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With: Colin Farrell, Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Eva Green, Alan Arkin, Nico Parker, Finley Hobbins, Roshan Seth, Deobia Oparei, Joseph Gatt, Sharon Rooney, Michael Buffer, Frank Bourke, Edd Osmond, Jo Osmond
Written by: Ehren Kruger, based on a book by Helen Aberson, Harold Pearl
Directed by: Tim Burton
MPAA Rating: PG for peril/action, some thematic elements, and brief mild language
Running Time: 112
Date: 03/28/2019

Dumbo (2019)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Flight Elephant Gift

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

None of the recent Disney live-action re-imaginings of classic animated films (Cinderella, The Jungle Book, Beauty and the Beast, etc.) has come close to topping or even equalling their originals, but that doesn't mean a great story can't be told again.

Opening Friday in Bay Area theaters, the new Dumbo is based on one of Disney's simplest and most touching animated features. It effectively maintains the core of the story, and will surely provide plenty of delight.

Running only 64 minutes, the original 1941 Dumbo was an amazing mishmash of scenes that tug at the heartstrings or amuse or exhilarate. It comes with the notorious "Pink Elephants on Parade" sequence — a bizarre, phantasmagoric trip — and the controversial cultural depiction of black crows in the "When I See an Elephant Fly" sequence.

The new Dumbo smooths all this out, carefully removing and resolving anything potentially offensive. It adds a batch of new human characters to replace the talking mouse Timothy, and, unfortunately, a couple of sub-par bad guys — a circus hillbilly bully and a bald, elephant-hide-boot-wearing henchman — that drag things down.

It's 1919, and Max Medici (Danny DeVito) is the manager of a worn-down traveling circus, where two young kids Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins) eagerly await the return of their widowed father Holt (Colin Farrell), from the frontlines of the First World War.

Holt turns up, minus an arm, but ready to rejoin the big top. His cowboy-riding act is defunct due to lack of horses, but he's assigned to caring for the elephants. Mrs. Jumbo, the newest acquisition, is pregnant, and when the baby arrives, its enormous ears make everyone's jaw drop.

But of course, this elephant can fly, and his act starts to save the circus. That is, until snaky opportunist V. A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), who runs a massive theme park, arrives with his star performer, trapeze artist Colette (Eva Green), and a devilish deal.

The original Dumbo — released between Fantasia, Pinocchio, and Bambi — was one of the studio's richest and most textured, made before changing times and finances required simpler approaches.

Fortunately, the remake has fallen into the hands of director Tim Burton, who brings his own spectacular style; everything in this circus world looks as if it were once brightly-painted, but is now slightly weathered.

Burton also makes Dumbo his very own; weirdly, the little elephant has more than a little in common with Burton's best creation, Edward Scissorhands, a mocked and ridiculed outcast with an extraordinary ability and soulfully expressive eyes.

As with his 1990s hero, Burton understands this pachyderm and makes him come alive. Dumbo isn't quite as dark as some of his other, family-friendly films (Pee-wee's Big Adventure, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Corpse Bride, etc.), but it has its moments of sheer heart-stopping peril.

It's fun to think that Burton originally started with Disney and was fired for making his creepy early-1980s short films Vincent and Frankenweenie. While Burton mostly toes the line here, it's possible to pick up on bits and pieces that cheerfully skewer his former, and now current, employer.

It's also fun to see Burton reuniting with so many of his old cast members, especially Keaton, who sprung to star status with iconic performances in Burton's Beetlejuice, Batman, and Batman Returns. In that last, he faced off with DeVito's Penguin; their good-guy-bad-guy roles are winningly reversed in this one.

Yet the heart of both Dumbo movies is the emotional polar opposites of Dumbo's grief at losing his mother and his joy of flying, and, even though this remake feels a little long and a little busy, above all, it gets those two things absolutely right.

Anyone who has felt a little clumsy or lost, or doesn't quite fit in, yet believes that he or she has something great to offer the world, Dumbo is here for you once again.

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