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'Dumbo' Is Tim Burton's Best Film in 25 Years


Let’s just say I’ve had mixed feelings about the films of Tim Burton throughout the years.

When I was a kid he was one of my favorite movie directors. Up there with Spielberg and Hitchcock. A man who in my eyes could do no wrong.

His run of films between 1985 and 1994 is truly astonishing. Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, Batman, Edward Scissorhands, Batman Returns, and Ed Wood. I cherish all of these movies and revisit them often. They are classics through and through. Some of them have their flaws, sure, but I adore them all pretty much equally.

After Ed Wood, though, his output definitely became more varied.

He’s made eleven films since Ed Wood. Eleven films in twenty-five years. And I’m sad to say only a handful of these have left me satisfied. Mars Attacks and Sleepy Hollow, his other two films of the 1990s, are solid, if not spectacular. Big Fish is a decent film I plan to revisit soon. Dark Shadows is kind of fun. And the delightful Big Eyes from 2014 brought Burton back to his roots of personal filmmaking like Ed Wood.

But nothing to me has felt like a truly rapturous and emotional Tim Burton experience in a long, long time like his new live-action version of Dumbo.

I did not have high expectations. The animated film is not one of my favorites from the classic Disney library. I basically saw it because I continue to believe in Tim Burton, keep waiting for him to deliver again the way he used to when I was a kid.

And deliver with Dumbo he did because I sincerely enjoyed this movie in just about every way.

The story grabs you from the first scene, with particular attention paid to the splendid historical setting details and richly drawn characters, all brought to life by a superb cast that includes Colin Farrell, Eva Green, Michael Keaton, and Danny DeVito. (And I won’t lie, there’s a certain fascination with seeing Keaton and DeVito team up with Burton again, playing the opposite kinds of characters they did in Batman Returns.)

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What I didn’t expect to enjoy so much was the portrayal of Dumbo, the flying elephant. Even though you sort of know you’re watching a CGI creation every time it’s on screen, the elephant does come to life in a way I didn’t expect, and its scenes with its mother brought a tear to my eye more than once. (That damn Baby Mine song, it’s just too much!)

The plight of the elephant works beautifully on a narrative level, especially as the movie continues toward its triumphant finale.

The first half of the film is the more standard section, but once the elephant and human characters make their way to the lavish and extraordinary Dreamland, where Dumbo is put on display for hundreds of paying customers, the beauty of Tim Burton’s imagination is put on full display. The side attractions of the theme park are truly weird and fantastic, and they give this film a unique flair that probably wouldn’t have been achieved under the direction of a different person.

Sure, the film is predictable, and there’s even a moment where a character says in dialogue what everyone needs to do to achieve a happy ending for Dumbo. But I thought this was a rare case lately where Burton made a film where everything comes together beautifully. The cast, the settings, the production design, Danny Elfman’s wondrous score. This isn’t another Burton film where the creative look is fighting it out with the story. This is one where they come together seamlessly.

It’s grand entertainment, and it does the original Disney animated film justice.

I don’t know about you, but Dumbo is my favorite of the recent trend of live-action Disney remakes of their animated films, 2015’s Cinderella coming in second, and pretty much everything else, including Burton’s own Alice in Wonderland, coming in a way distant third. This is a film that paired the right director with the right source material, and I just couldn’t stop grinning from the humorous opening moments to the gorgeous final shot.

It’s a close call, he’s definitely done some solid work since, but for me, Dumbo is the Tim Burton film I’ve enjoyed the most going all the way back to 1994’s Ed Wood. This man still has the goods, and here’s hoping there’s even better things to come in his future.

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