I lost count of how many times I’ve said this, but love them or hate them Disney’s live-action remakes look like they’re here to stay. While it’s easy to write them off as carbon copies of their source material, in reality there are several that have taken a new direction and offer something unique to build on their predecessors. “Alice in Wonderland” and “Maleficent” both accomplished this. Even if they didn’t rise to the level of the original films they at least tried to put a new spin on a classic. Of the three notable remakes coming from Disney this year “Dumbo” is the one that always had the most potential for doing something new because, let’s face it, “Aladdin” and “The Lion King” have a formula they probably won’t stray too far from. “Dumbo” on the other hand was a 1940s Disney classic at barely over an hour long and with several…we’ll say outdated aspects that warranted a modern update. With Tim Burton at the helm, who also led “Alice in Wonderland”, there was a lot of promise for some unique imagery and storytelling to bring new life to Dumbo’s legend. So exactly how well does Disney’s first live-action remake of 2019 redefine the Dumbo legacy? Let’s find out. This is my review of the live action “Dumbo”.
“Dumbo” is based on the 1941 Disney movie of the same name itself based on a novel by Helen Aberson and Harold Pearl. This new reimagining of the story follows World War I veteran Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) who returns to the Medici Brothers’ Circus and his two children Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins). Having lost his left arm in battle Holt loses his position as an equestrian and is charged with caring for the elephants by circus ringmaster Max Medici (Danny DeVito). Holt and his children witness the birth of a unique baby elephant named Dumbo who has unnaturally large ears. During Dumbo’s debut, his mother Jumbo goes on a rampage fearing for Dumbo’s safety, leading her to be sold and Dumbo to become a tool for comedic entertainment. The Farrier’s soon discover that Dumbo can actually fly but that he needs a feather in his possession to have the confidence to do so. Seeing Dumbo as a potential main attraction wealthy theme park owner V.A. Vandevere buys the Medici Brothers Circus and pairs the elephant with his star trapeze artist Collette Marchant (Eva Green). It soon becomes apparent to the Farriers, Collette, Medici and the circus performers that Vandevere is more interested in profit than Dumbo’s wellbeing leading to a daring escape mission to reunite Dumbo with his lost mother.
So where do I start with this movie? I guess I should preface this review by saying “Dumbo” is a very uneven film, but that doesn’t make it a bad movie, just imperfect. There’s plenty to appreciate but also more than enough to criticize. Director Tim Burton and writer Ehren Kruger did, in fact, take the classic Disney story and make a fine attempt to try something new and unique with the property rather than simply following the formula of the original product. There are some fun callbacks to the animated classic, but it’s worth noting that this new “Dumbo” movie has a LOT more to say than its predecessor. One of the heaviest themes is the issue of animal cruelty in show business. It’s neat that Burton and Kruger work in a modern and timely theme to make this story feel fresh and relevant, giving it purpose to exist outside of the typical remake cash grab. Although it does take a while to get to the point and the idea of changing the way animals are treated in the entertainment industry feels kind of shoehorned into the final act, it’s nonetheless a nice sentiment that gives “Dumbo” a new type of depth. The original movie had its own significance as a tale of believing in yourself and reaching your own greatness despite the naysayers. The live action movie kind of touches on this, but in the end it focuses more on its own message allowing the previous movie’s idea of self-confidence to fall into the background. Honestly, I didn’t mind it because it allowed this film to have that loose connection to the animated film without feeling like a complete rehash. It takes the story of Dumbo and uses it to say something unique when compared to its predecessor, giving us two different cinematic experiences we can appreciate as individuals rather than as the same exact movie.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect about “Dumbo” though is it’s a fascinatingly cynical look at the entertainment industry as a whole. In fact, as I was watching the film I found myself relating Disney itself to the main villain V.A. Vandevere and his amusement park Dreamland. Vandevere utilizes the same exact tactics as Disney has over the past few years, buying out and absorbing competition in order to take advantage of smaller properties to turn a profit. Even Dreamland itself seems to strike an odd resemblance to the Disney theme parks. Whether intentional or not, you have to admire the gall it takes for Disney to greenlight a film that directly comments on a practice the studio itself has embraced. It’s almost like Disney looked in a mirror and said, “yeah, we know what we’re doing and how we look” and yet they never present anything in the film to justify Vandevere’s actions, stripping him of almost every redeemable quality. To me, this is both the film’s greatest strength and greatest weakness. On one hand, you have a villain who is irredeemable and thus lacks much substance or subtlety to his motives or personality despite a fun take on the role by Michael Keaton. On the other, you have an amazing allegory for Disney itself that shows a strange bit of self-awareness from the studio while also providing commentary on the nature of entertainment in general. Whether by choice or by coincidence Disney’s live-action take on “Dumbo” may be their most self-aware piece of filmmaking in years.
Then there’s the style and presentation which is VERY Tim Burton-esque. Burton’s signatures are all over this project from the dulled color pallet to the unique makeup and set designs and even the depiction of Dumbo and the other animals which have this odd, slightly otherworldly feel to them representative of Burton’s unique vision. There’s even Burton’s signature disconnected father figure narrative worked into the plot as Colin Farrell’s character Holt is out of touch with his children throughout most of the movie. Not all of these elements feel like they belong as some feel more tacked on than organic to the story, but a lot of it does add to the final product in some way. The family drama specifically might feel tacked on but it helps drive the human characters’ story forward seeing as the filmmakers didn’t have a lot to work with from the original movie. Even the Pink Elephants segment from the animated film is referenced in a very Tim Burton-esque way which, in my opinion, ends up being one of the most visually pleasing segments of the movie even if, again, it feels forced as a bit of fanfare. That’s kind of the theme with Burton’s signature aspects in “Dumbo”. They’re fun and predictable must-haves for any of the director’s works that add some spice to “Dumbo” but rarely truly feel like they belong.
That said I would agree with other critics in calling “Dumbo” one of Burton’s “safest” pictures. More than any other film from the director’s catalogue I feel like “Dumbo” is the one picture where Burton feels like he just stuck to the screenplay and added his own touch to try and make it at least look like a Burton product. While a lot of the director’s signature aspects are here, the tone and style of storytelling feel very basic and predictable as if Burton is following two simple formulas, give the audience the bare minimum that they need to stay engaged and do it in an odd way to remind people this is his movie. I won’t go so far as to call this a phoned in product, but it does feel oddly safe from a director who is so well know for his unique brand of morbid, dark and macabre storytelling. Now obviously the tale of “Dumbo” is an appropriate product for the darker themes that Burton tends to focus on, but there lies part of the problem. This doesn’t feel like a story Burton would be able to explore properly. It’s not his thing. Yes, he’s done family-friendly films before (see “Alice in Wonderland” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”) but those tend to be among the least praised of his works. I think Burton realized from these duds that his signature style might not always be appropriate for this kind of material and the result is “Dumbo”, a film that shows what a watered-down Tim Burton movie can look like. It looks and feels like a Tim Burton product, but it lacks his typical strangeness and that unique tone that makes Burton’s works so delightfully odd. I’m not saying he should have gone farther with “Dumbo”, I’m just saying that maybe Burton wasn’t the absolute best choice for the director’s chair. It’s an example of a worthy story and a fine director whose styles may not necessarily mesh properly to create a truly great result.
So let’s assume you don’t care that “Dumbo” isn’t Tim Burton’s most creative or adventurous production. There’s still plenty to complain about. Despite exploring some neat themes and managing to do quite a bit with the character of Dumbo himself, this remake feels like a by the books kind of fantasy film that does enough to be interesting but not near enough to be unique or memorable. The acting for one is…odd, to say the least. Takes Colin Farrell for example who feels bored most of this movie and embraces a southern accent (his character Holt is from Kentucky) that is so unbearably fake. Eva Green, despite providing one of the better overall performances in the film, goes the other direction with an almost over the top French accent. Both became distracting and even annoying the longer the film progressed. I can give credit to the smaller cast of circus performers who actually seem more engaged and interested in the material than most of the main cast half the time. To me the only real standout is Michael Keaton’s V.A. Vandevere and, as I said before, even he feels one-dimensional. He’s just fun to watch as we see him lose his mind due to his overwhelming greed so compared to the rest of the cast of humans I give him a pass. Really though, the star of the show is Dumbo, who is an adorable character to say the least who I wish got more screen time. This movie gets Dumbo right capturing his adorable nature perfectly.
When you get right down to it “Dumbo” is an average film, but it’s a remake that actually feels warranted and justified. In many ways it feels like a brilliant way to modernize the story with themes of animal cruelty and even a few cynical ideas about the entertainment industry in general. The problem is it takes so long to get to these concepts and the story structure just feels by the books. I can’t say it’s boring though. I was engaged and interested the whole time, but mostly due to its familiarity and the sense of adventure that naturally comes from this kind of movie. There’s enough style and substance to make it bearable, even fun, but not nearly enough to set it apart from the pack. Tim Burton does a decent job adding his own personal touch to the production, even if his trademarks aren’t worked in very smoothly, but it might his safest film despite an inspired narrative. In the end “Dumbo” offers a lot, but not as much as one could have hoped. There was a lot of potential for growth with this remake and in some ways it takes full advantage of a new lease on life. In other ways “Dumbo” plays it so obviously safe that it’s borderline frustrating. It’s a film with a lot to say but doesn’t quite succeed to really drive it home. All in all it’s a fun two hours of escapism I’d recommend, but nothing I desperately need to watch again anytime soon.