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.”
directed by Tim Burton
Run time: 112 min.
* * * (out of four)
Rated PG for action peril, mature themes and brief mild language