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Dumbo is a weird film that evokes some weird emotions. This might seem like an obvious thing to say when a film is directed by one of the most offbeat filmmakers of our time, Tim Burton, but the feelings it raises are more in spite of its quality rather than because.

Watching a fantasy family film about a flying baby elephant set in a circus is odd because of what we all know about the abject cruelty felt by animals at these events. Dig a little online and you’ll be horrified by what the emotionally intelligent beasts go through in the name of amusement. So, how do you make a children’s movie out of that?

Not the way Tim Burton has, that’s for sure. And not the way the script has been written by three-time Transformers franchise alum Ehren Kruger, either. The film certainly carries some heartbreak, some self-awareness, some honesty, as well as some anti-capitalist, pro-animal rights, and anti-neoliberalism tones. Heck, it even takes a few jabs at Disney. But these are fleeting moments.

Director Tim Burton’s Dumbo switches focus to the humans, which is a pity because the titular character himself is likeable. The humans, on the other hand, are just boring

Sure, the original Dumbo animation didn’t have those either but, then again, that was a 1941 Walt Disney animation created when the studio was struggling. Even for its time, it had its share of surreal moments in a touching story about self-discovery in a film about a talking baby elephant and its best friend, a talking mouse.

In this Tim Burton version, none of the animals speak, and it’s more about the human characters. With that switch, you automatically expect more wokeness, even from a children’s film. By the way, if that change in direction sounds familiar, it is exactly what happened in the Transformers franchise, when the stars of the film, the robots, became background characters to the humans. Dumbo switching focus to the humans is also a pity because the titular character himself is likeable. The humans, on the other hand, aren’t unlikeable. Had they been unlikeable, as a viewer you would have at least felt something. No, it’s worse. They are boring.

There is Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell), an amputated World War 1 veteran who is hired to care for Dumbo. There is V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), a cruel entrepreneur Donald Trump would love, and who buys the small amusement park that features Dumbo in order to use the creature for his soulless and expensive Dreamland. Max Medici (Danny DeVito) is the ringmaster who owns the Medici circus where Dumbo was born. Colette Merchant (Eva Green) is a trapeze artist. Then there are also Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins), who play Holt’s kids and are kind to Dumbo.

Look at the talent on offer. But except for Danny DeVito, they all offer dull wooden performances, as if they weren’t given enough direction. But more on that later. As you can expect, Dumbo features a lot of CGI and some of it looks great, but it is clear that the real film was made in post-production, and this adds to its soullessness. As I said, some of the social commentary offered in Dumbo is commendable, but it should have gone all the way. Often, the film feels confused about what it wants to be, and the poor acting doesn’t help either.

I have often wondered how Tim Burton directs his actors. Some of his films feature good performances, but many have the same problem Dumbo has. It is almost as if he gets lost in his set design and wizardry. Unfortunate, because I was really looking forward to Tim Burton, Michael Keaton and Danny DeVito being reunited. Not that Batman Returns (1992) was flawless. But at least it was one of the most striking films of its time.

Rated PG for peril/action, some thematic elements and brief mild language

Published in Dawn, ICON, April 7th, 2019