PLOT A struggling circus finds its newest star in a flying elephant.
CAST Danny DeVito, Michael Keaton, Eva Green
RATED PG (perilous moments)
BOTTOM LINE Too many new characters and themes weigh down this live-action remake of the animated classic.
Few movies pack as many emotional punches per minute as “Dumbo,” Walt Disney’s lovely animated work from 1941. As a child, “Dumbo” might have struck you as an epic-length story, a veritable saga about an outcast circus elephant whose oversize ears turn out to be wings for flight. Actually, “Dumbo” ran a scant 64 minutes. Disney fought to release it as a feature rather than whittle it down further into a short.
Tim Burton’s live-action “Dumbo” is the opposite: a padded-out feature that might have made a better one-hour television special. “Dumbo” features a CGI version of the floppy-eared title character, several human stars in newly created roles, and a script (by Ehren Kruger, of the “Transformers” films) that works in a few scenes of circus-centric spectacle. Add to this the twin obligations of modernization and diversification, and “Dumbo” has great difficulty getting off the ground.
The year is 1919, and horseback rider Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) has returned from World War I minus an arm. His young son, Joe (Finley Hobbins), has grown into an amiable enough kid, while his older daughter, Milly (Nico Parker), is a budding scientist. “I won’t be a show off in your circus,” Milly tells her dad. “I want to be noticed for my mind.” Kudos to the film for its feminist spirit, even if Milly sounds less like a preteen girl than a male screenwriter with a mandate.
Holt is a potentially interesting character, but Burton is more interested in the wackier ones: Max (Danny DeVito), the crusty owner of the rundown Medici Bros. Circus; V.A. Vandevere, a showbiz Svengali played by Michael Keaton with silver hair and an inconsistent British accent; and the slinky-sexy trapeze artist Colette Marchant (Eva Green, a new Burton favorite). The original film’s African-American crows, entertaining but reductive stereotypes who sang “When I See an Elephant Fly,” are gone, replaced by sideshow workers with a wide range of “identities” — an Indian snake charmer (Pramesh Singh), a plus size mermaid (Sharon Rooney) and so on.
“Baby Mine,” the three-hanky lullaby from the first film (“sung,” in a sense, by Dumbo’s incarcerated mother), will wring a tear here as well. Still, Dumbo’s photo-realistic eyes and wrinkly body don’t engage us the same way that his idealized, ink-and-paint predecessor did. The original Dumbo flew as gracefully as a balsa-wood plane; the new Dumbo must flap his ears furiously just to get a foot or so of altitude. We never have confidence that he, or this film, will truly soar.
Danny DeVito plays to type as an endearingly grubby circus owner in “Dumbo,” but the actor-director-producer is far from a one-trick pony. Here are four examples of his many talents:
ROMANCING THE STONE (1984) Robert Zemeckis’ lively “Raiders of the Lost Ark” knockoff featured two gorgeous A-listers, Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner, but DeVito steals the show as a scurrilous antiquities smuggler. He was so good he wound up narrating the trailer.
THROW MOMMA FROM THE TRAIN (1987) DeVito directed himself in this black comedy about a mentally stunted writer who, Hitchcock-style, tries to coax a stranger (Billy Crystal) into a murder plot. It’s an uneven film, but the DeVito-Crystal chemistry makes for some very funny moments.
MATILDA (1996) Another director-star turn from DeVito, this time playing the scuzzy father of a supernaturally gifted schoolgirl (Mara Wilson). It’s an underrated gem, a Roald Dahl adaptation that’s full of dark humor (Roald Dahl wrote the sourcebook) and zany visuals. Imagine John Waters directing a children’s film, and you’re on the right track.
WEINER-DOG (2016) Todd Solondz, the skewed genius behind “Happiness,” cast DeVito in a rare tragicomic role for this collection of vignettes centered around a dachshund. In one of the film’s best performances, DeVito plays Dave Schmerz, a screenwriting professor losing patience with his idiotic students. — RAFER GUZMÁN