Of all the animated Disney classics with the potential for a live-action remake, “Dumbo” seemed to be a questionable pick.
With box office hits like “The Jungle Book” and “Beauty and the Beast” under their belt, and “Aladdin” and “The Lion King” highlighting the upcoming slate, Disney raised some eyebrows with this choice. While it may not have been the most obvious choice, nor the one fans wanted to see, “Dumbo” was a safe bet for Disney.
It’s a classic film able to draw crowds based on its name alone that’s buffed up by CGI capable of entertaining children long enough to haul in a decent profit. Financially, it should be a success, but beyond that, there isn’t much to praise about “Dumbo.”
Unlike the 1941 version, director Tim Burton beefed up the plot in order to build on the original’s brief 64 minute running time. Don’t worry, the basics are still there: a giant-eared baby elephant loses his mother, becomes an outcast at the circus then learns to fly. This time around, Burton and screenwriter Ehren Kruger added in a human storyline based around Dumbo’s handlers. However, if you’re going to take creative liberties and alter a classic story, it’d help to make it something more than just the most bland, formulaic story in the book.
When Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe’s (Finley Hobbins) father, Holt (Colin Farrell) returns home to the circus after serving in World War I, things have changed drastically. Holt was once the headlining act as a wild horse rider, but now that circus owner Max Medici (Danny DeVito) was forced to sell the horses, Holt has now been assigned to care for the elephants.
Not long after Holt takes over, an elephant named Mrs. Jumbo gives birth, only her baby has ridiculously oversized ears and is seen as a monster. Milly and Joe spend time with baby Dumbo and learn that his ears give him the ability to fly, and the two children quickly train him to become the circus’s biggest sensation. Once word of the flying elephant spreads to V. A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), the wealthy entrepreneur purchases Dumbo and the rest of the troupe to join his own flashy circus, Dreamland. But it turns out things in Dreamland are far darker than they appear.
Beyond the problematic simplicity of the story, none of the individual performances were particularly impressive. Some child actors have the ability to shine and captivate can audience, but that wasn’t the case here, as Parker and Hobbins both turned in fairly bland performances. Farrell seemed to be doing his best Kyle Chandler performance, both in appearance and in accent, but his imitation sweet, southern drawl couldn’t get the job done. And with a cast highlighted by veteran leading men like Keaton, DeVito and Alan Arkin, you’d expect some sort of substance behind their performances, but instead the latter two were purely used for comedic relief.
Unlike most of Disney’s live-action remakes, “Dumbo” seems to be strictly catered to children, with its basic plot, cheap gags and pretty animation. Previously, remakes like “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Jungle Book” have been able to captivate younger audience while also appealing to adults in the crowd, whether it be from compelling storylines and character relationships or smart writing. Unfortunately, “Dumbo” is lacking all of those elements.
“Dumbo”‘s one redeeming quality, however, lies in Burton’s signature artistic flair. As with all of Burton’s films, it doesn’t take long to recognize that he’s the one behind it. From the elements of magical realism to the ambiguous past-futuristic time period and the vivid animation, all of Burton’s calling cards are here, and make for an enjoyable visual experience.
It’s worth noting that Disney’s anti-corporate tale about the dangers of the little guys selling out to industry giants released just a week after the behemoth’s $71.3 billion acquisition of Fox. As questions about media consolidation arise, the purchase marks the loss of one of Hollywood’s biggest film studios, leaving only five major players remaining.
As far as live-action remakes go, “Dumbo” lands towards the bottom of the list, but with two more on the horizon in 2019, Disney has plenty of chances to right the ship later this year.
Star Rating: 2 out of 5
Zach Goins is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association based in Raleigh, N.C. Zach co-founded Inside The Film Room in 2018 and serves as Editor-in-Chief of the website and co-host of the podcast. Zach also serves as a film critic for CLTure.org.