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The elephant in the room: New ‘Dumbo’ movie isn’t very good

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Watching Tim Burton-directed films these days is a bit like watching a star athlete as his body begins to betray him in the twilight of his career. He may still do incredible, thrilling things. He may even be able to completely take over a game. But he can’t do so consistently.

This perfectly describes Tim Burton’s post-“Big Fish” career.

Come to think of it, that’s also a good way to describe Burton’s new film, a loose remake of the Disney animated classic, “Dumbo.” It has some brilliant moments, bits that inspire genuine wonder, but it doesn’t consistently perform like a champ. It mostly just fizzles.

“Dumbo” is the story of the Farrier family, father Holt (Colin Farrell), daughter Milly (Nico Parker) and son Joe (Finley Hobbins). After coming home from war injured, Holt and his kids are put in charge of caring for circus elephants belonging to Max Medici (Danny DeVito).

Enter Dumbo, a baby elephant with comically large ears and who gets separated from his mother. The Farrier kids undertake to develop Dumbo’s surprising gift of flight as a way to get Medici to buy Dumbo’s mom back. The plan hits complications when the Medici circus is purchased by entertainer and entrepreneur V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), and the possibility of Dumbo reuniting with his Mother is placed in doubt.

Much like the work of an aging star quarterback, “Dumbo” has flashes of excellence. For example, several of the acting performances in this flick are fantastic. Keaton is delightfully phony as Vandevere. Alan Arkin shows up to steal a few scenes with deadpan brilliance. DeVito is terrific as well. On the whole, the cast does its share of the heavy lifting.

Another plus is the visual look of Dumbo. Burton has toned down his trademark gothic quirkiness but in its place, he’s brought a lot of beautiful imagery. From sunsets over Medici’s circus train and the stunning sight of a retro-futuristic amusement park at night, “Dumbo” is filled with beautiful vistas to feast your eyes on.

And though he’s a bunch of pixels in a bank of computers, the title character is so stinking adorable, he melts your heart. You can’t help but feel for the little guy, and that connection to Dumbo makes the “Baby of Mine” scene the most touching and resonant scene in the movie.

Unfortunately, Burton and his team have forced some of the focus onto the Farrier family, and those characters really aren’t that interesting. Instead of seeing Dumbo learn to deal with life on his own terms and believe in himself, what we get is another tale about how a magic animal changed the lives of a family.

The decision to focus on the Farriers also robs the film of something it desperately needs: a true protagonist. Dumbo doesn’t feel like the protagonist because he does almost everything he does at the direction of humans. A hero who doesn’t make his own choices is kind of boring.

Holt and the Farrier kids aren’t protagonists, either, because we don’t spend enough time to get to know them. We get a dead mother backstory and the fact that Milly is interested in science. But the people feel less like people and more like pawns at the mercy of the screenplay.

Overall, “Dumbo” isn’t a disaster. There are some wonderous scenes and a few thrills here and there. Kids will probably enjoy it. But it jettisons the magic that made the original cartoon memorable and replaces it with cliched plotting and characters that are acted upon instead of acting for themselves. That all makes for a pretty so-so movie experience.

2 ½ Indy Fedoras out of 5

MPAA Rating: PG

Thanks to Fat Cats in Rexburg for providing screenings for movie reviews on EastIdahoNews.com.

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