Updated: Feb 8
Between the MCU, Star Wars, Pixar and their own back catalog, Disney is on a quest for world domination without actually having to come up with any new ideas. In 2019, the studio will be releasing three live-action adaptations of their previous animated hits. First up is a reimagining of Dumbo (Aladdin and The Lion King are due out this summer). The story of a big-eared baby elephant separated from his mother and forced to perform in a circus, this is one of Disney’s classic tearjerkers. Yet this version fails to truly connect on an emotional level. It is a visually pretty production (with one notable exception; more on that later), but the characters and story never engage. There is a lot going on, but nothing really happening.
Dumbo’s mom, Lady Jumbo, is sold by the circus promoter after she inadvertently wreaks havoc during a show while trying to protect her baby. With the help of some humans, he must continue working until the circus has enough money to get her back. It is a weak plot made weaker because the title character has so little agency. There is an attempt to anthropomorphize him, but the movie mainly ends up being about the Farrier family. The father has just returned from WWI and is missing an arm. The mother passed away the year prior. So that means young Milly and Joe have basically been taking care of themselves. Their story is intended to parallel Dumbo’s. It overtakes it instead.
Dumbo has been directed by Tim Burton, a filmmaker known for his command of visuals. He does a good job once again with sets, as well as his usage of the moon to illuminate the backgrounds. Both the circus and the amusement park that becomes significant later on are fully realized locations that feel like self-contained worlds. The circus is a community of people with nowhere else to go. It looks open, inviting, with everyone living close to each other. Conversely, the amusement park is a monstrosity with eye-catching attractions around every corner. It is designed to be a business, not a family. There is a real sense of place with each of them, though not much is done with either.
The least impressive visual element is one of the most vital aspects of this tale: Dumbo’s flying. Every time he takes flight it is meant to be a breathtaking sight. Unfortunately, it just ends up looking phony. During those sequences, he does not seem to exist in the same reality as the people and objects surrounding him. The computer technology is far too obvious, thus hurting the impact of a huge moment. It is really the only aesthetic miss, but an extremely important one.
The 1941 Dumbo was 64 minutes long. This version is much longer (it is 104 minutes, minus the end credits). It is padded out by an increased focus on the human characters. Burton’s team assembled a great cast, but the characters have no depth. Still, some of them are able to squeeze out a little entertainment.
Colin Farrell is bland as the physically and emotionally damaged war veteran. Danny DeVito has fun as the owner of the circus, before being pushed aside in the second half. Michael Keaton is boring as a business owner with an interest in Dumbo. Eva Green shows the most complexity as a high-flying acrobat. I like what she did, even if she is never made necessary. Alan Arkin is totally wasted as a not-easily-impressed banker. Then there is Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins as the Farrier children. Hobbins’ Joe is a run of the mill “cute movie kid, but Parker capably carries the emotions on her shoulders. A lot of the plot turns rest on her and she is very good. I wish the screenplay had delved deeper into the similarities between her and her new elephant friend, but she does the best she can with what she has been given.
I know movies are a product. Even so, it is too bad when that is all they appear to be. Disney is trying to find relatively easy money with elaborate reproductions of their animated library. Sometimes viewers will get lucky and it will click into something entertaining. Other times the result will be shallow and pointless. Dumbo falls mostly into the latter category. It is technically fine (except for the flying), but dull and forgettable. The original is one of the more emotional Disney movies. Somehow, Burton lost what matters in this story, leaving a lot of spectacle and not enough heart.
2¼ out of 5
Colin Farrell as Holt Farrier
Nico Parker as Milly Farrier
Finley Hobbins as Joe Farrier
Danny DeVito as Max Medici
Michael Keaton as V.A. Vandevere
Eva Green as Colette Marchant
Alan Arkin as J. Griffin Remington
Directed by Tim Burton
Screenplay by Ehren Kruger