Review: You'll believe an elephant can fly in 'Dumbo', but the humans are just phoning it in

Marcus Goh
PHOTO: Walt Disney Studios

The crux of every pet movie is the animal playing the “main character” — audiences must empathise with it, otherwise the entire movie falls apart. Of course, the challenge of working with animals is that of communication, since directors need to train animals to perform in a certain role, as opposed to telling them what to do. Dumbo manages to completely sidestep this challenge of pet movies with a CGI elephant. And at its heart, Dumbo is effectively a pet movie, with the circus characters acting as his owners.

PHOTO: Walt Disney Studios

The fantasy adventure film is based on the 1941 animated version of Dumbo, with more human characters instead of talking animal characters. It revolves around a circus on the brink of closing down that discovers an ugly elephant that has a special ability. However, they have to protect it from an unscrupulous businessman who is out to exploit the poor pachyderm for his own nefarious purposes.

Dumbo has no lack of big name stars attached to it — Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Colin Farrell, and Eva Green — as well as some promising young talents, Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins. Yet the performances of the adult cast members are perfunctory at best, since it’s the children who really drive the show forward. The distinct lack of effort from the A-listers is incredibly obvious when compared to the exuberance of the child actors, who get into their roles with gusto. It’s disappointing to see the adults just phoning it in, especially when they’re working with beloved source material.

PHOTO: Walt Disney Studios

Fortunately, the CGI for Dumbo is pretty good. You’ll believe an elephant can fly, and Dumbo’s huge, sympathetic eyes give him a humanity that the adult cast members so sorely lack. The focus on Dumbo is to be expected, since he is the titular character of the film, and it’s obvious that the CGI Dumbo could conceivably carry the movie himself, even if the other actors aren’t as committed to their performances. It almost feels like they’re trying to see if CGI animals can garner human sympathy…. a factor that’ll be very important for July’s live action version of The Lion King.

PHOTO: Walt Disney Studios

One wonders if Dumbo’s animation is actually a trial run for the much bigger animation task of The Lion King. While many will expect The Lion King to be the watershed film that shows us that CGI can replace human characters, future cinema historians will note that it’s actually Dumbo that showed us that this could be accomplished. The interplay between CGI and human characters In Dumbo is what makes this all the more apparent.

The movie’s pacing works pretty well, despite an extremely straightforward and simple premise. You can tell exactly where it’s headed and what will happen next, but you’re still keen to find out exactly how it plays out. In terms of storytelling, it does a good job of expanding upon a classic archetype without boring audiences.

PHOTO: Walt Disney Studios

Yet the characterisation leaves much to be desired. Milly (Nico Parker), the scientifically minded daughter of circus horse rider Holt (Colin Farrell), is unnecessarily annoying and artificial. One has to wonder why she was directed in such a way, since she repeats her scientific method mantra endlessly. Then there’s the villainous Vandevere (Michael Keaton), who makes inexplicably evil decisions just because he’s the antagonist, and randomly destroys expensive equipment for no reason other than to force a particular outcome. Then again, since Dumbo is the star of the show, perhaps having believable human characters isn’t that important.

PHOTO: Walt Disney Studios

For audiences expecting a wondrous experience from director Tim Burton, they’ll be sorely disappointed. While there are some components that evoke some measure of wonder, it’s a very tiny measure. Like the adult cast, Burton also phones in the direction for the film. The spectacles are fine, but not amazing.

Dumbo is still an enjoyable film, but it neither surprises nor innovates. What’s really interesting to see, though, is how technology has improved to the point where a CGI character is more relatable than human, flesh-and-blood characters. It marks a turning point in cinema history where CGI is now capable of replacing human actors.

PHOTO: Walt Disney Studios

Should you watch this at weekday movie ticket prices? Yes.

Should you watch this at weekend movie ticket prices? If you like Disney or pet movies.

Score: 3.4/5.0

Secret ending? No.

Running time: 112 minutes 

PHOTO: Walt Disney Studios

Dumbo is a fantasy pet movie that is based on the 1941 animation, Dumbo.

The film follows a struggling circus troupe who comes upon a baby elephant with oversized ears. They soon find out that what seems like a disability at first turns out to be its greatest strength, and they must protect this special elephant from being manipulated by evil forces.

Dumbo is directed by Tim Burton and written by Ehren Kruger. It stars Colin Farrell (Holt Farrier), Danny DeVito (Max Medici), Michael Keaton (V. A. Vandevere), Eva Green (Colette Marchant), Alan Arkin (J. Griffin Reington), Nico Parker (Milly Farrier), and Finley Hobbins (Joe Farrier).

PHOTO: Walt Disney Studios

Dumbo opens in cinemas:
– 28 March, 2019 (Singapore)
– 28 March, 2019 (Malaysia)
– 27 March, 2019 (Philippines) 

PHOTO: Walt Disney Studios

Marcus Goh is a scriptwriter, having written for popular shows like “Lion Mums”,  “Crimewatch”, “Code of Law”, “Incredible Tales”, and “Police & Thief”. He’s also a Transformers enthusiast and avid pop culture scholar. You can find him on social media as Optimarcus and on his site. The views expressed are his own.

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