Just as Rehearsed, by Reed Lackey

28 Mar

The recent emergence of classic Disney animated features remade into live action films has yielded varied, but mostly positive, results. One of the biggest hurdles the respective filmmakers face is how to retain what made the classic animated feature so beloved while still justifying the existence of a renewed feature. Perhaps of all the possible choices, the biggest opportunity for reimagining and refreshing was the 1941 classic, Dumbo, which finally sees a new vision come to life.

At the helm this time around is Tim Burton, who seems a nearly perfect fit for the tale of a lovable and misunderstood character whose odd physical attributes (those enormous ears) bring him ridicule at first, then sympathy, and eventually admiration. This is a theme Burton has been exploring in various iterations his entire career. Adding to the possibilities is the fact that the original is merely a brisk 64 minutes long, allowing for multiple options to expand on the story and its themes.

It is somewhat disappointing, then, that what we get – while genuinely charming and sweet – is a bit typical and predictable. This is not to say that the film isn’t enjoyable, merely that it falls notably short of its own potential, except when it comes to the titular character himself. Through Burton’s sensibilities, the character of Dumbo is a revelation; the film in which he is featured is far less than that.

Every major moment from the original animated feature is represented somehow in this updated imagining. We have a traveling circus (and good ole Casey Jr. coming down the track); we have a loving and protective (perhaps too protective mother); and we have a huge-eared elephant who can inexplicably fly like a bird. One major difference between the original and Burton’s film is that the revelation of Dumbo’s ability is a third-act revelation in the original: it is something of a surprise that ultimately helps reunite Dumbo with his mother. Wisely, given the cultural awareness of Dumbo’s power of flight, this characteristic is revealed very early in Burton’s tale, and it largely helps drive some of the new places he takes the story.

What works the best in this new film, again, is the character of Dumbo himself. The effects work is impressive, although not consistently. It’s occasionally quite evident that Dumbo is a computer-generated figure, at least visually. But in an impressive feat of cinematic magic, Dumbo somehow always feels real, even when he doesn’t quite look real. This is a testament both to Burton’s obvious affection for the character and to his unique talent at generating emotional connections with uncommon misfits and outcasts. It is apparent that Burton really loves Dumbo, and he effortlessly makes us love him too.

This is most explicitly exhibited in a masterful reimagining of the hallucinatory “elephants on parade” scene from the original. In the original, that moment was the frightening result of Dumbo accidentally ingesting alcohol that he thought was water. It was a creepy and somewhat unnerving sequence. But in Burton’s film, it is refashioned as a whimsical element of circus wonder: a magic trick of showmanship and skill that is shown to us almost entirely through Dumbo’s perspective, where innocence and simple curiosity are met by marvels. It could have otherwise been a castaway scene – an obligatory nod to its predecessor – but Burton seizes the chance to pause and show us a childlike wonder in the eyes of an animal, and in doing so subtly injects all of it with a striking sense of humanity. It may be my favorite moment of the film.

Yet, for all of the praise I would heap upon the handling and presentation of Dumbo’s character, I would express a slight lack of fulfillment in the surrounding elements. There are multiple characters completely new to this story, including Colin Farrell’s war-wounded widower, Danny DeVito’s ambitious mirth-maker, Eva Green’s accomplished starlet, and Michael Keaton’s sleazy opportunist. There is also a host of carnival misfits and, at the center of it all, two trusting and sincere children, who understandably view Dumbo as a part of their family and want to see him reunited with his. There are conversations about community and family, moments of earned laughter and genuine thrills, and there are redemption themes of not allowing your impairments or your limitations to define your choices or your chances. These are all the ingredients of a potentially inspiring and uplifting fantasy fable.

But ultimately it all felt a bit too rehearsed. The performances are all perfectly fine (with the notable exceptions of DeVito and Keaton who – together with Burton again for the first time since Batman Returns – chew each of their scenes with the relish of a ravenous coyote). The script is occasionally clever, but mostly procedural. The production lacks Burton’s trademark macabre sensibilities, but still shows his aptitude for quirk and offbeat charm. Still, despite containing more than a full hour of completely new material, it is strikingly easy to intuit where the story is going, and moments that should thrill and inspire evoke mostly nods and grins.

Those moments still work, mind you. You’ll feel what it wants you to feel. But unlike the moment when Dumbo stands in awe of things beyond his comprehension, you’ll probably exit the film feeling like you got exactly what you expected to get and little else.

That assessment may or may not be a criticism – there is something to be said for simple competent adequacy, after all – but it appears as if the adoration which Burton so evidently carries for the character of Dumbo does not quite extend to the story in which Dumbo lives. It is remarkable how alive the film feels whenever Dumbo is on screen – and particularly when he flies – compared to the somewhat pedestrian results of the rest of the affair.

However, for all my ambivalence to the story as a whole, it is for the wonder and the charm and the seemingly unending sweetness that is embodied in that precious, airborne elephant that I would recommend this film. Tim Burton has tenderly and affectionately presented to us yet another of his marvelous, misfit wonders – one that’s likely to awaken long-forgotten childhood memories – and it might just lift your spirits to watch that dear, old elephant fly.

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