I can’t imagine what it would be like to be a teenager in 2019 and suddenly become aware of Tim Burton. For many people of a certain age, Burton represents the first time we became sort of aware of how a director could be an auteur. His films were recognizably similar from an aesthetic point of view; the themes were often similar enough that you could draw parallels between them. I was only six when I saw Batman Returns in theatres and forever ruined the concept of clowns on motorcycles for myself, but even then I could sort of suss out that this was a very particular take on the Batman mythos. (It was not, let’s say, like the other Batman things I had been made aware of in the past.) Tim Burton was many people’s first favourite movie director, a filmmaker with a “brand” as strong and recognizable as most of your favourite bands.
This, however, does not apply to the current iteration of Tim Burton. Since the early 2000s, Burton has mostly focused on big-budget adaptations of previously existing intellectual property. They feel like they should be movies with Burton’s particular imprint on them; in some cases (Dark Shadows or Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children), they verge on self-parody of Burton’s pop-goth aesthetic, but the last 15 years or so have not exactly seen Burton stretching his wings in the way we’d expect him to. In the ’70s and ’80s, there’s no way that a director with the kind of reputation and easily-identifiable style that Burton has would be doing stuff like Planet of the Apes or Alice in Wonderland. I suppose that the movies that came out of this peculiar pairing are more interesting than if they had been handed to a generic journeyman, but the fact remains that it’s impossible to look at Sleepy Hollow and imagine that guy making a Dumbo movie.
That doesn’t mean that Burton’s Dumbo — which is part of the forever-unspooling, unimaginably profitable pillaging of the vaults that Disney has embarked on in the last few years — is necessarily an anonymous work-for-hire job from Burton. It’s got plenty of the phantasmagorical stuff that we associate with Burton, the exaggerated circus visuals and the themes of rejection and feeling like an outsider, but it’s also extremely clear that Burton is picking and choosing what he cares about within this story, making it both extremely inconsistent and surprisingly personal.
Granted, it’s an uphill battle. The original Dumbo film is barely over an hour long and has basically one human character, which isn’t exactly conducive to the idea of a live-action remake. Subsequently, Burton’s Dumbo has a whole lot of half-assed fleshing out to do. It centres around Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell), a circus horse rider who returns from WWI with one less arm and finds that his employer Max Medici (Danny DeVito) has sold his prized horses. With Farrier and his children (Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins) now out of a role in the circus show, Medici instead puts them in charge of a brand-new elephant he just purchased — a heavily pregnant elephant, no less. Medici puts all of his hopes on this new baby, which turns out to have disproportionately large ears that make it the laughing stock of the entire production. Dumbo’s giant ears, however, hide a secret: when he sniffs a feather and subsequently sneezes, he can fly!
Danny DeVito, Nico Parker and Colin Farrell in Dumbo
Although it goes against everything I know about the filmmaking process, Dumbo feels like you can pinpoint at any moment whether or not Burton gave two squirts of shit about what was going on. The film’s entire first act — essentially everything leading up to the revelation that Dumbo can fly —is incredibly rote and dull, dismissive rinky-dink circus material that Burton seems to think he already took care of in Big Fish. It starts Dumbo off on rather uneven footing, which seems almost deliberate once Michael Keaton enters the picture as billionaire V. A. Vandevere. A slimy cross between Donald Trump, Jeff Goldblum and Keaton’s own Beetlejuice, Vandevere is an unscrupulous industrialist who becomes interested in Dumbo becoming a star attraction at one of his opulent amusement parks alongside his acrobat girlfriend Colette (Eva Green) and offers Medici and the Farriers an offer that’s too good to be true.
Keaton is doing so much here that he immediately injects the film with an over-the-top, madcap energy much better suited to Burton’s style. The middle of the film is a grandiose Art Deco nightmare in the purest Burton tradition that coasts by on spectacle alone. It’s rarer and rarer that films of this nature have an original visual and tonal signature of this magnitude and, if nothing else, Dumbo is worth it for the visuals. On the other hand, the film’s plot becomes increasingly convoluted as it tries to combine a corporate takeover subplot (Vandevere takes over Medici’s circus in a way that certainly seems familiar considering this is a Disney production) with a budding love story between Colette and Holt as well as trying to get Dumbo and his mother reunited. This last part, which represents the emotional core of the original, feels like more of an afterthought here, yet another element in this franchise gumbo that Burton is picking at.
The original’s “pink elephants” sequence remains one of the touchstones of psychedelic imagery to this day. It seemed inevitable that Burton would make it one of the central elements of his film, and yet the sequence seems brushed off and dismissed, turned into a decent VFX reel for someone trying to land a prestigious job modeling soap bubbles day in and day out. It’s a weirdly long sequence devoid of its purported magic; the treatment of this scene encapsulates the sort of turbulent relationship Burton has with the material. So far, all of the Disney live action remakes have been remarkably slick and faithful to the original —none have diverged more from its source material, but none have also felt this weirdly compromised. One gets the feeling, looking at Burton’s output in the last 10 or 15 years, that he’s not really the kind of guy who puts up a fight to get things the way he wants them to be. Dumbo is the midpoint between a generic redo of familiar material and one filtered through a particular sensibility. ■
Dumbo opens in theatres on Friday, March 29. Watch the trailer here: