Dumbo

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Disney’s new “Dumbo” is one ponderous pachyderm. This is a live-action remake of the 1941 animated classic, but with a grim tone and a dead soul. It’s astounding that Tim Burton could have created such a downer from a long-beloved source of delight. Instead of a fantasy about a baby elephant who defies the law of gravity, “Dumbo” redux is a confirmation of Murphy’s law.

The circus was originally a charming and modest backdrop for the primal tale of a baby ripped from the tender grip of his mother’s trunk. Now it’s become a doomed enterprise—it’s 1919, just after World War I, and business is so bad that bankruptcy looms for the big top’s owner, Max Medici, a two-bit P.T. Barnum played by Danny DeVito.

Dumbo flies to the accompaniment of Danny Elfman’s music, which sets altitude records for bombast. The glorious showstopper of the original, “Pink Elephants On Parade,” is now a Cirque du Soleil knockoff with ugly- colored balloons. There’s no sense of a functioning circus, only random eccentrics, in place of freaks, circumscribed by political correctness. And the news is worse when it comes to the acting. It’s as if Tim Burton, in his quest for the garish and the grotesque, had forgotten how to direct actors.

Colin Farrell is painfully uncomfortable as Holt Farrier, who was a trick rider before the war; now he’s back from the trenches minus an arm. The great Michael Keaton is trapped, leering gleelessly, in the role of a predatory entrepreneur who exploits Dumbo after the discovery that the little guy can fly. Eva Green falls into awkward caricature as a trapeze artist; the writing and direction give her nothing else to hang onto. Alan Arkin isn’t funny as a greedy banker, though he does get to say “Wow, this is a disaster!”

Then there’s the issue of Dumbo’s aeronautics. In the 1941 animated version, his gift of flight was pure fantasy. That’s the beauty of animation; no need to wonder how Dumbo did it, just the pleasure of watching him do it. This time around, his style of flight is graceless at best and galumphing at worst; he seems to be struggling so hard to stay aloft that we start wondering about literal-minded things like whether his earspan can actually sustain his weight.

And why does he fly so soon? In 1941, when word of mouth was less pervasive but no less important than it is today, audiences knew going in that Dumbo could fly, but they had to wait in delicious suspense until the last few minutes of the film to see him take off. In the new, disimproved version, he flies early, and a lot. So much for deferred gratification. So much for gratification.

I’m Joe Morgenstern. I’ll be back on KCRW next week with more reviews.

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Joe Morgenstern