Circus owner Max Medici (Danny DeVito) enlists former star Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) and his children Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins) to care for a newborn elephant, whose oversized ears make him a laughing stock in an already struggling circus. But, when they discover that Dumbo can fly, the circus makes an incredible comeback, attracting persuasive entrepreneur VA Vandevere (Michael Keaton), who recruits the peculiar pachyderm for his newest, larger-than-life entertainment venture, Dreamland.
Rotten Tomatoes has certainly become a much-contested movie phenomenon. It can kill a film. It can make a film. Before the days of the smartphone, in the days of the DVD shop, I did not dare rent a film without checking out the RT score on the shop’s computer. These days, you can download apps that automatically add RT scores to all your Netflix/Amazon entertainment. Even my 9-year-old godchild asks for the RT score before attempting to watch anything.
When a film scores 3% on RT, you are guaranteed it is a stinker. When it scores 90%, you are mostly assured it is a good film. (I say mostly, because some films are hailed as great cinema, when they are perhaps important cinema, but only mediocre films. I am looking at you, Wonder Woman, Black Panther and Crazy rich Asians.) Where things get interesting is when reviewers are split down the middle and a film, such as Dumbo, scores 52%. Then, it is worth reading the actual reviews and not simply glancing at the score.
For example, top critic Soren Andersen (Seattle Times) says the following: “Burton’s command of this material and his masterful visual sense make this Dumbo an engaging delight. Like that winsome elephant, it really does soar.”
But, then, top critic John Semley (Globe & Mail) disagrees wholeheartedly: “Abysmally scripted and hammily acted – and not, for the most part, in an interesting or ironic way – Dumbo recasts Disney’s animated classic in the trappings and suits of Burton’s pinstripe-and-pinwheel upholstery.”
Reviewing is a subjective thing, even if you try and employ all the objectivity at your disposal. The trick is recognising your faults, and sometimes being unsure and admitting to it. I am still ambivalent about Stropers and my review of it.
Let’s get to Dumbo. There is a lot to enjoy, even though it might not be Tim Burton’s best work. The stellar cast brings much humanity to characters who could have otherwise been mere caricatures. Yet, even though you loathe the “bad guys” for what they do to Dumbo and his mom, there is not quite enough emotion in the script for me to care deeply about the “good guys”.
I was expecting Burton’s signature brooding, darkly comedic Edward Scissorhands-style of filmmaking. Dumbo is light and airy and whimsical, however, and that is perfect for the source material.
Visually, the film is more wonderfully art deco than gothic Sweeney Todd: The demon barber of Fleet Street. You marvel at the year 1919 which Burton manages to create through faultless animation and attention to detail. The costumes and wigs are something to behold.
The message is clear. Fathers should be there for their children. Embrace what makes you different, whether it be big ears or an arm you lost in the war. Find your way through life on your own terms. All of these are admirable.
It is a sweet tale and, consequently, a sweet film (albeit a very safe option). Perhaps, we need more sweet, fanciful films in 2019. (Here, my subjectivity kicks in, well, more than usual.) Dumbo, along with Mary Poppins returns, might not have been a cinematic milestone in the careers of the cast and crew, but it is the kind of movie that is sorely needed: films that enhance childlike wonder in children, and resuscitate it in adults.
My godchild might frown at the 52%. I will encourage him to look past it.