At The Movies - Dumbo Remake Fails To Take Off
By Jordan Bosch
When I was a kid the Walt Disney Company was in the business of milking their decades’ worth of iconic characters, stories, and intellectual properties by barraging the market with direct-to-video sequels to their most popular movies.
And while a handful like The Lion King 2, Bambi 2, and parts of Return to Neverland were half decent, most of them were cynical disposable garbage. That trend ended not long after Michael Eisner’s resignation, but Disney’s interest in shameless catering to nostalgia survived, and the current equivalent to the direct to-video sequels are the live-action remakes, which are just as awful but more obnoxious as they’re being put in theatres.
There are three of these monstrosities opening in 2019 starting with Dumbo, thus far the oldest Disney movie receiving this treatment.
And it’s coming courtesy of Tim Burton of all people, whose distinctive style doesn’t quite seem to fit the mould of the 1941 film, which is a sweet and simple kids’ movie about overcoming bullying and a lack of self-worth by using one’s uniqueness as a strength. Yet it’s also not one of the great Disney movies and could potentially be improved upon through a remake.
But it’s to nobody’s surprise that rather than do that, Burton’s 2019 film just makes you appreciate the original all the more.
The Medici Brothers Circus is touring America in 1919 when its’ ringmaster and manager Max (Danny DeVito) buys a pregnant elephant Jumbo for an upcoming act. When Jumbo gives birth to a baby with giant ears later dubbed “Dumbo”, the infant elephant becomes a laughingstock in this circus of strongmen, snake charmers, and acrobats.
Under the care of equestrian Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) and his children Millie and Joe, they discover Dumbo’s ears can allow him to fly. But no sooner does he become a sensation than he catches the attention of an amusement park owner V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton) who purchases the circus with his own ambitions for Dumbo.
The plot of the original Dumbo runs its course by the end of the first act of this remake, after which a new story clumsily starts to descend into more typical Tim Burton madness. But as has been the case for the last couple decades that madness isn’t very fun.
This movie is almost twice as long as the original (the former running just over an hour) and it feels even longer with an incredibly convoluted plot taking over, and time being devoted to characters and details you don’t care about in the slightest.
The movie is also embarrassingly transparent in its attempt to manipulate some kind of feeling, but not in the funny way of A Dog’s Way Home. Indeed the script is so incompetent that characters are made to spell out the blatantly obvious repeatedly, and Millie and Joe have to frequently remind their father and the audience that their mother is dead. Some of the dialogue is so forced and poor I half-wonder if it’s not intentionally trying to be naive as a nod to the childrens’ book the story is based on or Dumbo’s reputation as perhaps the best Disney movie for really little kids.
At one point the line “You beautiful one-armed cowboy, you’ve made me a child again!” is delivered with such ridiculous earnestness it almost has to be satirical.
But even if that was the intent it doesn’t do any good for a movie bereft of any genuine sincerity.
Every emotional beat created for this movie is so cliché-ridden and badly executed that even the carry-overs from the original film suffer. “Baby Mine” is still one of the most heartbreaking scenes from a studio that has created dozens of them, but here it’s just hollow, and handled exactly the wrong way.
The other famous musical number from Dumbo that’s not tainted by racism is “Pink Elephants” which is homaged in this film in a really pathetic way.
The most artistic, eccentric, and memorable sequence of Dumbo, and the only part that Burton was a perfect fit for, doesn’t even get a proper re-imagining in the era it could have been rendered more impressive.
Perhaps Burton thinks that a nifty Batman Returns reunion is enough to distract from the fickle structure (one set even looks a lot like that movie), but the cast is not a strong point either. Most everybody is either over or under-acting their parts and it results in a range of bad performances.
Colin Farrell is entirely disingenuous in an impressively flat leading role, Michael Keaton’s hammy performance varies from him clearly enjoying himself to being confusingly misdirected, Alan Arkin is collecting a pay check, and the kids are horribly uninterested in anything happening around them - they take on the role of Timothy the mouse in the original and together don’t have half the personality he had.
Only Danny DeVito, who can make his over-the-top performance work, and Eva Green, who’s an excellent actress playing the only moderately grounded character in this film, manage to come out unscathed.
At the end of the day though the biggest failing is the focus.
The original film is Dumbo’s story while this movie clearly isn’t. It’s the story of Holt and his children, of Max, even of Vandevere, and sometimes the story of Dumbo. Human characters barely feature in the animated movie, with the narrative being fixed on this poor baby elephant and his journey through harsh mockery and failure to find his gift. Here, he’s the cute mascot, the character who the movie is based around but not actually about. Hell he’s literally in the background during a couple exposition scenes in perfect symbolism of his role in the story.
I think Tim Burton really wanted to make a circus movie. He’s clearly shown fascination with turn of the century carnivals if you look at his work, and that’s what’s most important to him in Dumbo.
One thing he does do a good job of though is illustrating why Dumbo doesn’t work in live-action. It’s one of Disney’s most unapologetically cartoonish movies, operating on more cartoon logic and flexibility than most of the films that succeeded it. A train transporting a circus with a smiley face on it works great in a cartoon but not in live-action.
And while this remake manages to outdo its predecessor in the cartoonishness of its script and characters, it fails to have even an ounce of the heart, spirit, and charming simplicity that Walt Disney knew cartoons were a perfect vehicle for.