‘Dumbo’ is a sad sign that Tim Burton has lost his touch

There was a time when Tim Burton set the course in filmmaking. His latest, Dumbo, is a sad sign that those days are long gone.

When was that Burton prime, you ask? I’m talking about back in the day when Batman and Edward Scissorhands were the cinematic 1-2 punch of a unique auteur trying to change things and push his brain into the make-believe game. Unfortunately, the last great Tim Burton film was 2003’s Big Fish.

The first live action take on the Disney classic is an overly sweet rendition of ” cute on top of cute.” Colin Farrell’s tired American accent is given a Southern twist, playing the returning war veteran, Holt, who comes home to his two lonesome kids who recently lost their mother. He used to be the horse-wrangling master showman in Max Medici’s (Danny DeVito) famed circus, which has fallen on hard times. When a baby elephant with long ears comes into their possession, things change in a variety ways.

Along with a wondrous presence, greed, corruption, and betrayal come into the picture in the form of Michael Keaton’s scenery chomping V.A. Vandevere, who wants to put Max’s prized elephant on the big stage. Snooze, snooze.

The rest was better when the animation was present. Here, the visual dazzle that Burton applies isn’t unpleasing to the naked eye, but by the two hour mark, comes off as a tiring practice to keep your attention off the other middling details that are happening.

The acting is phoned in, and don’t give me the “it’s a kid’s movie so it’s okay” routine. There have been plenty of wired performances in the children’s arena of film, so I expected more from the likes of Farrell, DeVito, and Keaton. Eva Green thankfully continues her streak of lifting up poor material as the performance artist who warms Holt’s cold heart. There’s something there, but the screenplay doesn’t manage their relationship well, drowning it in cliches.

Don’t be too surprised. Ehren Kruger is responsible for three Michael Bay Transformers films and the terrible Scarlett Johansson film, Ghost in The Shell. Like Burton, he used to be something vicious for cinema, writing unconventional thrillers like Arlington Road and The Ring. These days, he’s phoning it in, creating a child’s bedtime story that was better off being recited by mom and dad.

The worst thing is that the title character, the innocent yet endearing baby elephant who can fly, is shuttled off to supporting character mode. Instead of spending more time with this wonderful creature, we are shown timid romances and robotic displays of greed and power. Alan Arkin shows up towards the end of the movie, and he looks like a guy who was dropped off on the wrong end of the production lot.

It’s all just overly sweet, forgettable remake territory. An piece of cake with too much icing and not enough taste. The kids will like it, but the adults will need a couple alcoholic beverages to push through the too long running time.

Tim Burton used to set the course for groundbreaking films. These days, he’s chasing that technique like a magician trying to fool moviegoers with old tricks.

Take a step back, and rethink how you want your legacy to sound in 10-20 years.

Save Dumbo for DVD. Better yet, rent the animated version instead.

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