One of the greatest moments in suffering through a bad movie is that rare instance when a character onscreen utters a line that sums up one’s thoughts about the projected mess.
In Tim Burton’s Dumbo, that magical occurrence arrives late in the film when a wealthy banker and investor played by Alan Arkin surveys the literal destruction around him and says, in the actor’s textbook beautifully dry manner, “Wow, that was a disaster!”
The summation is perfect for the usually imaginative director’s live-action take on the 1941 Disney animated classic, set in 1919 with Colin Farrell as a one-armed World War I veteran with a bad Southern accent that wasn’t passed on to his two children, both of whom are played by cute kids whose performances wouldn’t cut it in a church play.
The three are part of a traveling circus into which the titular baby elephant with giant ears enters as a potential financial savior and from which his adoring mother exits, setting up a long, torturous, yet mind-numbingly simple journey to reconciliation.
In contrast to Arkin, who can’t help but be terrific, fellow Burton vets Danny DeVito, Michael Keaton and Eva Green appear impervious to direction, if any was, in fact, provided. Elevating their dull tale are scattered visual delights and a rote but still pleasant Danny Elfman score, as well as the repetitive yet generally moving relationship between Dumbo and his mother.
More often than not, however, ill-conceived inclusions — from DeVito’s weird variation on his L.A. Confidential introductory narration to the baffling, seemingly unintentional commentary on Disney’s business practices and theme parks — suffocate any hope for sustained joy and leave Burton’s latest film best left unseen.