Dumbo, rated PG

Starring Colin Farrell, Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Eva Green, Alan Arkin

Austin Family Critical Rating: 4 of 5 stars

Austin Family Family-Friendly Rating: 4½ of 5 stars

If there’s one reason to see Tim Burton’s re-imagining of Disney’s Dumbo (and there are many), it’s Michael Keaton. As V.A. Vandevere, the villainous tycoon who aims to exploit the flying elephant Dumbo, Keaton brings a wild energy to the film as soon as he enters the picture. His line readings are big, his facial gestures even bigger, and he makes Burton’s film a blast to watch.

Dumbo originates from the classic 1941 animated film of the same name, and Burton makes for a wonderful fit for the material. This isn’t his first Disney adaptation (his talents were wasted on 2010’s Alice in Wonderland), but it is his first film in some time that truly brims with imagination. This is partly attributable to the circus scenes, which are visually dazzling. Max Medici (Burton regular Danny DeVito, also having a ball) runs a traveling circus that has seen better days, and when his horse-riding star Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) returns from World War I having lost an arm, it seems like the circus’s animal attractions are a thing of the past. But when an elephant Medici purchased gives birth to the big-eared, scrappy young Dumbo, Farrier’s children Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins) discover the elephant can fly, under the right circumstances. Suddenly, the circus is back in business, with Dumbo enchanting crowds across America. This attracts the attention of Vandevere, who has bigger and more nefarious plans for capitalizing on the elephant’s talent.

The scenes set inside Vandevere’s Dreamland, a theme park including a circus and all kinds of attractions, are extraordinary. The production design and costuming – not to mention the thrill of watching French trapeze artist Colette (Eva Green) leap onto Dumbo and ride on his back as he flies – are astonishing. The wondrous visuals here make up for a rather dreary-looking first act (and not Burton-dreary, which would have been great, but Disney-dreary). I was fascinated by the fact that Dreamland resembles Disneyland in almost every way; in fact, it’s hard not to watch Keaton’s Vandevere buying out Medici and firing Medici’s hard-working circus performers, and not think of Disney’s recent acquisition of 20thCentury Fox (and the subsequent dismantling of Fox 2000 Pictures and the massive layoffs across the board). Disney is more of a monopoly than it’s ever been, and it was strange to watch a Disney film in which the self-owned Medici Brothers’ Circus eventually triumphs over the evil Vandevere and his Dreamland.

I’m admittedly not a huge fan of Disney’s live-action remakes of their greatest animated features. These films feel unnecessary and somewhat like lazy cash grabs, even as they’re oftentimes made elegantly and feature great talent. Dumbo works so well, perhaps because the property faces fewer expectations than The Lion King or Aladdin, and so it feels like Burton and his team have more room to experiment. The visual effects that bring the baby elephant to life are truly exceptional, and yet it’s the actors and filmmaking talent that drew me to this film. (Seeing Keaton, DeVito and Burton reunite after Batman Returns is a particular delight.) If you have to make a live-action adaptation of a Disney cartoon, this is the way to do it. And now that we have it, let’s get some original ideas going again.

Jack Kyser is a graduate of Austin High School and New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.

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