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Film Review: Let’s (Not) Get Ready to “Dumbo” …

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | March 28th, 2019

Film poster: “Dumbo”

Dumbo (Tim Burton, 2019) 1 out of 4 stars.

Disney’s original Dumbo, released in 1941, was but 64 minutes long. A sweet, simple story, it told the tale of a young elephant born with outsize ears, making him the butt of everyone’s jokes, until … one day … he learns to fly using those very same ears. Though a lovely paean to triumph through difference, the movie is nevertheless marred by the racist caricatures of African-Americans manifested in the sidekick crow characters (the leader of whom is Jim Crow), so it should hardly be seen as a sacred text. Adapt and change it, by all means. Unfortunately, this new version, from the once-great director Tim Burton (Frankenweenie), uses its extra hour to spin a nonsensical Part 2 (or sequel) that is more a vehicle for expensive CGI than for interesting character development. Remarkably soulless, this new Dumbo offers very little in the way of either art or entertainment.

Yes, the young lead is awfully cute. Look at those eyes and ears; so adorable. But since it’s not really his story, who cares? Indeed, “Whose story is it?” was the question most running through my head, throughout. Perhaps the biggest mistake of Burton and company is the one made to not anthropomorphize the animals and thereby invent a slew of human characters to make up the void left when Dumbo and his peers have no voice. True, the 1941 Dumbo also spoke no lines, but every animal around him did, placing us squarely in the point of view of the innocent and dispossessed. Here, Burton gives us elephant caretaker Holt Farrier (a wasted Colin Farrell, The Lobster) and, especially, his two children, Milly and Joe (Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins), instead, but since they are barely sketched, then again, who cares? Compared to the rest of the supporting players, however, they are marvels of three-dimensionality.

Colin Farrell, Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins in DUMBO ©Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

If you are familiar with Dumbo 1.0, then you’ll know how the first 50 minutes go. After that, prepare yourself for empty nothings. The acting talent is impressive – including the ever-welcome Alan Arkin (Netflix’sThe Kominsky Method) and Danny DeVito (House Broken), as well as Eva Green (The Salvation) and Michael Keaton (Birdman) – yet never utilized except as props within the expansive, yet strangely insipid, digital backgrounds. The movie feels both overlong and overstuffed, the narrative simultaneously rushed and drawn out. It’s almost as if it were planned by committee, eager to hit a plethora of plot points without valuing any single one. But such a darling face Dumbo has … at least there’s that.

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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