There’s a peculiarly 19th-century sensibility at work in Dumbo, both the 1941 Walt Disney animated version and Tim Burton’s new live-action retelling. It’s as if, once the workhouses were abolished, we needed to find new ways to build character in children: Why not just rake over their nascent emotions by introducing them to an adorable baby elephant who’s “different” and then fixating on his distress as his mother is carted away? Don’t stop there: Detail every twist and turn of his precarious existence as he’s commodified and misused by people in power.

That approach was pronounced enough in the original Dumbo. With this update, the once-great, now not-so-great Burton revamps the story for a new generation, not that this new generation asked for it. Now we’ve got a Dumbo that’s cluttered with Burtonesque details—a parade of creepy clowns, a nightmare-themed circus populated by miserable animals—that are supposed to be cool and edgy but really just get in the way. The new Dumbo is ostentatious and overworked, less a work of imagination than a declaration of how imaginative Burton thinks he is. It’s hard to fathom that this is the same filmmaker who gave us that squiggle of delight Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, or those two somber yet unself-conscious Batman movies, or the elegiac Sleepy Hollow. His movies are now Frankenstein’s monsters of stitched-together elements: Things he likes, things he thinks his audience will like, things he believes are expected of him. He’s become a specialist in fulfilling some generic expectation of what a Tim Burton movie should be; it seems like forever since he’s just made a Tim Burton movie.


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