I think it’s really funny that Tim Burton made a movie about how much he hates Disney, and he got Disney to produce and distribute it. I don’t know how else to read the subtext of this film.
Following in the drunken footsteps of Beauty and the Beast, The Jungle Book, Cinderella, and others, Disney decided that it was going to make a live-action remake of another of their classics: Dumbo, the movie from the 40s that’s a grand 60 minutes long. Tim Burton previously made a live action sequel to Alice in Wonderland, and he got the job.
Well, the new version is largely a remake for the first half. Timothy Q. Mouse is largely gone, replaced by a pair of children. In addition, the children have a father. I knew that there was something a bit more about this movie the first time we saw Colin Farrell in this film. I had seen very little promotional material of the film, so I don’t know if the ads gave this away, but the father has just come back from The Great War with only one arm. Burton has always been drawn towards broken characters (the unfinished Edward Scissorhands, Batman, Sweeney Todd, for example), so it doesn’t surprise me that Dumbo contains one. However, there’s something very tangible and relatable about a broken man coming home broken because of World War I. I loved that detail.
Well, the circus he returns to has just purchased a pregnant elephant, and the baby ends up having those large floppy ears. Mother and son are separated, Dumbo learns to fly, and he exhibits his talent for the public in a stunt involving a fake burning building. So, yeah, it’s the original Dumbo, with some modifications, for the first 50 minutes. And then, the movie keeps going.
The scrappy little circus is suddenly the focus of the owner of a large stationary circus called Dreamland. Everything about the place is fake, but he wows the small circus owner and gang into thinking they are entering a new world of incredible possibilities. It’s this thirty minutes or so of the film, as the small circus gets integrated into the big one, that I kind of completely love. It’s brimming with the subtext where the circus is Burton and Dreamland is Disney. With that in mind, it seems obvious that Burton hates working with Disney, and he chose to make a Disney movie to show it. The irony is fantastic. And it’s also where the movie works best as a movie.
The troupe of freaks, artists, and the rest are taken in completely by the spectacle of Dreamland. They are introduced to a trapeze artist whom Vandevere (Dreamland’s owner) found as a street performer in Paris. The relationship between Vandevere and Colette, the trapeze artist, seems real when first introduced, but we quickly see that it’s a façade and that the two see each other in little more than business terms. It also becomes obvious that Vandevere bought the whole circus only to get Dumbo, he’s going to dump the rest the first second he can, stripping the failing little circus of the one thing that was going to save it.
As the final act begins the form, the movie gets a bit more confused and its issues become a bit more apparent. I began to feel a bit overwhelmed because there wasn’t a strong enough character to anchor everything onto. It became a flurry of action without any real strong narrative hook for everything. Who’s the main character? I began to ask. It’s certainly not Dumbo, he’s too passive and too much in the sidelines for long stretches of the movie. Is it Medici, the owner of the small circus? Farrell? The kids? Colette? None are quite prominent enough to be the main character and as a whole they’re too defined by their individual goals to work as an ensemble. Still, I think the first act works pretty well and the second act is wonderful. It’s just let down by a third act that doesn’t really know what to do with all of the threads it created for itself.
Visually, the movie moves from fairly convincing to less so, a byproduct of simply using so much computer generated imagery that it’s impossible to smooth out everything. It also has a very set bound feel (since it was actually entirely filmed on green screen sets) that gives a certain claustrophobic feeling to it, especially in the beginning when most of it is set outside (ironically). Performances are largely good (especially Farrell), but the children are rather stilted.
It’s a weak recommendation, in fact as the movie was ending I was considering knocking the rating from three stars to two-and-a-half, but that middle act worked so well for me that I’m going to keep this on the positive side of the recommendation line. It helps to have subtext sometimes.
Netflix Rating: 4/5
Quality Rating: 3/4