Some stories are best left as they are. This is a fairly unavoidable takeaway from Tim Burton’s unnecessary live-action/CG remake of the Disney animated classic Dumbo. Though not remotely as noxious and garish as his 2010 version of Alice in Wonderland, Burton has not solved the puzzle of figuring out a halfway decent creative reason for this film to exist. An A-list cast, high budget, and all the other trappings of a modern blockbuster can’t get this thing off the ground.
Much of the first half of this Ehren Kruger-penned story will be recognizable to anyone who remembers the 1941 film. There’s a ramshackle circus at which an elephant gives birth to a baby with inexplicably large ears that enable it to fly, to everyone’s delight. Now, though, a circus worker (Colin Farrell) and his two kids are charged with looking after the cruelly nicknamed Dumbo. (This version of the story concocts a painfully flimsy reason for anyone to call the elephant Dumbo, and not Jumbo Jr.) Once a world-renowned impresario (Michael Keaton) with a flashy circus/theme-park hybrid gets word of a flying elephant, it’s up to Farrell’s single dad and his kids to help the eponymous flier out.
Unlike Alice, Dumbo often rises to the level of tolerable. That is, of course, a woefully low bar to clear, but with the help of two weird, energetic performances as well as Rick Heinrichs’ production design, Dumbo never sinks into the same badness that Burton’s previous Disney remake did. But the core of the story is poorly fleshed out. Once, Jumbo Jr. (AKA Dumbo) was the stoic, sympathetic and silent lead. Here, he’s a supporting player, rendered in CG that’s never as able to evoke emotion as the hand-drawn iteration from the 1940s did.
Instead, Dumbo is just part of the drama of whether or not a lonely veteran/widower can reconnect with his kids, including a daughter who is obsessed with science. It should be here noted that Disney may deserve kudos for using its recent live-action fare to promote portrayals of young women who have more on their minds than romance. But it would be nice if the screenplays to these films crafted fully realized characters, instead of creating a sense of checking off boxes. Here, the young girl is a scientist in the making who carries around a key given to her by her now-dead mother, which is essentially the same as the lead character from last year’s The Nutcracker and the Four Realms. The second time is not the charm in this case.
The human characters in the original film, for both budgetary and creative reasons, are mostly non-entities. Given a larger scale and much bigger budget, the new film hasn’t figured out a way to make most of them any more interesting. Two campy exceptions are Burton’s old friends Batman and the Penguin. Keaton and Danny DeVito, the latter as the ringmaster of a chintzy circus where Dumbo first takes flight, are hamming it up to hog heaven here. Keaton’s diving into each line of dialogue like it’s a four-course meal; it’s difficult not to find Keaton saying “You beautiful one-armed cowboy” hilarious. And DeVito is cutting loose as the ringmaster in the early going, chewing up the green-screened scenery as much as Keaton.
The rest of the cast, though, is saddled with a storyline that leans too hard on the treacle while backgrounding the elephant that ought to be at the forefront of the emotion. Farrell does the best he can as a physically disabled World War I veteran who doesn’t know how to talk to his kids, but the combination of character tropes is just too familiar, in a story that thrives on the bizarre. Dumbo does hit some of the familiar beats of the original film, from a sorrowful rendition of “Baby Mine” to the hallucinatory “Pink Elephants on Parade”, but does so in ways that simply serve as reminders of how much better the animated film does it. (Burton’s film, wisely and unsurprisingly, sidesteps the original film’s racism in a number like “When I See an Elephant Fly,” but the way in which the new movie quotes that song is…baffling.)
To date, the best remake of an older Disney film is David Lowery’s 2016 retelling of Pete’s Dragon. That film has one major advantage that none of the others boast: a lack of a passionate fanbase. Not many people hold the original Pete’s Dragon in high regard, which enabled Lowery and his crew to take the basic premise of the 1977 original — of a boy who has a dragon companion — and build an entirely new story around that. Dumbo is famously one of Disney’s shortest films, so it’s unsurprising that a good chunk of the remake is telling an entirely new story. But that new story is uninspired, and shackled to enough shoehorned-in flourishes from the original, that the overall result is weird without being consistent, off-beat while being mildly off-putting.
All that said, Dumbo has a couple of decent qualities — the design of the theme park/circus run by Keaton’s character is remarkable, even if it’s inexplicably meant to take place in 1919 when such technology was impossible. So you could say that this is technically Tim Burton’s best film in at least a decade, which is more of a backhanded compliment than anything else. Burton’s recent films include the misbegotten Alice in Wonderland and Dark Shadows, late-stage blemishes on a filmography that began with such promise. There are flashes of intrigue in Dumbo, but also dull, uninspired details and characters. Throughout long chunks of this film, I had the same persistent thought: if only they made a version of this story that was all about the elephant, and not the humans. Good thing they already did.
/Film Rating: 4 out of 10
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