This past weekend marked the return of Tim Burton to theaters. He has not been gone for long, but his latest Disney live-action remake did not stick the landing. While some have been positive about the story of the small elephant (myself included), the larger consensus has been negative. With a 49% on Rotten Tomatoes, “Dumbo” earns the unfortunate bronze medal as the third worst reviewed film of Burton’s career. This is particularly shocking given that “Alice in Wonderland,” a critically derided film in recent years, scored two points higher.
The rebuff of “Dumbo” comes from several factors. First, Burton is not exactly coming into the project with goodwill on his side. He had not made a genuinely terrific film since “Sweeney Todd” (2007), or “Big Fish” (2003) if we’re being honest. Burton found his way to Oscar nominations twice since 2005, but each occurred as a co-director of an animated film (“Frankenweenie” & “The Corpse Bride”). Second, Disney will not stop making these live-action sequels. Four more are on the way this year, with “Lady and the Tramp,” “Aladdin,” “Lion King,” and a new “Maleficent” film on the way.
Finally, the message of anti-capitalism and destructive over-the-top properties rang hollow coming from Disney. The parallels between Dreamland and Disney were too obvious to ignore. Slightly less obvious was the pseudo-Michael Eisner being portrayed by Michael Keaton. However, with Eisner not part of this generation of Disney history, many may not even get the reference. Even as “Dumbo” deals with some Burton baggage in suprisingly and unexpected ways, audiences didn’t seem to buy-in. Will Oscar feel the same way as general audiences?
Working in Burton’s favor, his last collaboration with Disney resulted in “Alice in Wonderland” winning two Oscars. However, the reality of Disney’s 2010 awards slate left few contenders for the studio to push. This year, Disney will have to shell out money for the upcoming “Avengers: Endgame,” “Star Wars: Episode IX,” several animated features, and whatever Fox Searchlight cooks up.
Additionally, “Dumbo” will not have a billion dollar box office to prove it’s popularity. If anything, it will struggle to get back to $100 million. Director and Best Picture are obviously out of the conversation. The same can be said for the performers, who give mostly flat work outside of Danny DeVito and Colin Farrell. Granted, Burton films rarely had success with above-the-line nominations. Outside of Martin Landau‘s win for Best Supporting Actor and Johnny Depp‘s Lead Actor nomination for “Sweeney Todd,” the director has struggled to break out of the techs.
Still, given Burton’s past, “Dumbo” could have some luck on his side. Even though many outlets have bashed the story and performances, “Dumbo’s” visuals have been a high watermark. Production Design will be the most intriguing category to keep an eye on. Rich Heinrichs, the longtime Burton collaborator, won his sole Oscar for “Sleepy Hollow” from 1999. Burton also has a surprising track record. If his film gets nominated for Best Production Design, it wins. “Sleepy Hollow,” “Alice in Wonderland,” “Batman,” and “Sweeney Todd” all took home the top prize.
Burton has also directed his craftsman to four nominations in two other categories. With “Dumbo,” expect Coleen Atwood looks to join the Oscar circus again. The twelve-time nominee displays great work here, and helps sell the post-World War I setting. Her last win was for work in a similar time period when “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” shocked in 2017. She’s also open to campaign for “Dumbo” barring the “Untitled Roger Ailes Project” or “Now Is Everything” becoming surprise contenders. Do not count Atwood out of the conversation, regardless of her film’s quality.
Best Makeup & Hairstyling earned Stan Winston, Rick Baker, and others some great nominations over the years. “Beetlejuice,” “Batman Returns,” “Ed Wood,” and “Edward Scissorhands” received nominations. However, that also means that a Burton film has not earned a nomination in this category for more than twenty-five years. This feels like a more indicative stat about Burton’s career than one might expect. With CGI advancements, much of Burton’s inventiveness seems to have disappeared. Don’t expect “Dumbo” to change the course.
The last category some will look to will be Visual Effects. Outside of the titular elephant, there’s not much to write home about in this one. Even so, we’ve got legitimate contenders in “Captain Marvel,” “How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World,” and “Alita: Battle Angel” on the table already. Will anyone remember “Dumbo” down the road for this race? Anyone who bets on “Dumbo” is hoping for a “Christopher Robin” type nomination. That might be a stretch considering the early strength of the category.
Once again, Burton finds himself in a difficult position. While a return to a safer “franchise” hoped to give him the clout to spread his wings, it appears he will be grounded. Outside of Production Design and Costumes, it seems unlikely that “Dumbo” will find itself in the Oscar race. With little box office to show for the very expensive feature, Burton may find himself in movie jail. You may believe an elephant can fly, but until we have tangible proof, it will be tough to believe Burton’s magic will return in the near future.