None of the recent Disney live-action re-imaginings of classic animated films (“Cinderella,” “The Jungle Book,” “Beauty and the Beast,” etc.) has come close to topping or even equaling their originals, but that doesn’t mean a great story can’t be told again.
The new “Dumbo,” based on one of Disney’s simplest and most touching animated features (taken from a 1938 tale by Helen Aberson and Harold Pearl) effectively maintains the core of the story, and provides plenty of delight.
At 64 minutes, the original 1941 “Dumbo” is an amazing mishmash of scenes that either tug at the heartstrings, amuse or exhilarate. It has the notorious “Pink Elephants on Parade” sequence — a bizarre, phantasmagoric trip — and the controversial cultural depiction of black crows in the “When I See an Elephant Fly” sequence.
The new “Dumbo” has removed and resolved anything potentially offensive. It adds new human characters to replace the talking mouse Timothy, and, unfortunately, a couple of sub-par bad guys — a circus hillbilly bully and a bald, elephant-hide-boot-wearing henchman — that drag things down.
It’s 1919, and Max Medici (Danny DeVito) is the manager of a worn-down traveling circus, where two kids Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins) eagerly await the return of their widowed father Holt (Colin Farrell), from the frontlines of World War I.
Holt turns up, minus an arm, but ready to rejoin the big top. His cowboy-riding act is defunct due to lack of horses, but he’s assigned to caring for the elephants. Mrs. Jumbo, the newest acquisition, is pregnant, and when the baby arrives, its enormous ears make everyone’s jaw drop.
But of course, this elephant can fly, and his act starts to save the circus. That is, until snaky opportunist V. A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), who runs a massive theme park, arrives with his star performer, trapeze artist Colette (Eva Green), and a devilish deal.
The original “Dumbo” — released between “Fantasia,” “Pinocchio” and “Bambi” — was one of the studio’s richest and most textured, made before changing times and finances required simpler approaches.
Fortunately, director Tim Burton brings his own spectacular style to this remake. Everything in this circus world looks as if it were once brightly painted , but now slightly weathered.
Burton also makes “Dumbo” his very own; weirdly, the little elephant has more than a little in common with his best creation, “Edward Scissorhands,” a mocked and ridiculed outcast with an extraordinary ability and soulfully expressive eyes.
As with his 1990s hero, Burton understands this pachyderm and brings him alive. “Dumbo” isn’t quite as dark as some of his other, family-friendly films (“Pee-wee’s Big Adventure,” “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” “Corpse Bride,” etc.), but it has its moments of sheer heart-stopping peril.
It’s fun to think that Burton once worked for Disney and was fired for making the creepy early-1980s short films “Vincent” and “Frankenweenie.” While Burton mostly toes the line here, it’s possible to pick up on pieces that cheerfully skewer his former, now current, employer.
It’s also fun to see Burton reuniting with his old cast members, especially Keaton, who became a star from iconic performances in Burton’s “Beetlejuice,” “Batman” and “Batman Returns.” In the latter, he faced off with DeVito’s Penguin.; their good-guy-bad-guy roles are winningly reversed in “Dumbo.”
The heart of both “Dumbo” movies examines Dumbo’s polar-opposite emotions: his grief at losing his mother and his joy of flying. Even though this remake feels a little long and a little busy, it gets the character’s feelings right.
For those who have felt a clumsy or lost, like they don’t quite fit in, yet have something great to offer the world, “Dumbo” is here for you once again.
Starring: Colin Farrell, Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Eva Green
Written by: Ehren Kruger
Directed by: Tim Burton
Running time: 1 hour 52, minutes