Back in the early ’80s, Tim Burton got his start in Disney’s animation department. It was an odd fit for both parties. The filmmaker’s off-kilter sensibility never really meshed with the Mouse House’s more conservative, kid-friendly ethos, and eventually, he was sent packing. In hindsight, it was the best thing that could have happened for a visionary who spent the better part of the next three decades letting his freak flag fly on his own terms.
So it’s a little strange now to see Burton, one of Hollywood’s most idiosyncratic directors, returning to the Disney fold for its latest reboot of a beloved property, Dumbo. Had Disney finally come around to Burton’s skewed way of seeing the world? Or would he be forced to sand off the more blackened edges of his style to finally fit in?
Sadly, it looks like the latter. Burton’s Dumbo is hardly a bad film. But his fans will be disappointed by how little of the director’s dark DNA made it into the finished product — a slick, serviceable, safe-as-kittens entertainment that frankly could’ve been made by anyone.
The original 1941 Dumbo is one of the crown jewels of Disney’s golden age. The heartwarming story of a baby elephant with huge floppy ears who’s separated from his mother and picked on until it’s discovered that his ears can make him fly, Dumbo is as much a timeless outsider’s tale as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. And as anyone who’s seen Edward Scissorhands or Ed Wood knows, outsider’s tales are Burton’s bread and butter. But despite some eye-candy flourishes and a pair of deliciously broad supporting performances, Burton’s Dumbo is far too doting and too safe.
Colin Farrell plays Holt, a circus trick rider who returns from the war missing an arm, a wife, and his spirit. At least, until the guileless pachyderm restores the piece of his (and his two kids’) soul that’s missing. Danny DeVito is perfect as a bargain-basement Barnum emcee with a soft, chewy center. And Michael Keaton, with his blindingly insincere grin, gives good villainy as the owner of an oddly Disney-like mega-circus who sees dollar signs in the adorable, Keane-eyed oddity.
As a faithful update of a cherished classic, the new Dumbo will get the job done for restless kids on a rainy Saturday afternoon. Still, we’ve come to expect more magic, more bizarro pixie dust from Burton. Maybe that’s why the second marriage between the director and Disney feels more like an uneasy corporate alliance than a union of artistic passion. B-