How do you take an animated classic like Dumbo, a film that was barely over an hour in length, and then turn it into a two-hour live-action summer blockbuster? This was the problem facing director Tim Burton but the fact that he was also the man who started this whole Disney live-action-remake binge in the first place, with his successful live-action version of Disney’s Alice in Wonderland, this should have been no problem, right?
The movie takes place in 1913 and opens with an introduction to the Medici Brothers Circus, a not-too-successful enterprise that owner Max Medici (Danny DeVito) has been having a hard time keeping afloat, what with attendance dropping as audiences lose interest in his increasingly shrinking travelling show. Enter Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell), a returning World War One veteran hoping to rekindle his old life as a circus performer, but having lost an arm in the war his ability as a trick rider is questionable at best. Is that depressing enough for you? Well, we also meet Holt’s two children, Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins), who have been living as circus orphans while he was off fighting the Hun, and they’ve been on their own due to their mother having died of influenza. Yikes, it’s good to see Disney hasn’t gotten tired of the “Dead Parent” trope yet. Now, those of you familiar with the original Dumbo may be scratching your collective heads and wondering, “Where is Dumbo, and who are all these people?”
Eventually, Dumbo does arrive, Medici, having purchased a pregnant Indian Elephant to hopefully boost attendance, and before you can sing the first verse of “When I see an elephant fly” we find Milly and Joe teaching a big-eared baby elephant to fly. This film literally jumps to Dumbo flying at the bloody twenty-minute mark, whereas the original film had Dumbo learning to fly as the story’s climax this movie seems more concerned with giving modern viewers – who the producers of this film clearly believe have no patience – immediate scenes of their CGI atrocity flying. This brings us to another key problem with this film, making a live-action flying elephant look believable. The animated format is perfectly suited for this kind of thing, photorealism not so much, and throughout this film, Dumbo veered between cute and grotesque, with his big floppy CGI ears looking especially terrible. The best this film gets. with the effects on full display, is when it looks like somebody glued fake ears on a real elephant.
Of course having a film about a failing circus and a crippled war veteran trying to reconnect with his children, all while teaching an elephant to fly, is still apparently not enough to fill a two-hour running time because this film also has villains, lots and lots of villains. The original film had bitchy pachyderms and asshole clowns but that’s not enough for Tim Burton, not on his watch, so we have one of Medici’s animal handlers who gets off on animal cruelty – it’s his death that leads to Dumbo’s mom being declared a rogue elephant – and then we get the film’s chief antagonist in the form of a rich New York showman named V. A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), who comes looking to acquire this amazing flying elephant for his massive amusement park. Keaton’s portrayal of Vandevere is one part P.T. Barnum and two parts evil Walt Disney, with no piece of scenery left unchewed, and to make matters worse he also employs a bald evil henchman so that we can have someone to menace the children. Is Vandevere supposed to be a showman or a Bond villain?
194l’s Dumbo was a short picture telling the simplistic story of a little elephant learning to accept his differences, embracing them, and then becoming a star, now with Tim Burton’s version we still have Dumbo learning to accept who he is – though this comes through a pep talk from Milly instead of Timothy Mouse – we also get Holt coming to grips with his disability, Milly’s desire to pursue a life of scientific exploration, Medici futilely trying to keep his troupe together against the evil machinations of Vandevere, and then to top it all off we also have the character of Collette (Eva Green), a trapeze artist working for Vandevere, who sides with our heroes so we can a love interest for Holt because the story of Dumbo has always been missing a love story. It’s nice that this version ditched the racist crows but by god did they overstuff this thing with lots of unnecessary drivel.
• No talking animals in this film, so no storks bringing baby animals to the circus – we do get one shot of a stork outside Mama Jumbo’s window – and Timothy Mouse is just a pet mouse belonging to Milly.
• This makes Milly’s pep talk to Dumbo at the end of the film rather odd. Can Dumbo understand English?
• The heartbreaking rendition of “Baby Mine” is now performed by an overweight woman with a ukulele. What the hell?
• Dumbo gets a WWE-style introduction, “Let’s get ready for Dummmmmboooooo!” That is just sad.
• The nightmare fuel sequence of Dumbo drunk and hallucinating “Pink Elephants on Parade” is replaced with showgirls creating giant animated bubble elephants that traipse through the air of Vandevere’s Coliseum.
Gone is the beautiful and vibrant animation of the original, instead we now have the darker tones of a Tim Burton horror film, something that is completely out of place with the subject matter. I’m not saying the 1941 animated Dumbo should never have been put on the remake block in the first place – I’m not completely against remakes if the people involved have an interesting take on the subject matter – but what I am saying here is, “You should never have remade Dumbo!” ARE YOU PEOPLE OUT OF YOUR BLOODY MINDS!
To be fair there were a couple of honest-to-goodness moments wonder in this remake – for the most part, the Dumbo flying sequences worked fairly well – but the overabundance of side characters and ladled-on drama was just too much and completely unnecessary. What was once a simple story has been turned into an overblown atrocity, something that this movie criticized itself of by way of the Vandevere character. Is self-awareness something that the people over at Disney are incapable of? Tim Burton’s Dumbo is a loud overindulgent mess, where fantastic visuals superseded good storytelling, but worst of all is the fact that Dumbo has become a secondary character in his own bloody movie.
Movie Rank - 4/10
The Disney remake train keeps chugging along with movie after movie as they each spout “I think I can, I think I can” but 2019’s Dumbo is definitely a case of one that should have been derailed sometime after the initial pitch meeting.