Directed by: Tim Burton
Written by: Ehren Kruger
Starring: Colin Farrell, Michael Keaton and Danny DeVito
Classification: PG; 112 minutes
Disney’s latest live-action remake tells the story of a social outcast with special gifts who stands up against the bullies and inspires a broad band of misfits, nonconformists and freaks of nature. That irrepressible li’l eccentric’s name? Tim Burton. Since emerging in the mid-1980s with a string of oddball studio pictures steeped in German expressionistic aesthetics and an itchy sense of suburban ennui, Burton has styled himself as a patron saint for a certain stripe of (mostly white, male, and, again, suburban) all-American American outsider. His films speak – or used to, anyway – to the kid doodling whole bestiaries of B-movie monsters in the margins of their middle school notebooks; angry, slightly goth and profoundly adolescent.
Burton has parlayed this recognizable sensitivity into a string of genuine entertainments vaunting the weird and misunderstood. Among them: Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, the original Batman, Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, and even Mars Attacks!, a film which manages the odd feat of making all of humanity so gauche and unlikeable that the audience cheers their immolation at the spindly hands of nude, perverse, yakking Martian invaders.
In this millennium, however, Burton has hawked both this sensibility and his trademark carnival-esque aesthetic into a string of half-cooked studio remakes: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Planet of the Apes, Alice in Wonderland, Dark Shadows and, now, Disney’s Dumbo. Absent any recognizable development in his artistry (Ed Wood, his heartfelt ode to a more bona fide Hollywood outsider artist, feels like the closest thing his filmography possesses to a mature text), the director has evolved into a massive Tim Burton Industrial Complex, willingly selling himself off to make massively budgeted studio flicks that bear the impression of his distinctive imprimatur. Want to make a vaguely “kooky”-looking movie about a misunderstood weirdo – man, man-child, Batman, scissor-handed-whatzit or baby elephant – who avenges himself on a world of boring norms? Hire Tim Burton.
All of which is to say that Dumbo feels totally consistent with Burton’s late-period slump. Abysmally scripted and hammily acted – and not, for the most part, in an interesting or ironic way – Dumbo recasts Disney’s animated classic in the trappings and suits of Burton’s pinstripe-and-pinwheel upholstery. Introducing a cast of largely original flesh-and-blood human actors to the story, the film opens in the American South in the wake of the Great War, where a struggling carnival impresario (Danny DeVito, under-utilized) is hemorrhaging audiences to the newfangled entertainments of the age. An unlikely gift comes in the form of a big-eared baby elephant who, it turns out, can fly about the big top when given the proper encouragement by two plucky kids and their reluctant, war-vet father (Colin Farrell, just so-so).
In its early scenes among the cadre of circus performers, Dumbo feels sweet, small and intermittently compelling. Like Clint Eastwood’s Bronco Billy, it is a film that intuitively understands that the celebration of difference and the exaltation of huckster spectacle are both idylls conjured by the dream that is America. But before long, Baby Dumbo’s aerial antics catch the eye of V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton, in a role that seems as if it was written for Johnny Depp), a ruthless showman who buys Dumbo, and sets him up at his elaborate Coney Island theme park.
From there, Dumbo takes off, launching into extravagant CGI blockbuster territory, and indulging an hour-long parade of well-worn Burtonisms (the Dreamland amusement park alone seems lifted from those middle school marginalia). It also commits to a truly incoherent critique of the entertainment industry, and the Vandevere-styled suits that run the show. That Keaton’s well-heeled heel reveals himself to be (naturally) a ruthless, money-grubbing exploiter abusing animals and shilling cheap Dumbo stuffed dolls might just be run-of-the-mill movie villainy. But Vandevere appears almost purposely styled on Walt Disney, with his amusement park deliberately recalling both the design and guiding ethos (“bring the crowds to you”) of Disney World. And this, of course, is a Disney movie. This might all seem passably subversive, were it not the very nature of corporatization to absorb resistance to its own operations and sell it back as plush dolls and multimillion-dollar movies. Unlike something like the Wachowskis’ Speed Racer – a big-ticket studio film critiquing big business, and one which offered an artistic alternative to the machine-made Hollywood blockbuster – Dumbo offers little in the way of invention, novelty or anything beyond the hardened clichés of family movie schmaltz.
One could, perhaps, regard Burton’s own incorporation into the House of Mouse machinations as yet another pitiable case of a corporate behemoth steamrolling the sensitivities of an iconoclastic outsider. But like the oddballs and oddities that populate Dumbo’s circus set-pieces, Burton feels more like a willing participant in his own exploitation. It’s a bit sad, perhaps. But in a culture that regards selling out as less a cardinal sin than a sign of savvy, it’s hard to begrudge the guy who imagined the Large Marge scene from Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure cashing in a novelty paycheque, so that he may buy another stuffed owl or jack-o’-lantern door-knocker to adorn the imposing gothic mansion of all persecuted goth-kid fantasy, where I imagine Burton resides, wallowing in the cartoonish comfort his well-practised outsider persona still affords him.
Dumbo opens March 29