I used to think it was temporary malaise that made Tim Burton put out such mediocre product every couple of years. That, in between art and the real part of himself he gave us in projects like Sweeney Todd or Big Fish, he was forced to partner with Disney for the sake of relevance. Maybe that was it, but not anymore.
Burton’s fourth collaboration with the Mouse House is cluttered and uninspired, never fully embracing the story’s oddball spirit or Burton’s vaunted fetish for production design. Burton and Dumbo oughta go together like bread and circuses, and yet there’s a grey pall hanging over the entire film, a sense of passionless duty more than wonder or joy. More often than not, it vaguely resembles a Tim Burton movie without feeling like one at all. He manages a few choice moments of said wonder or wry humor, such as when Michael Keaton’s pompous bigwig enters the picture with a lovely Eva Green on one arm, or when Dumbo takes flight for the first time at home and then abroad. However brief and too late to matter, the latter is a big highlight, giving the audience something they never knew they wanted. Green is seemingly Burton’s new muse following his break-up with long-time girlfriend Helena Bonham Carter. It’s not hard to see why, with Green enlivening every film of theirs, and Dumbo is no exception. Unfortunately, the casting plaudits end there, with Colin Farrell delivering a hammy southern accent and DeVito playing DeVito, ditto Alan Arkin in an extended cameo. Child actors Nicco Parker and Finley Robbins do what they can with stock characters, both of whom are there as an audience surrogate and nothing more. Dumbo soars when Dumbo soars, quite literally, and falls flat in the interim, no matter the wannabe corporate screed (was Disney aware?). The heroes don’t fly and the villains don’t feel real, over the top and often mugging for the camera. It’s almost as if a film about Dumbo is better served when about Dumbo himself, or his mother, and not a motley crew of dull humans surrounding them.
After his latest blockbuster detour, I’m convinced Tim Burton is simply following in the footsteps of so many filmmakers before him. I’m convinced he’s lost it, that spark of inspiration, the IT factor that eludes so many in their elder years. While Dumbo himself is cute, the movie itself ain’t so warm or cuddly.