I’ve not really been a fan of this recent trend of Disney live action remakes. Whilst I enjoyed The Jungle Book and Pete’s Dragon (although it’s debatable whether Pete’s Dragon counts), the others have ranged from the fairly bland Cinderella to the awful Beauty and the Beast. Still, there is always the optimism that one of these remakes will end up being better than the original, and there was the chance for Dumbo to be that film, given how light and short the original film was. Unfortunately, in trying to expand the film, all of the heart of Dumbo has been taken out.
The film takes place around the Medici Brothers Circus which has undergone hard times, placing a strain on the life of former circus cowboy Holt Farrier, recently returned from World War 1 with his arm amputated and finding that his wife died of influenza. Since he can’t be a cowboy, Holt is put in charge of the elephants, one of whom, Mrs Jumbo, is pregnant. After she gives birth, the baby is found to have abnormally large ears, which are initially an issue for the circus, but becomes a boon once it’s found by Holt’s children that the elephant, now named Dumbo, can use them to fly. This attracts the attention of V.A Vandemere who makes Dumbo the star attraction of his theme park/circus, Dreamland, but the intentions of Vandemere are less altruistic than he makes out. The big problem with the film is that it doesn’t really have a clear identity. The plot of the original Dumbo is rushed through in the first half hour of the film with the rest of the film focusing on Vandemere, with his scenes being the generic evil capitalist stuff that you’ve seen in hundreds of family films, with no spin put on it. The whole film just feels generic and lifeless. There are some nods given to the cruelty of having animals perform in the circus and women in STEM through Holt’s daughter wanting to be a scientist, but they feel tacked on to give the film more artificial weight rather than because the filmmakers wanted to say anything about those issues. When it comes to recreating the iconography of the original film, these elements feel rushed. In the original, the Baby Mine scene was emotionally devastating, in this one though, whilst Tim Burton recreates the imagery of the scene, the emotional weight is gone since we haven’t spent enough time with Dumbo and Mrs Jumbo prior, at best they were on screen together for a minute. The recreation of Pink Elephants on Parade meanwhile was awful. When you think of what Tim Burton could do with the Pink Elephants, one of the most creative pieces of animation for early Disney, you have all of these ideas for what the CG could be and how to make the freaky elements of it work in a modern context. What Burton actually does is make them bubbles and tries to make what was a creepy scene in the original something more charming, which misses the point of the Pink Elephants. The big issue with the film though is that I didn’t really connect with Dumbo as a character. There isn’t enough work done to give Dumbo a personality, with all of the focus given to the human cast rather than Dumbo and so I didn’t feel connected to the film and the moments which should have been the emotional core had no weight.
It’s difficult to talk about the performances though since most of them are fairly bland. Colin Farrell gets the most character development having to contend with being a circus performer without an act and being a single parent, but these elements aren’t given the attention they need, whilst Nico Parker and Finley Hobbs as his children don’t really give any personality to their performances. Danny DeVito as Medici is fine, but it’s what you expect from Danny DeVito as a circus ringmaster, and even then his performance in Big Fish is infinitely better. Eva Green gets some character development, but I found the French accent she puts on very distracting and exaggerated, which is weird considering that Green is French. Alan Arkin’s role meanwhile is a glorified cameo, but he does bring some life to the film. The only really memorable performance though is Michael Keaton, but not in a good way. He’s heavily hamming it up and whilst he is clearly having fun with how hateful his character is, as a performance it just doesn’t work at all.
On a technical level, the film is a mixed bag. The production design is fairly strong for the circus and Dreamland, allowing a good contrast to be seen between the two and the costume design reflects the characters well, along with having that signature style you come to expect from a Tim Burton film. The music by Danny Elfman is pretty solid as well, having a good mix of Elfman’s signature style blended in with the music from the original film, and I’m not going to lie. The production design and music work best in the film when depicting Casey Jr, which is probably the most charming part of the film, which is unfortunately in the first 5 minutes. The CG work meanwhile doesn’t really work. I get what they were going for in creating a photorealistic elephant for Dumbo, but on screen it doesn’t really work and ends up looking less believable than the animated version from 1941. I also had a big problem with the lighting, which is way too dark and, by itself, removes a lot of charm from the film. At one point, there was a scene where the lights go out and I couldn’t tell the difference until the characters said that the lights were out. The film just has a murky quality throughout which just doesn’t work for what is meant to be a charming family film.
Overall, Dumbo is probably the weakest of the Disney live action remakes. Whilst it does try to do something new with the story, unlike films like Beauty and the Beast, what Burton goes for just doesn’t work, rushing through the emotional beats of the original and making it so you don’t have a connection with Dumbo, and the film just ends up being boring.
My Rating: 1.5/5