Another addition into a disturbingly long line of disappointing live-action “reimaginings” of Disney’s more magical years, “Dumbo” never gets off the ground long enough to leave a meaningful imprint. A stellar cast and one of cinema’s most eccentric directors are wasted by baffling character choices and a total void where any semblance of visual flair is supposed to go. “Dumbo” could’ve worked, but Disney never allowed the film to spread its wings — or ears — freely enough to do anything noteworthy.
You all know the story by now: Dumbo is an elephant born into a circus with comically large ears, the center of the audience’s jokes about the poor pachyderm. Everything changes for our elephant hero when he discovers his goofy ears, drooping from the sides of his head like two afghans, grant him the special ability to fly. Dumbo’s human caretakers devise a plan to use Dumbo’s newfound abilities to raise enough money to re-purchase the elephant’s lost mother, which the circus had to sell after an unfortunate accident. When an entertainment magnate comes along and decides to make Dumbo the star of the show (sound familiar?), everything gets complicated even more, and the good guys of the story have to figure out how to save the two elephants so they can live happily ever after.
FILM FACT BOX
Director: Tim Burton
Cast: Colin Farrell, Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Eva Green, Finley Hobbins, Nico Parker, Alan Arkin, Joseph Gatt, Deobia Oparei
Writer: Ehren Kruger
Runtime: 112 minutes
“Dumbo” suffers from the same central flaw movies like 2016’s “Beauty and the Beast” did, and that movies like this year’s upcoming “Aladdin” reboot inevitably will: We’ve seen it before. To immediately write off remakes and reboots is to fundamentally disagree with the essence of storytelling, but there needs to be a reason for the revisitation. In this iteration of “Dumbo,” it feels like that reason is exploitation, the very message the film is trying to take a stand against. It’s not just lazy; it’s borderline offensive. Disney, you can’t make a movie essentially condemning amusement parks, especially ones involving zoos, when you exploit animals for “entertainment purposes” at Animal Kingdom year-round.
The memo gets lost in the shuffle when a multi-billion-dollar corporation with enough money to swallow the planet starts pushing anti-corporate dogma. Disney’s interns probably have Scrooge McDuck money, yet the company somehow thought it prudent to make a film — a remake 78 years after the fact, no less! — about the dangers of corporate overreach in terms of art production. Disney’s audience isn’t as stupid as they want them to be, I hope, and because that’s the main crux of the story director Tim Burton is trying to tell, the rest of it just doesn’t work.
Ehren Kruger pens the screenplay for this version, using characters created by Helen Aberson and Harold Pearl all the way back in 1941. Kruger is known for such masterworks as 2017’s “Ghost in the Shell” and a whopping three “Transformers” movies. That’s clearly sarcasm, but his work in “Dumbo” is almost more condemnable than his scripts for those films. Those movies were undeniably dumb, yes, but what they lacked in nuance, they made up for in ambition and scope. “Dumbo” is unfortunately bland, with expository dialogue spouting out of every scene instead of clever storytelling. Here, it seems like the director, writer, editing team and composer (Danny Elfman) were each making a different film.
Burton is known for a signature dark, gothic horror style found in movies like “Edward Scissorhands,” “Sleepy Hollow” or “The Corpse Bride,” but his take on “Dumbo” is surprisingly devoid of any visual cues that set it apart from any other director’s vision. It feels obtrusively watered-down and commercialized, especially for a Burton film, which just adds to the bewilderment behind the film’s pro-art messaging.
As previously mentioned, some of the character choices in the film are puzzling, to say the least. The most of which would be Colin Farrell’s hearty American South accent. His regular American accent was bad enough in last year’s “Widows,” so it’s truly bamboozling as to why a director with Burton’s ear for dialogue would challenge him even further. The accent is more inconsistent than it is bad, but that might be even worse. His character is basically the main protagonist of the film, but it’s hard to root for him when he’s such a detached asshole to his kids. For instance, he chastises his pre-teen daughter for wanting to go into the sciences (?), saying he would rather have her stay and join the circus (??). He lost an arm in war and lost his wife while he was gone, but the film makes genuinely no effort to explore the mental and psychological effects of such tragedies.
Danny DeVito is fine in his role as the circus’s ringleader, but it’s really just like he’s playing his new internet-driven persona, except this time wearing a funny hat. Kent State’s own Michael Keaton is one of the film’s few standouts from an acting perspective, but not necessarily in a good way. He does his usual over-the-top brand of performance, but this time it’s like he’s in a completely different film than the rest of the cast. Plus, his character turns heel so abruptly it doesn’t add a lick of nuance or genuine apprehension to the story.
Yes, “Dumbo” is technically well made. It’s shot proficiently with a solid score and a multi-million-dollar visual effects budget, but the very profit-driven nature of its existence extinguishes the magic of the original, rendering this remake moot before it even begins.
Cameron Hoover is a film critic. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.