Let’s talk about Dumbo.
Seriously, let’s talk about how ridiculous it is that we now have to differentiate between a live action and animated Dumbo movie. There’s been a lot of Disney live action remakes and the vast majority have been pointless. The best one was probably Pete’s Dragon though. But this one takes the cake. I can’t say the original Dumbo was perfect, the crows are incredibly uncomfortable to watch decades on, but it was still an animated classic. A touching tale about a young elephant learning that his differences are what makes him special. It was simple but it worked.
But now Tim Burton has got the reins, because that did wonders for Alice in Wonderland, and has instantly decided that the flying elephant is not the thing people are interested in and inside what people care about is the circus. This is the extra 50 minutes this movie has compared to the original. Circus subplots. You have Danny DeVito being himself, not necessarily a bad thing, Colin Farrell being oddly bland and a whole cast of other characters who are barely fleshed out. It feels like Burton wants to write a love letter to the carny circus rather than a Dumbo movie at times. What’s funniest about it is that a Disney executive obviously noted all the animal use in this circus, all CGI in this movie, realised a potential backlash in glorifying it and tacked on a part at the end where Danny DeVito as the Ringmaster says they got rid of all the animal as they realised how cruel it was. It’s so tacked on that just after he says that, Colin Farrell shows up on a horse.
But the worst part are the two kids because they are awful. Well actually, I can’t say much about Finlay Hobbins, who plays Colin Farrell’s son Joe, because after the first ten minutes he might as well have got killed off by elephant attack because he has about three lines after it. But Nico Park as Farrell’s daughter Millie, my word. I don’t want to be too harsh as she is a child but she’s got the emotional range of a Disney animatronic. Every line is delivered in a dull monotone like she’s answering algebra questions in front of the class. Her reactions are worse. If you see an elephant jump their height into the air by sneezing, you are going to have a bigger reaction than the mildly shocked face you pull when KFC change their chips. And the less said about her one defining trait, her love of science, the better. Something that goes nowhere, affects no plot and then is completely forgotten about the end of the movie. She does have one fan though and that is Tim Burton. Every scene must have a reaction shot from Millie, even though her reaction is usually her looking fairly bored at everything going one. Can’t blame her for that though, I’m pretty bored of it all too at this point.
So what about Dumbo himself? Well for a CGI job, he is pretty cute. But he doesn’t seem as defined as he did in the animated version. In the 1941 movie, he was a lost child who was desperate for any sort of guidance after the loss of his mother. Here, there’s no personality. He’s a baby elephant who loves his mother which is more than most in the movie but still nowhere near enough to be an interesting character. And it misses all the key plot points which made the original powerful. Dumbo’s separation from his mother wasn’t just heartbreaking because it was a separation between mother and son, it was because his mum was the only person who loved him despite all the bullying and cruelty he suffered. Here, they rely on the stated mother son bond and a heckling Missouri crowd. It’s pathetic and doesn’t work.
For the final act, the setting shifts to a theme park called Dreamland. It’s an obvious Disneyland stand-in, so much so it’s named after an actual theme park in Japan which was originally going to be an international Disney park before they pulled out of the deal. And to further cement the parallel, Michael Keaton plays a visionary figure who built the park like a certain Walt I know. One thing I have to admire about the movie is it’s guts to be a Disney movie that makes Walt Disney the villain. But it’s wasted. His villain’s plan is rather unclear and only major action triggers the ending to happen, Keaton is surprisingly poor and his scenes with DeVito are huge missed opportunities considering both guys’ abilities to steal entire movies. Basically what this is is that Burton wanted to make his own Disneyland and finally got some sort of excuse to do it.
We’ve had a wide range of Disney remakes at this point. Some are pretty good, some are mediocre and some are poor. But none have been outright terrible, a complete misunderstanding of what made the original great and an overall mess until Dumbo. The performances range from bland and mediocre to robotic and unemotional. Dumbo feels like just another animal than one of the most iconic Disney characters of all time. And making the circus the good guys is a bizarre choice that makes very little sense. We’ve got two more Disney remakes this year with Aladdin and a sequel to Maleficent coming up. They will be thanking Dumbo a lot as it’s very doubtful they will be able to be as bad as this.