Movie Review: A Digitized 'Dumbo' Takes Flight In Tim Burton's Recreation

Mar 29, 2019
Originally published on March 30, 2019 4:33 pm
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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Disney is remaking a lot of its animated classics as live-action features. It's already happened with "Jungle Book" and "Beauty And The Beast." In a few months, we'll see a new "Lion King" and "Aladdin." And this weekend, a digitized "Dumbo" takes flight. Critic Bob Mondello says the elephant in the room this time is the first movie.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: The cartoon "Dumbo" was about an outcast whose difference made him special - a baby elephant whose ears were so big that when he flapped them, he took off.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DUMBO")

EDWARD BROPHY: (As Timothy Q. Mouse) Look; hot diggity, you're flying. You're flying.

MONDELLO: But you didn't find that out until the last few minutes of the movie. It was quite a reveal, an exhilarating vindication of a doe-eyed pachydorable (ph) critter who'd been mocked by the other pachyderms and pretty much everybody but his mom and a mouse named Timothy. In the new "Dumbo," the little tyke's barely arrived when some kids are playing with him and he inhales a feather.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DUMBO")

MONDELLO: And sneezes himself halfway to the ceiling.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DUMBO")

MONDELLO: And the secret's out right at the start at least to Milly and Joe, circus kids who will do the story's heavy lifting for a while. In standard Disney fashion, Milly and Joe are fending for themselves having lost their mom and nearly lost their dad, who's come home from World War I minus an arm, which means when Dumbo's mom gets carted off for defending her elephant son...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DUMBO")

COLIN FARRELL: (As Holt Farrier) Take Dumbo back inside.

FINLEY HOBBINS: (As Joe Farrier) But she's his mom. Do something.

MONDELLO: ...They can identify. And with no animated mouse around to befriend Dumbo...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DUMBO")

NICO PARKER: (As Milly Farrier) He needs us. Look at me. We're going to bring your momma home.

MONDELLO: So the movie's given up its big reveal and has separated mother and child and is still just getting started at this point. So how to fill another hour since the first movie's 64-minute running time won't fly anymore - well, by finding reasons for Dumbo to fly some more...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DUMBO")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Fly, little one.

MONDELLO: ...First in Danny DeVito's circus and then in Michael Keaton's circus and then again for banker Alan Arkin. And you hear what's happening. The story's becoming elephantine, accumulating heft when it should be light as a feather. Speaking of which, a hand-drawn elephant can fly however the animators want and be persuasive whereas a digitized elephant in a realistic environment needs to look as if it has a weight that's being lifted by flapping ears. And for some reason, the screenplay wants Dumbo to fly with a trapeze artist on his back, which means a lot of galumphing before soaring like a Dumbo jet. And that's less rousing than it means to be even with Danny Elfman's score working overtime.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DUMBO")

MONDELLO: Director Tim Burton knows how to make all of this look imposing. It was, remember, the billion dollars earned by his overblown live-action "Alice In Wonderland" that kicked off Disney's remake spree in the first place. And he's got a few nice touches mixed in with the bombast here.

For a Disney movie, the new "Dumbo" strikes some pleasantly subversive notes about the creepiness of theme parks. Burton's digital team has come up with homages to the first film - a nifty dance of gigantic pink elephabubbles (ph), for instance. And it's hard to argue with the new story's up-to-date lessons about science-loving girls and animal rights. Everyone's heart, in short, is firmly in the right place even as "Dumbo's" central character becomes less affecting and less central. I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.