Perhaps it’s because the CG baby elephant reminds me of my Boston terrier; perhaps it’s because I’m feeling especially wistful, this being my last movie review for The World-Herald — btw, this is my last movie review for The World-Herald — perhaps it’s just because the movie is actually really good ... in any case, I now find myself in the uncomfortable position of giving “Dumbo,” Disney’s latest cynical cash grab, an unequivocally positive review.
But if an elephant can fly, then I suppose it’s also possible for Tim Burton to make a good movie in 2019.
“Dumbo” is Burton’s best since 1996’s “Mars Attacks!” (No, “Big Fish” is not good.) He used to make fantastic films like “Ed Wood” and “Batman Returns,” but then he got lost in the CG hellscape that was modern moviemaking, giving us “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and “Alice in Wonderland,” each eye-gouging atrocity teeming with his trademark chintzy, faux-gothic aesthetic at its most noxious.
But his “Dumbo” remake is different, better. For one, there’s not a single fright-wig-wearing Johnny Depp character in sight. For another, Burton’s working with some restraints here.
“Dumbo” is unmistakably a well-oiled machine, the kind of competent, money-making entertainment that Disney excels at. Burton’s Disney overlords have kept him from making his film too Burton-y; and Burton, in turn, has given the film a trace of authorial ownership these remakes typically lack.
“Dumbo” is stranger and more distinct than previous remakes of Disney classics like “Beauty and the Beast” and “Cinderella.” It’s allowed to be something familiar, but not overly familiar. It’s faithful enough to its source material to cater to those nostalgic for the 1941 original, but fresh enough to justify its existence as a movie, beyond just making a lot of money.
Somehow, Disney and Burton, each of whom have done their part to ruin movies over the past decade, have teamed up to curb each other’s worst excesses and make something sorta special.
Mostly though, it’s just that cute little elephant. That heartbreakingly cute, big-eared, heroic little elephant.
Dumbo is born to the traveling Medici Bros. Circus, led by the gruff but caring ringmaster Max Medici (Danny DeVito).
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At first, Dumbo’s big ears make him a freak to the jeering crowds; then a widower/war vet (Colin Farrell) and his children (Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins) learn that those ears allow the pachyderm to take flight.
The flying elephant is an overnight sensation, drawing the interest of entrepreneur V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton). Before long, the circus has gone off to join the bigger circus, and Dumbo has teamed up with a soulful trapeze artist (played by a soulful Eva Green) to be the headlining act at Vandevere’s Dreamland amusement park.
Of course, the mysterious businessman reveals himself to be the absolute worst. He employs staff cuts, fosters a hostile work environment and, worst of all, he’s mean to Dumbo.
Something’s gotta give here. In a rousing finale, the motley circus crew jailbreaks Dumbo and his mother.
(Side note: Every time they separate Dumbo from his mother and he scream-cries in anguish, it’s an act of emotional sadism; Dumbo himself is a moving CG creation, ranking up there with Okja in “Okja” and Pete’s dragon in the “Pete’s Dragon” remake — what I’m saying is, I really love animals, you guys, even ones created by computer technicians.)
Working from a screenplay by Ehren Kruger, Burton keeps things moving while still giving us time to get to know his appealing cast of characters. The kids are plucky and winning. Farrell and Green have an agreeable romantic chemistry, though this may just be due to the fact that they’re both very attractive people. And Keaton relishes his role as the flamboyantly cruel villain.
But DeVito. DeVito.
DeVito is a damned delight here, bringing all his DeVito-ness to the part, but also a bit of that gnarly stink he’s picked up playing Frank Reynolds these past 13 years. In fact, DeVito’s ongoing shenanigans with a circus monkey feel like scenes from a long-lost “It’s Always Sunny” episode. It was unlikely that a $170 million family-friendly movie would evoke “It’s Always Sunny,” but there you have it.
But the oddest and most unlikely thing about “Dumbo”: It’s a critique of capitalism. From Disney — one of capitalism’s greatest winners.
“Dumbo” is anti-conglomeration and pro-worker. It roots for the little guy in the face of a dehumanizing, all-consuming market. It laments any and all exploitation of animals — human, elephant and otherwise.
This, from Disney, which has achieved its outsized success by ravenously acquiring every stray piece of beloved intellectual property it can get its Mickey Mouse mitts on.
Does this make “Dumbo” subversive? Or does it make it hypocritical? Is it biting the hand that feeds it, or cynically pushing its populist message while still taking your money?
I don’t know. And I don’t really care. “Dumbo” is weird. “Dumbo” is good. That’s good enough.
If all disposable corporate product had been this charming, I’d have handed out plenty more positive grades over the years.
In any case ... thank you for reading my reviews. Take care.