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Does Tim Burton's Dumbo remake soar? First reviews say it's gorgeous, but lacks heart

By Josh Weiss
Eva Green Dumbo Tim Burton Disney

This Friday (March 29), Tim Burton's live-action remake of Disney's Dumbo will fly into theaters, but does the reimagining of the 1941 animated classic fly high or crash? The answer, according to the first official reviews, is both yes and no.

Despite some true ambition, an all-star ensemble cast, and Burton's twisted touch, the film (written by Ghost in the Shell's Ehren Kruger) cannot quite achieve the lofty heights of its beloved source material, which, if we're being honest, isn't perfect either.

Nevertheless, some critics write that there are some really genuine moments, hailing Dumbo as Burton's best movie in years thanks to the weirdness he is able to infuse into the plot's post-war circus setting.

Most notably, the project sees the filmmaker reunited with his two Batman/Batman Returns alums, Danny DeVito and Michael Keaton. DeVito plays Max Medici, the owner of the circus to which Dumbo is born. His large, flappy ears are considered an eyesore until Medici realizes that they allow the pachyderm to fly around the ring. Hearing about this miraculous animal, Keaton's  V. A. Vandevere buys out the circus in order to get rich off of the talented elephant.

Due to the presence of Keaton's character, reviews have pointed out that the movie gains an extra dimension from Disney's real-world acquisition of 20th Century Fox, which is currently resulting in many layoffs. And despite the titular character's cuteness shown off in the trailers, some are a little freaked out by how unnatural he looks as a completed CGI creation.

Colin Farrell (Fantastic Beasts), Eva Green (Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children), and Alan Arkin (Argo) make up the rest of Dumbo's A-list cast.

See what the critics are saying below...

"The actors all do what they can, but mostly get lost in the shuffle and end up with too little to do, like Alan Arkin's cynical New York banker. This is a film in which Rick Heinrichs' richly textured production design and Colleen Atwood's beautiful period costumes are the stars. There are gorgeous images, such as the always alluring Green swinging from a giant chandelier in the big top, shedding her skirt before an aerial leap. But when that visual leaves a more captivating impression than a baby elephant spreading its ears and getting airborne like a glider, something is definitely off in the balance. The new Dumbo holds the attention but too seldom tugs at the heartstrings." -David Rooney, The Hollywood Reporter

"Dumbo has the look and atmosphere of a 'sincere' blockbuster that’s trying too hard. What it’s trying too hard to do, of course, is to justify its existence as another live-action version of a fabled Disney cartoon ... Dumbo is no folly; it doesn’t leave you feeling cheated. But it’s not exhilarating either. It occupies a carefully tailored, underimagined middle ground where even an elephant who flies can come to seem, by the end, a figure of flamboyant caution." -Owen Gleiberman, Variety

"Unlike others in Disney’s current rehashing of its classic animated tales (including The Jungle Book and Beauty and the Beast), Dumbo actually redefines the source material, thanks to Burton's quirky style. The young elephant's imaginative new adventure carries over the original film's same sense of wonder for children, though this movie might not be for really small tots because of some nightmarish creatures and a little fiery peril." -Brian Truitt, USA Today

"Neither Dumbo nor any of the other animals—some CGI, some not, it’s hard to tell at times—ever talk, which allows Burton to sidestep the original’s most uncomfortable element, the scene with the crows. But the beasts do interact closely with the human actors and blend in beautifully with the rest of the cast; along with the digital architectural flourishes added to the practical sets, they’re proof that there’s some benefit to having a mega-corporate backer." -Katie Rife, A.V. Club

"This remake is still easier to take than the 1941 version. That’s because the new, computer-generated Dumbo, with his limp nun-veil ears and creepy, human-looking Zemeckis-style eyes—I had a PTSD flashback to The Polar Express—just isn’t that cute. He also has wrinkly, semirealistic-looking gray skin, which is part of the problem. It’s impossible to create a fake baby elephant that’s cuter than a real one. And in real life, baby elephants suffer plenty. Why invent excessive trauma even for a fictional one?" -Stephanie Zacharek, Time

"This movie also offers less: less wit, less charm, and only a few scraps of the old movie’s crucial songs (though “Baby Mine” receives its moment, in a campfire rendition). Burton has taken on this sort of adaptation for Disney before, with the 2010 billion-dollar-grossing Alice in Wonderland. I found that one easier to take, if only because Mia Wasikowska brought humanity and restraint to a project that felt like a corporate directive, not a great idea. Similarly, in terms of aesthetics, a live-action Dumbo seems like a mistake to be overcome, not a creative challenge to be met." -Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune

"As a faithful update of a cherished classic, the new Dumbo will get the job done for restless kids on a rainy Saturday afternoon. Still, we’ve come to expect more magic, more bizarro pixie dust from Burton. Maybe that’s why the second marriage between the director and Disney feels more like an uneasy corporate alliance than a union of artistic passion." Chris Nashawaty, Entertainment Weekly

"Unlike Alice [in Wonderland], Dumbo often rises to the level of tolerable. That is, of course, a woefully low bar to clear, but with the help of two weird, energetic performances as well as Rick Heinrichs’ production design, Dumbo never sinks into the same badness that Burton’s previous Disney remake did. But the core of the story is poorly fleshed out. Once, Jumbo Jr. (AKA Dumbo) was the stoic, sympathetic and silent lead. Here, he’s a supporting player, rendered in CG that’s never as able to evoke emotion as the hand-drawn iteration from the 1940s did." -Josh Spiegel, /Film

"This film takes the character and the barebones narrative of the original and creates its own relatively original movie, one that (understandably) puts the focus on the humans rather than the expensive CGI elephant. It's less grounded (and, frankly, less good) than David Lowery's 2016 masterpiece (easily the best of these live-action Disney redos), but it also works on its own terms." -Scott Mendelson, Forbes

"Altogether, the story of Dumbo finds a surprisingly natural way to flesh out the tale of the original, which was one of Disney's shortest animated films, but Kruger goes a touch too far and the new movie feels spread too thin across its two-hour runtime. Although Dumbo introduces a host of human characters to build out the world, they're largely one-dimensional and reduced to either moving the plot forward as necessary or used for punchlines." -Molly Freeman, ScreenRant

"There’s still a formula that Dumbo is supposed to follow, and the film can’t break it, even if Burton sneaks in the subversive. The movie is Pirates of the Caribbean-esque in that sense; familiar beats interspersed with strange details ... Dumbo’s best sequences — the grandness of Dreamland, the colors the characters wear, the pure joy when Dumbo takes flight — don’t require words, which is, in the end, perhaps the film’s greatest tribute to the original." -Karen Han, Polygon