Review: ‘Dumbo’ Occasionally Flies High, Bringing Back Some Burton Magic in the Process

Over the past four weeks, I’ve been dreading the release of Dumbo, the latest animated classic to receive the live-action treatment. To be honest, I have a lot of mixed emotions surrounding the original. Obviously the black crows and “When I See an Elephant Fly” have aged extremely poorly. Yet there was always something about Dumbo, Timothy J. Mouse, Pink Elephants, and Casey Jr. that has stuck with me. With Disney bringing Tim Burton on-board to direct, I was legitimately worried about the product we would get. After all, the director has been wildly inconsistent since Sleepy Hollow in 1999. Whether through low expectations or genuine delight, I can happily report that Dumbo surprised me in a big way. It also marks a return to form for Burton, as his most personal and visually engaging film in more than a decade.

Dumbo follows the Medici Brothers Circus as it travels across the American South. Starting in Sarasota, Florida in 1919, Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) returns to his children Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins) after World War I. While Holt lost his arm in the war, the family suffers a much greater loss. Farrier’s wife and mother to his children passes after growing ill, and ringmaster Medici (Danny DeVito) sold their horses to keep the Circus afloat. Medici asks Holt to take care of the elephants, especially newcomer Jumbo, who is set to give birth. However, when that baby is born with giant ears, all hope the baby elephant could save the Circus seems lost. Milly and Joe experiment with Jumbo Jr., who becomes known as Dumbo, and discover he can fly. When he takes flight, the circus draws the attention of V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton) and the group is soon brought to Coney Island with Dumbo as the centerpiece attraction for the amusement park Dreamland.

Dumbo directly challenges most of the issues I’ve had with the live-action remakes, especially in terms of story. While the screenplay has some cringe-worthy lines (Farrell refers to Dumbo as “Big D” on multiple occasions), it is not a shot for shot remake. In fact, the entire plot of the original is left behind within the first forty to forty-five minutes. Considering the original was only sixty-four minutes, this means we’re actually exploring new territory.

Burton also brings his A-game as a visual director, eschewing his traditionally gothic and drab worlds for an extremely colorful and bright one. Unlike Alice in Wonderland, which looks like someone a cola on a watercolor painting, there’s a crispness to most of the images on the screen. DP Ben Davis gets some very cool shots over the course of the film, and while some of the background CGI struggles at times, there’s a lot to like here. The bright reds are juxtaposed nicely with the whites and yellows, and the production design Rick Heinrichs brings the Circus to life magically. Of course, Coleen Atwood delivers on the costume front, making the clowns, dancers, and performers to take on drastically different visual styles.

The visual effects can be hit and miss at times. Yet Burton wisely ensured the look of Dumbo hits home in most sequences. He’s never a visual liability, quickly creating an endearing bond when he first looks at you with his puppy dog eyes. The visual setpieces of Dumbo taking flight also work best when Dumbo is solo in the shot, but do struggle a little when characters need to ride on his back. Perhaps one of the most interesting choices from Davis occurs when we see POV shots from Dumbo, with a blurry fisheye lens creating an obscured visual for his vertigo effect. Dumbo will be one of the cutest things you’ve ever seen, and will likely hit you in the heart at least once.

The performances are mostly indistinguishable, but that seems to fall on the script. While there are at least a dozen circus performers shown in the film, only a handful are memorable. DeVito steals the whole movie, easily becoming the most entertaining and silly member of the ensemble. Farrell is his usual charming self, even when missing an arm. Eva Green phones in a standard performance and Keaton has been better. Yet there’s an unsettling ambition to Keaton that reminds me of executives of years gone by, but we’ll get to that later.

For the most part, Burton sold the cast on a campy performance style, and the others play up heightened reactions. However, Burton failed to get the kids, Parker and Hobbins, to showcase the excitement we need. We needed 20% more Spielberg-ian children. Instead, we got kids who show similar emotional range when their elephant takes flight or the circus tent crashes down around them. This is Dumbo’s weakest link by far. It falls on Burton for not getting the type of performance he needs out of the children.

While the script does not allow for much character development, it does provide us with one of Burton’s most personal stories to date. The director is known for being a weird guy, having Johnny Depp as a best friend, and his long relationship with Helena Bonham Carter. There are some literal reads on the story we watch unfold, with Farrell literally missing part of himself (Depp) as well as the person who helped raise his children (Carter) as he tries to find his footing in a world that doesn’t want him unless he’s shoveling elephant droppings.

You can look further into the psyche of Burton as the film struggles with parental relationships. There’s a gap between Farrier and his children, who seem to have little in common with each other. Dumbo also becomes a great wonder to behold when it becomes a way to reunite him with his parent. Burton has gone on record discussing his distant relationship with his parents, which then became textual with Big Fish and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory immediately following his parent’s deaths. Burton was perceived as someone special and unique, not unlike our titular flying elephant.

Yet most obvious in Dumbo is an anti-mega corporation message. Disney just made a film that literally discusses a big circus collecting the acts of a little circus to use as it’s new attractions. I’m sure that the people of LucasFilm, Fox, and Marvel will understand that feeling. However, if you look into Disney past, Burton was fired by Disney in the 1980s. He was a creative who took chances and was only welcomed back after he became a commodity unto himself. After spending years as an animator and storyboard artist, he was kicked to the curb. Keaton’s showman Vandevere gives distinct Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg vibes as well (more Eisner though). There’s an interesting level of resentment coursing through Dumbo that makes this one of Burton’s most ambitious and subtextual stories he’s created in the last fifteen years. With his visual flare seemingly returned to his peak levels, it is hard to ignore some of his best work in that span.

When Dumbo really gets going, it works like a charm. However, there are parts that will leave you cold at times. It is a far sillier version of the story, with the crows sponged out of the picture. With Burton returning to form on a visual level, he certainly feels more engaged. However, the performances leave something to be desired, and this hurts the film as a whole. Regardless, Dumbo will hit home with audiences who wish to be transported, and with the adorable Dumbo leading the way, there’s no reason you shouldn’t be on board.


What do you think of Dumbo? Let us hear your thoughts in the comments below! 

Dumbo is in theaters nationwide. Walt Disney Pictures distributes. 

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Review: ‘The Crimes of Grinelwald’ Is Far From Fantastic

When Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them released in theaters in 2016, it was a surprise hit for many. It combined large-scale visual effects, a very talented cast, and an adventurous period narrative that allowed the story to take flight. The American setting helped to bring the world to new and interesting places, and we were introduced to a new corner of the Wizarding World. However, the last few minutes of the Beasts revealed a great ambition and a greater scope to the narrative. The introduction of Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) changed the goal posts and turned the adventure into the introductory tale to a new wizarding war.

Now, in 2018, we get the sequel to this new chapter. The returning cast, featuring Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) returns to another globe-trotting adventure. The Ministry of Magic, including Newt’s brother Theseus (Callum Turner) and best friend Leta Lestrange (Zoë Kravitz), want the wizard to hunt down Creedence (Ezra Miller) who somehow survived the events of New York. After he rebuffs the Ministry, a younger Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) recruits to go to Paris and find Creedence. At the urging of Queenie (Alison Sudol) and Jacob (Dan Fogler), the botanist travels to Europe in search of Creedence and Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterson).

For potentially the first time, Redmayne actually impressed me as a performer. He’s still got the small ticks that frustrate audiences, but there are more excitement and love in this performance. The narrative helps to fill in the gaps, and add more shades to Newt. The chemistry with Waterson is still off, but it came a long way between the two movies.

Kravitz pops much better in this regard, and for good reason. Kravitz brings out the melancholy and weight of her past actions, building a strong character with mixed motivations. Her charisma as a performer is undeniable, and she might be the standout. However, she has competition. Fogler is simply joyous, making Jacob one of my favorite characters in the story. His ability as a comedic actor should not be in doubt. Yet his emotional turn here proves that the first Fantastic Beasts was not a fluke. Finally, William Nadylam, as Yusuf Kama, steals several scenes. He’s a mysterious character but could play a much bigger role as the series evolves. He keeps his motivations close, but shines when called upon.

Depp does very little here. He looks quizzically at things. He shows little emotion, like a robot trying to figure out what it means to feel. It feels like a phoned-in performance, yet the writing makes him far more compelling. There’s actual substance to his argument, but Depp actually makes him less compelling. That’s a rough go for a movie that needed a star to sell the part. One can’t help but wonder what could have been with Colin Farrell. It almost feels like the screen time he gets could have been better distributed to other characters.

This is most apparent in the Dumbledore, where a criminally underused and underwritten Jude Law gets little to work with. Law showcases some of the brilliant charm and charisma that draws people to the character. He might even be the best interpretation of the character yet. However, with so little to actually do, it feels like a waste. Miller ends up feeling the same way. He’s too talented to get this little to do. The splitting of the narrative might have hurt him the most.

David Yates proves to have some of the least imaginative methods of bringing the Wizarding World. Almost instantaneously, it feels like a step back, thanks to a frankly comedic escape scene from Grindelwald. It gets worse from there, with about a half dozen new characters introduced, and only one who actually gets any backstory. Fanservice is pestered throughout the Crimes of Grindelwald, and if I was not a moderate to big fan of Harry Potter, I would have almost no clue what was going on at times.

Shockingly J.K. Rowling leaves big pieces of the story without explanation. There are also some odd jumps between scenes in Crimes of Grindelwald. This gives the impression that there’s a problem with the editing, or that large sections of the narrative got left on the cutting room floor. This is especially problematic because there are stretches that go on for too long. When the film drags, but it still cannot answer the questions it needs to in order to complete the narrative, that is a misfire. It becomes especially bad when character motivations are not fully flushed out, or personalities are changed in order to hit plot points. The last twenty minutes of the film feels especially weak, likely leaving audiences cold to the previous two hours. Crimes of  Grindelwald suffers from poor storytelling, something the Wizarding World rarely has to worry about.

The visual effects are on point at least. While some segments, like the prison escape, suffer from bland effects. However, many of the big creatures are brilliantly rendered. The Zouwu, a massive Chinese feline creature, helps bring home the magical element and wonder. It is a standout creature that should draw most of the attention to the film. Sometimes the visual effects, such as green flashes of light that feel ever-present in this film, achieve more storytelling than the script (oddly, I do not think I heard the words Avada Kedavra even once).

The production design takes a step back, but the various ministries are still exciting to spend time in. The “freak show” might be the standout moment of the film in that regard as well. The way we move through the rooms and see the creatures brings another piece of the world to life. Paris’ own Diagon Alley brings a liveliness to the international Wizarding community. Once again, the costumes are on point again. Coleen Atwood has some excellent work, even as Newt keeps his signature blue and golds.

Sadly, Crimes of Grindelwald does not work on its own merits. Fans of the franchise will still find an enjoyable adventure in their beloved Wizarding World. They’ve done that before for underwhelming films in the franchise. Yet this one feels different than previous iterations. Like Han Solo earlier this year, there are things to like and things that don’t work. Ultimately, it won’t stop the Crimes from making money, but this one may dampen the excitement for the next three.

GRADE: (★½)

What do you think of Crimes of Grindelwald? Let us know in the comments below!