The latest in what is going to be a long line of Disney animated properties being made into live-action remakes, Dumbo is depressing. I thought long and hard about it, and that’s the best description I could come up with. It’s visually uninspired, despite being helmed by a bonafide visionary, Tim Burton, who has opted to give us his version of a kid-friendly movie instead of his twisted take on the circus story that surrounds the baby elephant with big ears who uses them to fly. In fact, the character of Dumbo is essentially sidelined in favor of far less interesting human characters, all of whom are either trying to use him or save him from being used.
From a screenplay by Ehren Kruger, this live-action version of the 1941 classic takes an entirely different path than the previously released Beauty and the Beast or Jungle Book (as well as the upcoming The Lion King and Aladdin). This is not a retelling of the original animated version; there are no talking animals and no songs, save for an updated version of “Baby Mine,” sung by one of the other (human) circus performers in the film (and by Arcade Fire in the end credits). And while taking away the animals’ ability to speak in favor of humans may add a layer of realism to Dumbo, it also eliminates some of the story’s magic in the process. As a result, the entire production seems listless, colorless and deathly boring.
The real shame is that Dumbo reunites Burton with a greatest hits of some of this previous collaborators, including his Batman/Beetlejuice lead Michael Keaton as V.A. Vandevere, an entertainment entrepreneur who seems like stand-in for a studio head intent on buying the flying elephant for his new Disneyland-like carnival city. Also in the film are Burton’s Penguin from Batman Returns, Danny DeVito, as circus owner Max Medici who buys Dumbo’s mother when she’s pregnant, hoping he gets a free elephant in the process. But he’s mortified when he sees the baby’s enlarged ears.
Eva Green (Dark Shadows) is on hand as Vandevere’s companion/star attraction, Colette Marchant, whose aerial act is about to get a new partner in Dumbo, if she can train him in a matter of days. She actually turns out to be one of the good guys, right around the time when her belief that Dumbo shouldn’t be exploited or kept from his mother supersedes her desire to make money. She joins forces with Dumbo’s original trainers/overseers, the Farrier family. The Ferriers are father Holt (Colin Farrell), who used to be a star horse performer with his wife until he went off to fight in World War I (where he lost an arm) and she died, leaving him a single father of two kids Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins).
Dumbo’s cinematic flaws are many—almost too many to keep track of. Aside from making the titular character a supporting player, the movie’s adult cast (with perhaps the exception of Green) all over-perform to such an extent that any sense of genuine emotion is driven right off the screen. DeVito and Keaton are particularly terrible here, and its almost hurts to say that. Farrell is a bit more restrained, but considering he’s a grieving, one-armed widower taking care of an outcast element, any other acting choice would be unforgivable. The greatest mistake with the portrayal of the children is that they are poorly written. They seem to always know exactly what to do to get Dumbo to respond to them with almost no learning curve, and there’s really nothing more annoying than characters who just do and don’t gain anything thing from the doing.
And then there’s Burton’s part in all of this. Dumbo is an ugly movie, saturated in brown and grey, which I suppose is meant to make things look old (the film is set in the early 1900s), but it really just makes them look murky and dirty. Burton seems torn between showing carnival life as something adventurous and wonderful and leaning into the grotesque and seedy side of things (for example, technically the kids working there counts as child labor). Even the character of Dumbo isn’t particularly appealing to look at, despite pretty obvious attempts to make him look cute and funny as he trips over his ears in search of an elusive feather he needs to help him fly.
As far as I can tell, Dumbo is the only one of the Disney live-action adaptations that doesn’t attempt to mimic the original animated work, which I was truly hoping would result in something that felt original. But what I mostly felt was sad and distracted. It was impossible to look at the elaborate sets and attempts at carnivals done at theme-park scale and not wonder how much the sets or CGI cost to make it look even remotely interesting. Probably a lot. But nothing about Dumbo engaged me emotionally or made me care even a little about the fate of these characters. If you can’t get even that right, you’re asking your audience to endure a great deal for very little in return. This one is a complete bust that I’ll never forget.
Did you enjoy this post? Please consider supporting Third Coast Review’s arts and culture coverage by becoming a patron. Choose the amount that works best for you, and know how much we appreciate your support!