The circus has long been a home for stories about the downtrodden and marginalised who find commonality under one canvas roof. Director Tim Burton puts his own spin on those well-worn tropes to remake a fresh version of Disney's beloved animated classic.
That said, there is plenty to recognise in Dumbo as a typical circus tale. The main character is a one-armed war-vet-turned-circus-hand (an eyebrow-slanting Colin Farrell), who along with his two children care for an impossibly cute baby elephant with unfeasibly large ears. So large, in fact, that Dumbo's airborne antics (yes, he learns to fly) catch the eye of a rival entrepreneur whose nefarious plans threaten to permanently separate Dumbo from his mother.
Perfectly cast, Dumbo reunites its director with Batman stalwarts Michael Keaton, who plays a deliciously silver-tongued theme-park owner, and Danny DeVito (Batman Returns), a spherically shaped ringmaster. Also from the Burton alumni is Eva Green (Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children), a trapeze artist sympathetic to Dumbo's cause. It's a wonderful ensemble that looks perfectly at home in this lavish production.
But at the film's heart is the flapping pachyderm. Burton effortlessly ushers us across the digital divide and turns a synthetic soul into something real, thanks in part to an effects team who have done a stunning job at creating Dumbo's complex array of expressions. "Find the eyes and you'll see the soul", as the saying goes, and the result is an enchanting character that bleeds pathos with every blink.
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Although anthropomorphised animals mightn't be everyone's cup of tea, Burton's version of Dumbo is ultimately a human story that speaks across generations. Young and old will find tears and laughter — certainly, this reviewer and three 12-year-olds in tow seemed to run the gamut of emotions. And despite a few underdeveloped characters and a score that occasionally gushes like a broken mains pipe, Dumbo is a tissue factory worth of sadness dried by a big top of colourful delights.
Cast: Colin Farrell, Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Eva Green, Nico Parker
Director: Tim Burton
Running time: 112 mins
Verdict: Bravura Burton and a return to form.