Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland is considered a bit of a joke—the CGI is weightless and cartoony; the character design is a bit silly at times; don't even get me started on the Mad Hatter's dance-off at the end—but there's still something interesting about it. It feels very much like a Tim Burton movie, alternately whimsical and horrifying, with crooked towers and doleful eccentrics lending a vitality to the proceedings.
It may not have been the most unique picture ever made, but compared with some of its successors—notably the dreadful live-action Beauty and the Beast, a shot-for-shot remake of the superior original when it wasn't adding an extraneous 20-some minutes to the proceedings—Burton's Alice was a veritable bonfire of originalities.
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Dumbo isn't as bad as Beauty and the Beast, but it lacks the mischief-making soul of Alice in Wonderland (to say nothing of the best of Burton's work). It is immaculately competent, a modest reimagining that maintains the innocence of the original while adding a dash of human connection and moving the story forward at a reasonable pace. It is also deeply, strikingly dull, the occasional inspired performance overwhelmed by the monotony of the story.
More important than Dumbo and his mom, Jumbo, in this film is the Farrier family. Back from World War I, minus an arm, Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) must reconnect with children Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins). Their mother dead from the Spanish Influenza, their father trying to find his way as a performer who has lost the ability to perform, the kids are largely responsible for fending for themselves … much like the baby elephant about to storm into their lives and steal their hearts.
Dumbo is all big blue eyes and floppy, unwieldy ears, remorselessly adorable in every way. Indeed, his absurdly cartoonish lovability renders the revulsion experienced by Max Medici (Danny DeVito) incomprehensible. The ringleader is horrified by the tot's giant lobes, suggesting the freak show is already full, that the pachyderm will have to join the clown act if he wants to earn his keep.
The ears do more than hear, of course, and soon enough Dumbo is wowing the skeptical crowds over with his fantastic flying act. Dumbo and the rest of the circus are soon bought by V. A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), a scheming circus-owner-cum-amusement-park-visionary, whose monument to childhood whimsy needs a top shelf act to ensure the crowds keep pouring in. Dumbo needs his friends, the Farriers, to maintain his confidence. And the Farriers need Dumbo, to learn to love and be loved and be themselves and be a family and, I dunno, some other stuff, probably.
I do so love Keaton in his manic-squirrely mode, during which he tends to draw back his upper lip and kind of look away, just over the shoulder of whichever character he should be talking to, as if he's thinking about something else, mumbling an answer that makes no sense after someone has asked a rather straightforward question. Alan Arkin appears briefly, delivering his six-or-so lines in the most perfunctorily Arkinesque manner possible. One senses he's aware of the mess in which he's found himself yet powering through with a professional's devotion. Farrell, meanwhile, is wasted as Farrier. The Irishman has evolved into one of the more interesting actors out there—the dirtbag Sonny Crockett fiending for mojitos in Miami Vice; the suicidal hitman finding himself In Bruges; the crooked pol tiring of his family's line of work in Widows—but he's never been particularly charismatic as a pure straight man.
Farrell's miscasting feels like a metaphor for the whole film. He's often great, but not used well here. Tim Burton is a fantastic director with a great sense of the visually odd, yet everything feels so straightforward in Dumbo. The film's not a mess, nor is it as soulless or mechanical as some other entries in Disney's effort to remonetize its catalogue anew. It's just not particularly interesting or terribly entertaining, either.