Circus owner Max Medici (Danny DeVito) enlists former star Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) and his children Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins) to care for a newborn elephant whose oversized ears make him a laughing-stock in an already struggling circus. But when they discover that Dumbo can fly, the circus makes an incredible comeback, attracting persuasive entrepreneur V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), who recruits the peculiar pachyderm for his newest, larger-than-life entertainment venture, Dreamland. Dumbo soars to new heights alongside a charming and spectacular aerial artist, Colette Marchant (Eva Green), until Holt learns that beneath its shiny veneer, Dreamland is full of dark secrets.
As far as it can go, 'Dumbo' is probably one of the most subversive movies Disney has made in quite some time - especially considering it's about one of its most recognisable creations, too. You have a giant entertainment corporation buying up a smaller group of performers, the exploitation of animal labour, not to mention the fact that the entire third act takes place as a result of some unscrupulous corporate dealings that kicks everything into motion. The camera even drifts over promotional toys with a barely restrained sense of disdain for it. That Tim Burton and Ehren Kruger managed to get this out of the House Of Mouse, when it's so often concerned with how it's perceived in the wider world, is fascinating. Maybe when you're at the top of the mountain, it's easier to have some level of self-awareness.
Reuniting for the first time since 'Batman Returns', Michael Keaton and Danny DeVito bounce off each other as easily as you'd expect. Keaton perfectly hams it up as the pompous entertainment magnate, whilst DeVito is able to rasp his way through the wiles of his wheeler-dealer circus master. Colin Farrell and Eva Green, dependable though they both are, never really get much traction to make an impact. Green plays the elegant and mysterious performer to Farrell's good 'ol boy horse trainer, whilst the children - Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins - are sweet and smart enough for it not to become too sickly.
In spite of the wealth of acting talent, the sumptuous production design, Ehren Kruger's winking script, Danny Elfman's fairground musical moments, 'Dumbo' doesn't quite soar as it should, but it's still a decent attempt. The story beats are predictable and familiar, and even though it's throwing digs at corporate interests, it never really feels like it's being fresh or daring. Instead, it ultimately comes as a fine effort and one that'll pass the time and keep the kids entertained. That's really the best these live-action remakes of animated classics can hope for. Obviously, nothing can surpass the original so the best they can hope for is an enjoyable and reasonably entertaining experience - which 'Dumbo' is.
As an effort in revitalising a classic, 'Dumbo' succeeds as it helps to freshen up the story and give it a sly twist on the entertainment industry. It may not be particularly memorable, but 'Dumbo' is not without its charms. Tim Burton uses his bag of tricks and there are moments when it feels like it's about to take it off, but it never quite takes flight as well as it should.
Yes, we got in as many flight phrases as we could.