DUMBO: Another win for Burton

June 26, 2019

  The new “Dumbo” is nearly 50 minutes longer than its 1941 predecessor -- so one might justly worry that they padded out the slender storyline with cheesy musical numbers, excess sentiment and/or unnecessary action scenes.

  Let me lay those fears to rest.

  Tim Burton’s live-action update is basically a whole new movie, with several added good guys and villains, plus a fully developed plot -- not to mention one dandy climax that leads to a very different resolution.

  Critics have not been thrilled with this film, but I found it charming; despite its greater length, the story never flags -- and it looks sensational.

  To the essential hook of a likable baby elephant whose gigantic ears enable him to fly, screenwriter Ehren Kruger has added a broken family: two kids and a wounded, widowed World War I veteran (Colin Farrell). They work for a somewhat slimy ring-master (Danny DeVito) who, after separating the title character from his mother -- and then discovering his avian abilities -- winds up selling the whole circus to a narcissistic millionaire (Michael Keaton). The greedy rich man wants to feature Dumbo in his massive Disney-like theme park; but when the young pachyderm’s act doesn’t go as planned, it becomes apparent that Dad and kids will have to set him free -- and perhaps reunite him with his long-last parent.

  That entire plot strand with the millionaire is new, and it works; yet Burton and Kruger pay clever homage to the first film by including tiny uniformed mice, some storks, a lovely old train and a circus act making bubbles that morph into giant airborne elephants -- pink ones, of course.

  Visually, this new “Dumbo” is a wonder, strewn with glowing sunsets, colorful costumes, art-deco ambiance and dazzling circus set-pieces. And while worrying about the length, I also feared that the sometimes overindulgent director would ramp up the perilous aerial scenes and the grief of parental separation; but these worries were likewise groundless: Emotions are strong but never overdone, making the film suitable for all ages -- and I dare say this ending will prove more gratifying than the original.

  “Dumbo,” however, makes two major missteps:

  First, we never get enough sense of the baby elephant’s actual personality (except that he’s really good with sad eyes); at the same time, the grotesque villains are way over the top -- a problem that is worsened by Keaton’s stilted performance. Though I love this actor, his work here is too reminiscent of the deliberately overdone mannerisms in 1993’s “Much Ado About Nothing.”

  Speaking of the cast: If the girl playing Dumbo’s main care-giver seems maddeningly familiar, it’s because she’s Thandie Newton’s daughter; and boy does she look like Mom!

  Newton can be proud to have young Nico in a crowd-pleaser like “Dumbo,” even if it never soars to the heights of such recent Disney updates as “Cinderella,” “Jungle Book” and “Mary Poppins Returns.”

 

“Dumbo,”

directed by Tim Burton

Run time: 112 min.

* * * (out of four)

Rated PG for action peril, mature themes and brief mild language

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