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Review: Dumbo – “A thrilling three-ring family favourite”

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A live-action remake of Disney’s 1941 animation, Dumbo is directed by Tim Burton (Sleepy Hollow), written by Ehren Kruger (Scream 3) and stars Colin Farrell (Phone Booth), Danny DeVito (Throw Momma From the Train), Eva Green (Casino Royale) and Michael Keaton (Batman).

Captain Holt Farrier (Farrell) returns from the war in which he lost an arm to discover that the circus he used to work at has sold the horses from his cowboy act, his wife has died of influenza and his smart and tough kids – Joe (Finley Hobbins) and Milly (Nico Parker) – miss their mum and no longer know their dad.

So when the circus owner, Max Medici (DeVito), puts the Holt’s in charge of his new elephant the three use the opportunity to try and assuage their loss and grief with some meaning and direction. The elephant gives birth to a baby with huge ears who is teased and mockingly named “Dumbo” and sensing a kindred spirit, Holt tries to find him a place in the show, while the kids train him to fly with those whopping great lugholes, and then reunite him with his mother after she wrecks a show trying to protect her put-upon calf.

Burton and Kruger are not only tasked with remaking a core Disney classic – but also boosting the running time from one hour to two to satisfy modern audiences and cinema chains. This is done with a really interesting second half featuring the circus being absorbed into a Coney Island-esque theme park by Keaton’s brilliant and beastly preening entertainment impresario: V.A. Vandavere.

As well as giving us this great baddie – and a mini Batman reunion between Burton and Keaton – the new stuff features an elegant performance from Burton’s current muse: Eva Green, as a high-flying trapeze artist tasked with learning to fly Dumbo. The new material also provides Burton with the opportunity to stage a circus freak heist and you can sense his relish for this sequence through the screen as his strongman, mesmerist, snake charmer and mermaid set about Oceans 11-ing Dumbo’s mum.

Burton’s kooks and quirks are noticeably absent a lot of the time though, with flourishes such as an area of the theme park known as “Nightmare Island” being demonstrably scarier and weirder than it would otherwise have been, and the clowns looking extremely similar to – if not the same as – the Penguin’s goons in Batman Returns, really standing out.

Dumbo manages to still not feel like Tame Burton though, it just comes across as though his focus is on getting FX and performances spot-on, and not distractingly disrupting the film with his foibles. Instead, the original’s spirit is kept via a super-cute rendering of the little elephant with the big ears, and augmented with across-the-board great performances from a haughty Green, heroic Farrell, hilarious DeVito and mercifully unannoying kids.

Special mention must also go to some sterling support from Alan Arkin (Grosse Pointe Blank) as a loveably grouchy investor, and the awesome Sharon Rooney (My Mad Fat Diary) as the anxious and arse-kicking mermaid Miss Atlantis. Rooney is also tasked with performing the most well-known song from the original – and the only one in the new film – ‘Baby Mine’, and does so with aplomb and a ukelele.

At times, Dumbo may seem bleak and sad but there is also a wide streak of wonder, and lots of love and support, showing that even in the darkest times hope and joy and family can sometimes be just the flap of an ear away. A thrilling three-ring family favourite full of Disney magic, Dumbo will make your heart soar.

Dumbo is released in the UK on the 29th of March.

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