Dumbo flies but the magic's missing

In cinemas: Dumbo, PG, 112 mins

Friday, 29th March 2019, 1:53 pm
Updated Friday, 29th March 2019, 1:56 pm

Director Tim Burton really has got the most extraordinary visual imagination. But we all know that. With the film Dumbo, it’s more a question of what he’s lacking, and that’s a compelling story to hold together scenes which are genuinely breath-taking, but scenes which ultimately, without too much of a plot, just seem like pictures at an exhibition.

Yes, it’s great that Dumbo flies round and round the big top, whizzing people’s hats off, sometimes flying freely, but often needing a bit of a prompt. But in the end it’s not a enough in a film which goes all out to fill us full of a sense of wonder, but finishes up leaving us wondering when it is going to end.

Possibly part of the problem is that any animal in captivity is going to sit fairly uncomfortably with modern-day sensibilities, especially one with variously children, Eva Green or Colin Farrell leaping on its back. For a long time the film seems blissfully unaware of the problem... until, without warning, out of the blue, five minutes before the end, it tells us “No, animals really ought to be set free.” It’s a little late by then.

The gist is that Baby Jumbo, who cleverly and accidentally becomes Dumbo, is separated from his mother and left with a bunch of no-hoper circus performers, willingly but ineffectively led by Danny DeVito. They dimly see that with Dumbo they’ve got the best circus attraction ever... and are easy victims when the villainous entrepreneur V A Vandevere (Michael Keaton) steps in to exploit them – much as they have happily been doing to their animals.

But the thing that’s really missing, for all Dumbo looks great, is the sense of magic it so desperately needs.

It’s a film which suffers in comparison. The Greatest Showman wandered through vaguely similar territory and certainly had a similar feel, but everything it did, it did with the emotional punch which is absent here. More recently, Mary Poppins Returns was awash with wonder, carried through with a cracking good story.

In their company (and it’s impossible not to think of them) Dumbo fails to fly, for all the big-eared pachyderm swoops and soars before our eyes. Massive effort has gone into the film; it seems mean but true to say, the results don’t reward that effort.