Review: Dumbo

Review: Dumbo

by Alan Grant
article from Thursday 4, April, 2019

IF MY REVIEW of Fisherman’s Friends succeeded in getting any of its points across at all, hopefully it was that nostalgia alone cannot carry a movie. 

I still believe this and I am adamant that any critics worth their by-lines keep their own nostalgia out of their review. This principle makes it difficult, however, to review anything from Disney as its current strategy, as well as its upcoming release schedule, seems custom-made to exploit the reminiscences of millennials as we move into and through our thirties.

In short, my fond memories (accurate as they may, or may not, be) for the 1941 depiction of Dumbo make the need to keep those feelings away from this review even more pressing. To put it in context, my grandmother used to read to me from a book containing comicbook versions of Snow White and the Seven DwarvesSleeping Beauty, and Dumbo and those memories are some of the warmest and cosiest of my childhood. For me, being objective about this new version was never going to be easy.

I suspect I might not be alone in this so I have a couple of facts about the 1941 original that helped me break that nostalgic attachment – I suspect they might help others too.

Firstly, the original Dumbo was only ever made as a cynical money-making exercise in order to recoup the massive losses that the House of Mouse sustained following the massive flop that was Fantasia.

Secondly, despite it being a film about a flying elephant – we only see a flying elephant in the last fifteen minutes.

Thirdly, and worst of all, it actually features an anthropomorphic bird in blackface who is genuinely and un-ironically called… “Jim Crow”.

So, with what positive feeling you had for the original now hopefully ground down into a fine powder; does the Dumbo of 2019 stand up on its own merits?

The good news for Mickey’s mob is that it does… mostly.

Our plot revolves around a down on its luck circus, led by eccentric ringmaster Max Medici (Danny Devito) and staffed by former equestrian performer and later elephant wrangler Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell). When they discover that their new baby elephant can fly, the troupe fall foul of sinister showman V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton) who wants Dumbo for his own and puts into place a scheme to get him. Once the cards are dealt, it’s up to the troupe to reunite Dumbo with his missing mother and to help them escape.

Tim Burton is an excellent choice for the director’s chair and is, despite his now mainstream appeal, a daring one that pays off. Burton brings his usual gothic sensibilities and aptitude for grand, sweeping camerawork to Dumbo and it really works. While the risk was that Burton’s more anarchic stylings may have clashed with the film’s family friendly, Disney-mandated, optimism but his style really works well within the more limiting parameters of this bankable Disney live-action blockbuster. Burton also has an appreciation of a particular kind of gothic American malaise and decay that runs through the film to great effect – adding a certain spookiness that keeps audiences watching. 

In character terms, both Danny DeVito and Colin Farrell are excellent. DeVito is both confident and capable as the conflicted sub-hero and comic relief of the movie while Farrell’s look and natural, sympathetic default expression makes him an ideal leading man.

In character terms, however – all the players in Dumbo are second to our villain played by the Batman, Birdman, and Beetlejuice actor, Michael Keaton, as the corrupt theme park owner V. A. Vandevere. Keaton has shown that he possesses villain chops before, his portrayal of Vulture in Spider-Man: Homecoming demonstrated this, but the Vince McMahon-meets-Willie Wonka way he approaches this role blends sinister and camp together into a genuinely hateable character, making him easily one of the best bad guys we’ve seen on screen so far this year.

In production terms, Dumbo is at least mostly competent. The score is ok, but isn’t anywhere near the best Disney has to offer, and the rest of the audio production is passable but never really hits that goosebumps-inducing level we’re used to from Walt and Co. (Note: Dumbo 1941 won the Oscar for Best Scoring of an Animated Feature and was nominated for Best Original Song – but I promise that’s the only reference we’re going to make to it

While Dumbo is mostly a success and a pretty confident start to a busy year for Disney; there are some serious flaws that keep it below average in their overall oeuvre. There are some examples of paper-thin characterisation and even some of the main cast are pushed out of sync by an occasional script wobble – and some plot points, particularly near the end of the film, feel rushed when they could have quite easily been omitted to smooth the run-up to what is actually a really solid ending with some good messaging.

The main flaw in this particular movie for me, however, is just how often it tries to go for an emotional gut punch without doing any preparatory work or giving the audience sufficient time to recover from the previous one. This may be a script issue, or a result of an over-zealous editor working to a strict family movie time limit, but the assaults on the ‘feels’ are so intense during some parts that they have a numbing effect after a while.

Perhaps, somewhere on a cutting room floor (or more realistically, the recycling bin of a laptop) there are some jokes, lighter scenes, and those ‘punch the air’ moments we know Disney do better than almost anyone else that, in hindsight, should have been left in the film? 

Overall, Dumbo receives a qualified recommendation. While it doesn’t exactly soar like the eponymous pachyderm – it certainly glides to a satisfactory conclusion. What works in it really works and many moviegoers will be too distracted by how adorable Dumbo’s character model and presentation are to allow the criticisms mentioned above to distract them from that. 

In general, Dumbo is a confident start to a quadtych which will include AladdinThe Lion King, and Maleficent: Mistress of Evil by the end of the year and, as the last of the cold weather hopefully leaves us behind, you could make bigger mistakes than to take the kids and/or your significant other to see it.

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