It’s no secret that in recent years, the Disney studio has been in a cycle of turning some its most popular animated features into live-action attractions.
That might seem especially tricky with a title character such as the one “Dumbo” has … but consider that Tim Burton is the director, and the remake turns out to be very much its own creature. With his well-known knack for the offbeat, Burton might seem an odd match for a Disney project, though he also was among the makers of “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” “James and the Giant Peach,” “Alice in Wonderland” and “Alice Through the Looking Glass” for the company. And indeed, the result here is a “Dumbo” that isn’t completely cuddly.
Digital effects help bring the baby elephant that gets separated from its mother to life – and yes, there are still those famous parent-and-child moments that don’t merely tug at your heart, they just about rip it out of your chest. Still, there also are the famously bizarre Burton touches that are likely to keep much of “Dumbo” at arm’s length for viewers who might otherwise anticipate getting fully wrapped up in it.
Danny DeVito (who was the Penguin for Burton in “Batman Returns”) is wonderfully warm as the operator of the circus that becomes the big-eared, flying Dumbo’s new home … but there’s also a really sinister rival showman, played by Burton’s earlier Batman, Michael Keaton. The competitor’s amusement-park concept is named Dreamland, but it may as well be called Nightmare Land, and Burton clearly is on familiar turf as he displays the site’s various horrors.
That also may be where more than a few moviegoers question the bill of goods they’ve been sold by “Dumbo.” Those who might expect strictly a live-action retelling of a childhood favorite are pretty much guaranteed to be surprised by the more ghoulish turns taken here … which is to say nothing of how young children in the audience could react.
Colin Farrell, Eva Green and Alan Arkin also are in the esoteric cast of a “Dumbo” that works hard — a little too hard — not to be defined as a kids’ movie. It’s an interesting, not entirely successful exercise, and parents still should make sure that their youngsters don’t miss a seminal part of childhood by letting them see the 1941 original.