Is it odd that I’m still rooting for Tim Burton, even though the guy hasn’t made a truly good movie since George W. Bush’s first term? It’s become a cycle at this point: We hear of a new Burton project and get somewhat excited — could this be the one that brings back the director we all know and love? It was that way with Sweeney Todd, Frankenweenie, and Big Eyes, all of which seemed so up his alley that it felt impossible for him to fuck up. The first reviews would come back, and a few would seem to be pretty positive, so we’d all buy excitedly buy tickets and hope that the man who made Mars Attacks, Edward Scissorhands, and Ed Wood would finally return to prominence. Alas, each time, they’d disappoint, or, at worst, call into question the entire state of the man’s prowess like Alice in Wonderland and Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children did.
Once he was announced as the director of Disney’s latest live-action remake of one of its classic cartoons, Dumbo, it felt like déjà vu. Out of all of the films inside of the Disney Vault, the 1941 Dumbo is one that few would object to being remade, thanks to the movie’s more problematic aspects, and it felt like Burton might connect with the material, as he was once again telling a story about a “freak” with special talents. Does history repeat itself? Well, yes, and no. Dumbo isn’t totally a return to form, but it feels like Burton’s having a bit more fun than he did in years past, and that fun bleeds through into the final product, despite the best efforts of its corporate masters.
The first act of Dumbo is about as rough as anything Burton’s ever put to film and it drags its feet through the first 30-odd minutes. It’s 1919, and the Medici Twins Circus is falling apart at the seams, thanks to the one-two punch of the war and the Spanish Flu, which wiped out nearly half of the sideshow acts. Sadly, one of those lost to the pandemic was the mother of Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins), two kids who’ve grown up in the trope and have only known life on the road, and their father, Holt (Colin Farrell), a former stunt horse rider, lost his arm serving his country overseas, leaving him out of work and destitute. I’d place the blame for why a whole lot of this first act doesn’t work on Ehren Kruger’s screenplay, which is tinny and awkward in a way that doesn’t compliment Burton’s style, which renders the non-fantastical elements of this premise painfully boring.
This includes Milly’s Disney shareholder-approved interest in science, which could have been done well, perhaps, by someone who understood that this interest complemented other features about her character. Such traits are only slightly acknowledged here (she doesn’t want to be seen as a show-off, an interesting quality in someone literally raised in the most show-offy environment possible), but they’re overwhelmed by the blunt mediocrity of the writing, which has her yell “I like Science!” instead of just showing us that she does. But all of this is far removed from the odd, sad beauty of something like Sam Raimi’s depiction of the same time period in Oz: The Great and Powerful (which is, for its pre-tornado prologue, an example of the kind of succinct emotional filmmaking that Raimi is rarely recognized for), and it is r-o-u-g-h in practice.
Anyways, this would be a depressing environment for anybody, not just two kids dealing with the recent death of their mother and their father’s wartime disability, but Max Medici (a fun Danny Devito), the huckster owner of the circus, has an idea that might save the circus from its own malaise. He’s just purchased a pregnant elephant named Jumbo, and he wants to make a media event out of the little one’s birth. Holt is assigned to look after the elephant and care for it, even though he’s a horse man, and, sure enough, Jumbo soon gives birth to our titular character, a healthy and very cute baby elephant who has huge ears. It’s a beautiful little CGI creation, far removed from the really weird statue that Disney decided to show off at D23 a few years ago, and I found myself being resolutely charmed by it, even though it can’t hold a candle to the cartoon. I’ve never quite understood why that makes everybody hate Dumbo (whose name is given an origin story here), but we supposedly need an external force to make Dumbo’s unique skills even more special.
And, sure enough, all of the yokels that are on hand for the baby elephant’s public reveal heckle and jeer the poor guy. That drives Mama Jumbo into a rage, and she tears down the big top, killing a sadistic elephant trainer in the process. She’s sold back to the trainer from whence she came, and Dumbo is very, very sad. Medici, determined to try and salvage the act, turns the baby elephant into another member of his sideshow, a clown make-up slathered stunt performer. But the kids have discovered something that makes the elephant even more special than he already is: he can flap his large ears and fly, lifted off the ground by the very thing that makes him feared and hated by the general public. And now that the X-Men are back at Marvel, perhaps he’ll be called to join the likes of Wolverine and Cyclops in Avengers vs. X-Men in 2025.
Dumbo’s first public flight is really when the movie starts to pick up. It’s an impressively-staged little scene, in which Dumbo, trapped far up on a platform inside the tent after an act where he’s supposed to be a clown fireman (who sprays water out of his trunk to douse the flames lapping at a fake building), leaps off the platform once things get out of hand and soars over the crowd, garnering the respect of Medici and wowing the assembled yokels. The little elephant becomes a hit, and the huckster owner starts to realize that he has something special on his hands. That is, until theme park magnate V. A. Vandervere (Michael Keaton in a performance that feels both somehow too little and too much) shows up, with Collette Marchant (Eva Green), a Parisian trapeze artist, wrapped around his arm. He’s heard about the little elephant. He wants the creature for his own park, the impressively-realized art deco monstrosity named Dreamland, situated in the heart of a major metropolitan area, stacked to the gills with science exhibits that have animatronic people moving about in scenes of a great big beautiful tomorrow amongst the rides themselves and a giant palatial-like castle at its heart. Sound familiar?
Anyways, Vandervere buys the Medici circus in order to get that precious elephant soaring over the crowds gathered in his own big top, mainly to impress a financier (Alan Arkin) so that he can get even more money for his projects. But Vandervere doesn’t have the elephant’s best interests at heart, so the kids and their reluctant father scheme to free him from bondage and reunite him with his mother, especially after the entire troupe is let go by Vandervere. Imagine a group of 20th Century Fox employees who decide to free the Xenomorph from Bob Iger’s office, and you’d pretty much get what Burton’s going for here. Putting aside the inherent difficulties in arguing against the business practices of your employer while releasing a film that will make them an ungodly amount of money (as this Slate article strongly articulates), Burton’s passions soar when the Dreamland sequences start up. He’s given a whole new aesthetic playground in the heart of Coney Island, a perfect venue for all of the retro-fantastic designs he’s been known for over the years. The director makes the most of the location, including the beautiful moments where Green takes to the skies with the elephant clad in a gorgeous costume, and the sillier bits, such as a hall of “dangerous beasts” that recalls some of his other, spookier work.
It’s safe to say that Dumbo won’t change your preconceived notions of Burton’s career arc, and indeed, it would take something short of a miracle for the man to come back with a perception-altering work. All of the problems that have defined his post-Big Fish work still remain, and there are a few new ones — the Disney board, for example — that make the already existent issues feel bigger. But there’s more genuine magic here than in the last 15 or so years of his films, both on an aesthetic level and on a storytelling one, and even amongst the slowly-established canon of Disney live-action remakes, it’s closer to the top than it is to the bottom.
Even though I’m sure Burton’s sense of the outcast has been dulled over the years thanks to it being transformed into the defining cliche of his work, there’s still something gracefully appealing about it being put into practice here, and it provers that Burton can still wring some deep-seated emotion out of his audience even when they think they’re all dried out. And for a career like his, where the strikeouts have been so numerous in his last at-bats that it’s almost hard to remember when he used to regularly crush home-runs over the fence, getting on base feels nearly as good for him, even if it’s just an infield single.