Movie Review: Dumbo
Director: Tim Burton
by Jason Koenigsberg
Tim Burton is not quite the visionary director he once was. His late period films this decade have not brought about the reviews and fan reactions from his earlier hits, but he has managed to create himself as a brand and is still profitable enough for major studios to grant him huge budgets to tell his stories. Tim Burton’s remake of Dumbo represents a sort of coupe for the filmmaker using the Disney brand and their bottomless wallets to fund an anti-corporate tale under the umbrella of one of the biggest conglomerates in the world right on the heels of their corporate takeover of 20th Century Fox.
Dumbo opens up with the camera focusing on a sign for a circus as the camera moves up over the sign to reveal a train and an elephant as well as some other people and animals getting into the train cars. There are a lot of loving references to the original Disney animated Dumbo (1941). The train engine is named Casey Jr., a stork flies by the night before Dumbo’s mother gives birth, and there are some mice and fire fighting scenes reminiscent of the original classic. Thankfully the racist crows were omitted but instead of the new Dumbo tackling themes of racism, Burton chose to focus his film on being anti-big business and mergers. Burton also focuses on science versus spectacle, something he has been fascinated by ever since his short film Frankenweenie (1984).
Danny DeVito runs a small traveling circus that gets gobbled up by a soulless Disney-like corporation run by a heartless Michael Keaton who plays his role as a not so subtle imitation of Trump advisor Roger Stone. He even references canceling on the President to go and see this flying elephant he read about. Keaton’s character is meant to be Walt Disney with having an amusement park where dreams come true the likes of which people had never seen before, but make no mistake Burton and Keaton wanted his Walt Disney to represent all the negative and cynical aspects of a man in charge of show business. One that gobbles up other weaker businesses and leaves their workers in the dust.
The cinematography of Dumbo looks great with a lot of bright and luminous colors. Burton abandons his dark and gothic visuals for colorful circus imagery. There is also a scene where Dumbo flies off a burning tower as part of a show and it is the first time he flies for the circus and the movie audience and it is a breathtaking moment. Unfortunately, the CGI elephants and other animals are rather subpar. This version of Dumbo might not hold up in a few years whereas the original animated film has remained a classic. The pacing moves very quickly. By the time it gets to the third act there is not much left to do except what else, have a big fiery spectacle with a lot of explosions and our main characters in danger.
Tim Burton’s Dumbo is not a bad film, it is just not a very memorable film. I do appreciate the irony of Burton using Disney and one of its coveted properties to make a film with a strong anti-corporate message and the timeliness of the Fox merger makes that even more ironic and poignant. It is better than his previous live-action remake of a Disney animated classic Alice in Wonderland (2010), but it still does not make enough of an impression to recommend. The fact that this Dumbo was released on the thirty-first anniversary of Beetlejuice (1988) which was the first of four collaborations between director Tim Burton and actor Michael Keaton makes Dumbo even more diminishing. Tim Burton was once relied on by studios and audiences as being one of the great dark visual storytellers of misfit characters. This movie shows just how different Tim Burton has become as a man and an artist over the past three decades.
Instead of seeing Dumbo re-watch Beetlejuice or one of Tim Burton’s earlier more memorable and visually inventive films.