship with his children and build a new life for them?

I really liked that the movie introduced a more human element, and did away with the talking animals, which helps ground the fantasy in reality a little bit.

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Of course, there’s plenty of magic along the way and the flying elephant is done rather well, with real lightness and a sense of joy. The animation of Dumbo also makes him emotive and extremely cute.

The human side of the story is carried by Colin Farrell, who gives a quiet, understated performance as a wounded, vulnerable man who is struggling to adapt to his new life. It’s not showy in any way and Farrell does well, especially as at times the script lets him down. Likewise, the two child performers are solid and avoid  being irritating, especially Parker as Milly, a clever and strongwilled character who works a lot of things out and who stands up for what’s right. Her clashing with her father is one of the major themes in the movie, the distance between them and Holt’s struggles, but they’re never fully developed.

The movie has just enough heart and charm to pull off the fantastical plot, and there are some great moments of wonder and adventure along the way. Unfortunately, there are a few flaws too.

One of the major ones is that there feels like there are a few story beats missing along the way. Characters come out in support of Dumbo with very little build up, and the Farrier family make up without a really satisfying moment to cap it off. You get the feeling that maybe one or two more scenes between father and children would have solidified the story a bit more. In fact, while there is a happy ending to it all, it feels a little thrown together and quick, with some of the resolutions being unsatisfying due to a lack of build up.

The supporting cast have very little to do, but handle their roles well enough- Danny DeVito is predictably great, Michael Keaton does the baddie well and Green does a good job with a fairly underwritten part. The rest of the troupe are an engaging band of misfits, but don’t get much development.

When the film hits the mark it becomes an entertaining and rather sweet treat, but some of the emotional elements don’t quite ring true and there are a few cheesy parts.

Burton reins in most of his excesses, which is good, but it seems the writers felt they had to get in as many nods to the original as they could and some feel painfully shoehorned in.

The human part of the story grounds the narrative in reality, but the film fumbles this slightly, not giving the characters enough room to breathe or a truly satisfying and convincing conclusion. Luckily, however, Dumbo’s own story has a wonderful ending, an improvement on the original and produces a moment of genuine joy and warmth.

It’s a bit hit and miss, but there’s just enough charm for it to work, and Dumbo himself is adorable enough to get you on side. For me, it’s better than the original, even if it’s still far from Disney’s best.

Verdict: 6/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.

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