We don’t need a new “Dumbo.” The original Disney classic, released in 1941, still delights audiences with its heart-tugging tale of a baby elephant who can fly.
But Disney wants you to have a new “Dumbo,” see? So you’ve got one. Strangely, the new film — almost twice as long as the original, and live-action rather than animated — is about the corporate greed of a company that strongly resembles Disney. Which proves once again that in 2019, irony is dead.
The other strange thing about “Dumbo” is that it shifts its emphasis from the lovable baby pachyderm to a group of less-than-inspiring humans. And there isn’t a talking crow in sight.
Dumbo, a cutie-pie with freakishly large (yet aerodynamic) ears, is born into a post-World War I traveling circus run by Max Medici (Danny DeVito in full huckster mode). A flying elephant is just what the struggling circus needs, and the star attraction is tended by a one-armed war veteran (Colin Farrell) and his children (Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins).
A hostile takeover comes in the form of showman extraordinaire V.A. Vandevere (silver-wigged Michael Keaton), a fast-talking con man who installs Dumbo as the centerpiece of his glitzy new amusement park, Dreamland.
Is this place a little like Disneyland? Sure. But whatever the satirical intent of Ehren Kruger’s script, Dreamland just remains a generic setting for a movie that needs a shady backdrop.
With Tim Burton as director, “Dumbo” is a visual dreamland of sumptuous costumes and wild sets. As with Burton’s puzzling run of recent films, the actual business of telling a story seems not terribly important to him.
Maybe that’s why Dumbo himself (computer-generated, needless to say) remains on the sidelines of his own movie. Since Burton has little interest in the human heroes — the kids are stock characters and Farrell is playing nothing but niceness — the bad guys provide diversion.
There are a couple of scenes between Keaton and DeVito that get a cheeky buzz going, as two clever pros try to stir up some quirk. Alas, this movie has none of the head-snapping craziness of Burton’s “Batman Returns,” where they played Batman and Penguin together.
I wish Burton had given Eva Green (“Penny Dreadful”), cast as a trapeze artist, more to do. This is a rare example of the actress — generally cast as otherworldly femme fatales — being allowed a fetchingly human side.
The original “Dumbo” was rather emotionally harrowing, and this one adds terror, to the point where you wonder what audience Burton thought the movie was for. It’s a relief when we get a nod to the surreal “Pink Elephants on Parade” sequence from the ‘41 film.
Disney’s program of raiding its back catalog will continue, as two more live-action remakes of cartoon classics arrive before the end of summer: “Aladdin” and “The Lion King.” Whether you need them or not. V.A. Vandevere himself couldn’t have planned it better.
“Dumbo” (2 stars)
A live-action Disney production inspired by the 1941 animated classic, with a flying baby elephant (computer-generated, of course) being seized by a crass showman (Michael Keaton) for his Disney-like amusement park. There’s not enough Dumbo in this slick production, even if director Tim Burton gives you plenty to look at. With Colin Farrell, Danny DeVito.
Rating: PG, for violence, subject matter
Opening Friday: Alderwood, Cinebarre Mountlake Terrace, Edmonds, Everett Stadium, Galaxy Monroe, Marysville, Stanwood Cinemas, Pacific Place, Seattle 10, Thornton Place, Woodinville, Blue Fox, Cascade Mall, Oak Harbor