We need to talk about Dumbo – and what’s going on with Tim Burton

If Tim Burton had remade Dumbo 54 years after the original, it would be have been great. 1995’s Tim Burton would have made a very different film to what’s just landed in cinemas. And that’s because in 1995, Burton was at the height of his powers. ‘Burtonesque’ was an adjective because his movies oozed with style. Smack in the middle of an impressive run of films, he was an auteur whose visual treats about life’s oddballs hadn’t yet grown tired.

Instead, the film was made three-quarters of a century after Dumbo first took flight and since 1995, Burton has made more than one film that’s made me want to put my head in my hands.

My review of the film is mixed in with my feelings about Burton so I can’t chop this post neatly in half. Because when we talk about Dumbo, we need to talk about what the hell is going on with Tim Burton.

I’ve already blown through what can be considered acceptable for a preface but if I hadn’t, I would start this post by saying – I adore Tim Burton’s films. When I was younger, dreaming about what I’d be ‘when I grow up,’ I imagined myself sitting on a film set making movies like Tim Burton.

Like many teenagers much more into playing music than kicking a football, I identified with the characters Burton brought to life much more than the ones driving really loud cars in the first few Fast and Furious movies.

It was Burton who made me think about how films are made. What goes into creating characters, crafting narratives and designing worlds. I started to look past the simple entertainment of films and think about how a director could be responsible for what’s on screen. I even did a dissertation at university that centered around how Burton brought his characters to life and got a tattoo of the boy with nails in his eyes from the director’s poem of the same name.  

The Boy with Nails in his Eyes

I loved that he could switch seamlessly between the surreal suburbia of Edward Scissorhands, the haunting Sleepy Hollow and the grounded and stylish Ed Wood. Hey, I even loved some films he made without Johnny Depp!

But since then, the over-saturated world of Dark Shadows and the sugary-sweet Charlie and the Chocolate Factory had soured what I loved about the director. Becoming disenfranchised with lots of his films, it was around Alice in Wonderland where I had to wonder – has Tim Burton lost his spark?

Now I need to clear it up before I tear it apart. I quite liked Dumbo, irregardless of what I’m about to say. What the film represents – if you look hard enough – is a glimmer of Tim Burton’s former style. But it really is only a glimpse. Because if you rub a dirty penny long enough, it’ll catch the light ever so slightly.

What Dumbo showed me is that Burton hasn’t lost his spark. I just think it’s gotten lost behind big budgets and even bigger intellectual properties. And both of those things invite interference from the big studios that are stumping up the cash and letting Burton play with their stars.

What I love most about Burton’s earlier films is the heart of them. I feel he works best on a smaller scale with intellectual properties that he’s come up with or ones that come without the weight of a Disney animated classic. Edward Scissorhands is about someone shut away from the world and treated like an outsider. But even when he’s accepted and celebrated by the town he arrives in, the story remains self-contained.  

Ed Wood is a story about one man’s professional and personal journey whose life is centered around the movies he’s making. Even Burton’s Batman films – the furthest of cries from the superhero movies of today – is very insular. Real emotional stories that take place in a smaller world are when Tim Burton is at his best.

If Dumbo was made when Tim Burton was operating at these levels, there’d be more practical effects, less self congratulatory pats on the back, some more edge and a certainly a lot more heart. Instead, Dumbo is like Burton-Lite. It’s so nearly a classic Tim Burton film, it’s just had all the air taken out of it.

A 1995 Dumbo wouldn’t have had the CG that it does in 2019. And that’s not to say the effects don’t look incredible because they do. But the 1941 animation asks constantly if the audience believes that an elephant can fly. In this new version however he flies immediately and a lot. The VFX make the flying sequences look so good that you take the moment for granted. It happens so quickly and frankly so often, that Burton needed to pad out the film with loads more stuff.  

Initially I couldn’t decide if I thought that Dumbo and his over exaggerated features were adorable (which arguable they’re supposed to be) or a bit creepy. After having actually watched it, I settled on the latter. The effects have allowed Dumbo to look just like an elephant but he’s bursting with real, almost human emotion. And that emotion is never more evident in the moments that Dumbo has with his mother.

Dumbo with his mother, Mrs. Jumbo

This is where I saw 1995 Tim Burton. You can see an alternate version of the film that’s so centered on Dumbo that audiences come out absolutely besotted by the flying elephant. Instead, we get these beautiful moments whipped away just as we’re settling into them and instead have to watch Colin Farrell brooding like he’s the outsider and not the jug-eared elephant.

My guess is that because Disney has stumped up the cash for Colin Farrell, he needed to be in it a bunch. I have a troubled relationship with the actor because in most of his films, I don’t think he’s able to make his characters likeable enough. In Dumbo, he’s a war veteran who’s lost an arm and returns home to find his wife’s been killed and his kids have been looking after themselves. And frankly, if he’s not able to make that character sympathetic maybe it’s time we stop putting him in films.

Surely if Burton wanted to give Colin Farrell that much screen time, the option could have been to tell a story where his character becomes attached to Dumbo. Instead he just stands to one side brooding and not paying any attention to his kids.

But that aside, another glimmer of hope is Michael Keaton’s V. A. Vandevere. A Trump-like character that waltzes into Dumbo’s circus to make Danny Devito rich, Keaton is great in this film. He’s an archetypal baddie from early cinema. At one point I thought he was going to twiddle a moustache and tie someone to some rail tracks.

Vandevere takes everyone in the circus to a world he’s built called Dreamland, a fantastical theme park that puts another tick in the ‘Burton hasn’t lost it’ column. Dreamland is a turn of the century pleasure garden with an exaggerated colour pallete splashed across its huge, over the top attractions and rides. The world that’s been laid out gives us an answer to the question; what if Tim Burton was one of Walt Disney’s first Imagineers for Disneyland.

Dumbo‘s amusement park Dreamland

And it’s this that Tim Burton is so good at. Yes, this backdrop is mostly computer-generated visual effects but it’s been designed in a way that’s real. It’s the opposite of what Alice finds inside Burton’s rabbit hole. All pastel and drab, Wonderland has nothing on Dreamland.  

It’s this ability to still direct over-the-top characters and create an interesting world that gives me hope that Tim Burton’s still there somewhere. He’s just hiding behind a big pile of cash, too much CG work and Colin Farrell being a terrible parent.  

Dumbo is so nearly a great film and there’s so much in it that I liked. But there’s just something about it that makes me feel uneasy. But that aside, I hope it marks something of a comeback for the director. One that kicks off a run of films that re-establish what we think of as ‘Burtonesque’. Because he’s been shining that penny for a while now; it’s got to start shining soon.

Less Wonderland and more Dreamland please, Mr Burton.

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