Dumbo review – this flying elephant fails to take off

It says something about the extravagant visual impact of Dumbo that the flying baby elephant is routinely upstaged by his backdrop. Tim Burton’s live-action remake of the Disney classic fills in the spaces of the deliberately understated original watercolour animation with a noisy fanfare of pizzazz and spectacle. There’s plenty of typically Burtonesque camerawork – the lens that peers upwards, with a mixture of fear and wonder, before hurtling skywards like a firework. And there’s a lot to take in, even before the action shifts from the itinerant circus troupe (which served as the setting for the original story) to the steampunk, Coney Island-style amusement park, which hosts an explosive, all-new climax.

Even the skies are magnificent, appropriately so, given Dumbo’s skill set. The circus train chugs across country under candyfloss clouds and synthetic sunsets that have the palette of a children’s party cupcake buffet.

They’re full of invitation and possibility, those endless midwest skies. But unlike the little elephant at the heart of the story, the film fails to lift off. What’s anchoring this picture to Earth? As with the similarly flamboyant The Greatest Showman, the main weakness is in the writing. There are structural issues – an inelegant jump from Dumbo’s first flight, witnessed only by two children, to his big-top aerial debut feels abrupt, as if a crucial linking scene was cut somewhere along the way.

Apart from Colin Farrell’s widowed amputee stunt rider and Danny DeVito’s deliciously unscrupulous ringmaster, the characters, Dumbo included, are rather underwritten. But more of a problem is an emotional missing link. I have watched the original film innumerable times and I shed a tear with every single viewing. But despite the best efforts of a character-design department, which pulled out all the stops with Dumbo 2.0 – he’s precision-tooled to pluck heartstrings – my eyes remained dry throughout.

Something slightly disingenuous, perhaps, about the glib anti-corporate message of the film jars. The appeal of the original came from its purity and simplicity. This overcomplicated onslaught of manufactured magic could never really compete.

Watch the trailer for Dumbo.


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