New ‘Dumbo’ elevated by heartwarming story, Tim Burton’s eye-popping visuals
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After all these decades as a cuddly cartoon creation, Dumbo has come to life.
OK fine, we’re not seeing an actual living baby elephant with gigantic ears in Tim Burton’s “Dumbo,” but the little guy sure LOOKS real — and as you’d expect, he’s super cute, with some of the warmest eyes in CGI history.
And when he takes flight, how can you not be Team Dumbo?
Dumbo 2.0 is I believe the 11th entry in the ongoing and quite possibly never-ending parade of Disney’s live-action adaptations of its iconic catalogue of animated classics, which includes past efforts such as the Johnny Depp-starring “Alice in Wonderland” movies, Jon Favreau’s “The Jungle Book” and Bill Condon’s lavish and wonderful “Beauty and the Beast,” with live-action takes on “Aladdin” and “The Lion King,” among others, on tap.
It’s a genius of a blueprint, even if not every one of these reboots has worked or will work. (Lord knows the pre-release publicity for “Aladdin” hasn’t gone according to plan, though as always, we’ll take the revolutionary stance of reserving judgment on a movie until we’ve actually SEEN the movie.)
Of course Tim Burton’s live-action, PG-rated, 112-minute long version of “Dumbo” is weirder and more complex and darker than the original animated tale, which had a running time of just 64 minutes and was fairly simplistic — although it did contain that infamous “Pink Elephants on Parade” hallucinogenic scene.
Burton’s version (with a screenplay by Ehren Kruger, whose credits include “The Ring,” yikes!) pays tribute to the “Pink Elephants” sequence, among other touchstones from the original, and holds true to the basic framework of the story about a misfit baby elephant with unnaturally large ears who learns if he flaps those ears he can fly.
But he packs this story with a host of new characters and complexities, sometimes heavy-handed social commentary — and a few jarringly anachronistic touches, including a cameo by a certain pop culture figure that’s equal parts hilarious and “What is even happening right now?”
Brimming with Burton’s typically unique and eye-popping visuals, which often recall slightly feverish dreams come to life, “Dumbo” opens in 1919, with the ramshackle traveling circus operated by one Max Medici (a perfectly cast Danny DeVito) experiencing hard times.
Colin Farrell (wrestling his Irish accent into submission for the most part, with only a few lapses), is the former horseback-ridin’ circus sensation Holt Farrier, who returns from World War I with a chestfull of medals and a missing right arm.
Oh, and Holt’s wife died while he was overseas, so now it’s just Holt and his super-smart daughter Milly (Nico Parker), who dreams of becoming a scientist and changing the world, and his sweet son Joe (Finley Hobbins).
Oh, and Max sold Holt’s horses while Holt was away.
Geez! A one-armed widower with two kids who has lost his horses? That’s bleak, even by Disney back-story standards.
Max takes pity on Holt and gives him a job tending to the elephants, including a recent acquisition, who is about to give birth.
Milly and Joe bond with the little guy and together the three of them discover if Dumbo flaps his ears, he can fly!
Word of the sensational flying elephant spreads across the land and attracts the interest of the flamboyant, big-time entertainment entrepreneur V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton, hamming it up in appropriately over-the-top fashion), who swoops in, strikes a deal with Max, and arranges to bring the entire troupe to his newest, state-of-the-art entertainment spectacle, with Dumbo as the star attraction.
I don’t think I trust this Vandevere guy.
Eva Green — like Keaton and DeVito, a Burton favorite — plays the French aerial artist Colette, who is to be teamed with Dumbo. (Colette’s particular journey is one of the more delightful aspects of the story.) Alan Arkin has a hilarious extended cameo as a banker who barks his lines as if he’s lost his hearing aid.
Burton’s infatuation with grand spectacle actually undercuts the film’s emotional impact, especially during the great-looking but overly busy finale, which includes a pretty nifty but utterly unnecessary, inside-out callback to the Keaton-DeVito dynamic in “Batman Returns.”
There’s so much going on in the home stretch — so many fireworks, so many mini-dramas within the larger drama — we come close to losing sight of what “Dumbo” should be all about: the brave little flying elephant, his quest to be reunited with his mother, and the lovable, ragtag circus folk who band together to thwart the evil villains and save the day.
Fortunately, Dumbo is so awesome and so determined and so brave, and the heartwarming aspects of the story are so impactful, we never stop caring.
Cartoon or live action, Dumbo remains a hero for the ages.
Disney presents a film directed by Tim Burton and written by Ehren Kruger. Rated PG (for peril/action, some thematic elements, and brief mild language). Running time: 112 minutes. Opens Thursday at local theaters.