Let’s address the elephant in the room: the live action Dumbo remake is not a great movie. As part of our current era of Disney reboot-mania, the company has tasked one of their favorite money-makers, Tim Burton, with adapting another work from their extensive catalogue of animated classics to produce their next aggressive spectacle. This new CGI Dumbo sure is cute, but his compelling story gets sidelined with all the additions of bland human characters. Kids unfamiliar with the original Dumbo will likely be entertained, but Disney purists are better off skipping this circus.
The original Dumbo was produced by Walt Disney and released in 1941. It was only the studio’s fourth full-length feature, and it was the first after the filmmaker’s staggeringly ambitious, yet financially-ruining concert film Fantasia. Based on a brief storyline written for a device called the Roll-A-Book, Dumbo was purposely curtailed to a concise 64 minutes to save on budget, and it saved the studio. Richly animated with powerful emotional resonance, Dumbo’s art style drew on German expressionism and surrealism, and it stands today as one of the finest of Walt’s career.
In Tim Burton’s Dumbo, Collin Farrell plays Holt Farrier, a former horseback rider who has just returned to the circus from a tour of duty in World War I. Holt lost not only his left arm during the war, but his wife Annie, who passed away and left him the sole caretaker of his daughter Milly (Nico Parker) and his son Joe (Finely Hobbins). The circus ringleader Max Medici (Danny DeVito) explains to Holt that while he was gone, the circus ran into financial troubles. Since Max was forced to sell the horses, he puts Holt in charge of the pregnant Asian elephant “Jumbo.”
Medici is anticipating major press attention for the adorable baby elephant, but he is aghast to find him born with a major abnormality giving him gigantic ears. The circus members strive to hide the calf’s ears during his debut, but their attempts fail, and the audience members mock the baby elephant, calling him “Dumbo.” Things look dire for the Medici Brothers Circus, but the kids Milly and Joe discover that Dumbo’s large ears enable him to fly. Dumbo soon has his own act, and the news of this unbelievable talent begins to spread, bringing renewed life to the circus.
Considering 1941’s Dumbo centered on a semi-anthropomorphic baby elephant who could fly, there is limited precedent to adapt the film’s outlandish premise to live action, and it shows. Rather than taking the realistic route a-la 2016’s The Jungle Book, Dumbo here is an unmistakably CGI little creature who is again fully anthropomorphic. The design is undeniably cute, but it inevitably begs the question, why a live action reboot? We can leave that one up for debate, as beyond this there is still plenty of potential in Burton’s handling of storytelling and style.
But story is where Dumbo really swallows the feather. The original Dumbo was a painfully affective tale of ridicule and loneliness that centered on a little baby elephant who was bullied, publicly shamed, and separated from his mother. There’s a little of this in Burton’s Dumbo, but far and above the principal characters here are the humans, not the elephant. Worse, the characters here offer stories that are wholly uninteresting, many of them from actors who are submitting work far below their capability, Collin Farrell and Michael Keaton to name a few.
As far as style goes, Dumbo is a struggling, but yet fascinating, endeavor. The circus is a setting that dictates a fairly specific sense of style, one that famously embraces garish colors and harsh geometrical shapes. It’s one that directors have long strived to adorn with their own distinctive touch, and it tends to work better in contexts that highlight the otherworldly aspects of the environment. Burton’s approach is to romanticize the business, while at the same time applying his darker sensibilities. It’s a visual experience that is often stunning, but not always beautiful.
In one sequence, Burton pays homage to the original Dumbo’s much-lauded diversion into surrealism with the song “Pink Elephants on Parade.” Originally, Dumbo passes out from drunkenness and experiences bizarre hallucinations involving processions of amorphous elephants that all begins with bubbles. Here, the scene emerges from a circus act featuring performers making bubbles, but as it is set in the real world, it lacks the same artistic boldness, and ultimately can’t hold a candle to Disney’s original foray into the fantastically unusual.
There is, however, a hallmark of the original Dumbo that Burton’s remake completely avoids, and that is the film’s unfortunate relationship with race. Walt’s version had an entire sequence glamorizing the circus’s punishing setup on the backs of a completely black labor force, as well as one featuring a group of crows cheekily-modeled after Jim Crow archetypes. Burton’s film is fortunate to be the product of a more enlightened era, and it would have been nice if in some way he could have acknowledged the property’s questionable history, but this is not the case.
But this is not the worst problem with Dumbo, that would be that the film is simply another in a long line of remakes that is intended to harness name recognition and mainstream appeal to churn out yet another blockbuster. Unfortunately for Disney, the film is delivering below expectations. Dumbo is far from unsuccessful though, as there are surly plenty of families that are headed out to see this reboot. Kids will likely be impressed, but longtime Disney fans have memories like an elephant, and they’re less likely to be captivated by such bread and circuses.