Despite some letdowns, Dumbo is still Tim Burton’s best family movie in ages

Dumbo, the animated 1941 Disney classic, gets the Tim Burton treatment in this live-action remake starring Colin Farrell and Danny Devito. Despite a creaky script, it’s still Burton’s best family movie in ages critic Adam Fresco proclaims.

Reunited with his Batman Returns stars Michael Keaton and Danny DeVito, director Tim Burton delivers his best family movie in ages, with a live-action meets CGI reworking of Disney’s 1941 animated classic. Dropping the original’s overt racism and animal cruelty, this Dumbo delivers wholesome family fare, in an uncynically old-time tale of how, if you believe in yourself, and never judge a book by its cover, working together we can achieve anything.

Colin Farrell plays Holt, an injured soldier, returning from WWI, reunited with his two children and the travelling circus he used to headline with his late wife. Finding the circus on the skids and his horse act sold, Holt is offered the role of elephant keeper by owner, Max Medici (Danny DeVito), who introduces him to Mrs Jumbo, mother of a baby with ears so big, he’s given the derisive nickname Dumbo. But, as Holt says, “What can you tell by appearances?”

With the help of Holt’s kids, Dumbo finds his place in the circus, attracting the greedy attention of Michael Keaton’s oily entrepreneur, V. A. Vandevere, who lures the circus family over to his Dreamland theme-park, (which, when the letter “D” drops off the sign, might be director Tim Burton’s cheeky aside to the film’s producers). As you’d expect, the art direction is first-rate, and the Dumbo look so good that when Keaton’s villainous Vandevere first sees Dumbo fly he’s rapt, telling Holt, “You’ve made me a child again.”

Whilst a creaky, repetitive script and flat characterisations fail to inspire much awe, there’s plenty of family fun to be had along the way, featuring respectful nods to the original (including the pink elephant parade, this time without alcohol involved), sad scenes, spectacle, slapstick, and laughs, including a scene in which an incredulous Keaton asks DeVito: “Is that a monkey in your drawer?”

De Vito is delightful, Keaton has a blast as the bad guy, Eva Green does what she can in a severely underwritten role, and Alan Arkin appears briefly as a banker. The film is let down by the flat performances of the youngsters playing Holt’s children, and some painfully dire actors in small roles, particularly one Dreamland controller in the last act, who warns Keaton against flipping switches with about as much conviction as a biologist explaining the aerodynamic properties of pachyderms.