Director: Tim Burton
Cast: Colin Farrell, Danny DeVito, Michael Keaton, Eva Green, Nico Parker, Finley Hobbins
Each time Disney announces a ‘live-action’ remake/reboot of one of their beloved classic animations, everyone winces. Why do they feel the need to mess with that which should not be messed with? Is it all about the money? Quite possibly. But, having said that, they have had some success with Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast and The Jungle Book, each of which have their own little diversions that could be used to argue in their favour. Dumbo is the latest Disney animation to receive a live-action version – though using the term ‘live-action’ quite loosely – but will it keep us believing an elephant can fly, or has the magic failed to take off at all?
In 1919, Holt Farrier (Farrell) returns to his home, the Medici Brothers’ Circus where he is a performer, after fighting and losing an arm in World War I. It’s there where he has been raising his two children, Milly (Parker) and Joe (Hobbins), as a recently widowed single father. One day, the Circus’ owner Max Medici (DeVito) reveals that he has purchased a pregnant elephant. When the elephant, Mrs Jumbo, gives birth, it’s discovered that the baby has enormous ears. He is initially labelled a freak by Max, but when Milly and Joe, who have taken the baby under their wing, show off his hidden talent for flying using his ears as wings, Dumbo, as he comes to be known, becomes an instant star. As a result, he is separated from his mother and the entire circus troupe is taken under the wing of Dreamland amusement park owner V. A. Vandevere (Keaton), who is (quite obviously) not the saviour he appears to be. It’s up to the Farriers to help Dumbo to reunite with his mother and free him from Vandevere’s money-grabbing plans.
The original 1941 Walt Disney animation is famously known to be an absolute tear-jerker that very much toes the line these days with its highly (pun not intended) entertaining hallucinogenic-induced Pink Elephants on Parade scene. It very much holds a special place in many people’s hearts. Unfortunately it’s looking like the same won’t be said of Burton’s version that, let’s be honest, is not live-action but completely CG with a few humans thrown in (everything was filmed on a soundstage, including the “outdoor” scenes). The whole production also very much screams ‘TIM BURTON’, from the tone of the film (which really isn’t any darker than the original) and the production design to the score (which is so blatantly by Burton’s long-time work husband, Danny Elfman) and even the general aesthetic, editing and filtering of the whole thing. There’s nothing really wrong with this, of course: these are reasons why many of Burton’s films have been and continue to be enjoyable. However, something about it just doesn’t feel like it fits in with Dumbo’s story. It feels more like a sequel to Burton’s own Big Fish, which also featured a circus and Danny DeVito as the ringmaster, than a Disney film.
What also doesn’t sit right is the same problem that, in some opinions, the Transformers series had, in that there is/was far too much human involvement. Transformers didn’t focus enough on the Autobots and/or Decepticons, instead going for the human POV. Dumbo does exactly the same – Burton takes the angle of the empathetic humans rather than the animals themselves. Yes, it’s difficult to have animals talk or express themselves in what is supposed to be a more realistic production, but they are what the story is about – surely there’s no reason it couldn’t have been something similar to The Jungle Book? Burton’s Dumbo still features a sad mother-and-baby scene with a section of the classic ‘Baby of Mine’ song (it will probably still make you tear up, but that might be because it will make you think of the original scene that reduces most people to a blubbering mess), and there’s a small amount of pink elephants parading (not nearly as much fun as the animation), but there are no crows to poke fun at or help Dumbo and, very sadly, no Timothy Q. Mouse to guide us and Dumbo through the story.
What really saves this film from disaster is Dumbo himself. The animators have done a good enough job of evoking some emotion from the eyes of the CG elephant so that audiences can still feel an emotional attachment. Not to mention the thoughts it conjures of animal exploitation and cruelty that continues to this day in some “circuses” and amusement parks around the world, as well as in other institutions. If there’s anything positive that could come from this film, it’s more awareness of the plights of animals and the responsibility we have as human beings to protect them.
Dumbo’s human co-stars don’t have quite the same impact as he. Farrell is back in another struggling-single-parent-who-has-much-to-learn-from-his-kids role with one of the worst American accents he’s ever done, and he’s usually not that bad. This role would in theory be something quite easy for him, and quite a safe choice really, but he doesn’t seem to make the most of it. Parker and Hobbins as Farrell’s two children are sweet enough, but again their American accents need some work and their performances are rather stiff. Being so young they have plenty of time to work on their abilities, but this won’t go down as one of their better films, should they continue down the acting path. Burton brings back long-time collaborators Keaton and DeVito for this production, with Keaton in a villainous role that works well enough for a kid’s movie (though doesn’t quite match up to his role as the Vulture in Spider-Man: Homecoming) and DeVito doing what he does best in a Burton movie in playing a pivotal role with a big personality, nothing we haven’t really seen before. Green is probably the one stand-out in her role as one of Dreamland’s performers, a Parisian named Collette, a strong woman who doesn’t let Vandevere crush her spirit or morals, and really ends up being a better role model to Holt’s kids than Holt himself.
Although the story of Burton’s Dumbo does differ quite a lot from its animation counterpart, it just doesn’t hold a candle to Walt Disney’s classic. There’s too much difficulty in believing the CGI, let alone that an elephant will fly. The story overall is weak (you may zone out on more than one occasion) and is saved only by the cute baby elephant that you will root for. There’s far too much in the way of humans blathering on and not enough on Dumbo himself. If there’s anything this film is good for, other than highlighting the welfare of animals, it’s for arguing against remaking any more Disney animations. Although, funnily enough, one of the highlights of seeing Dumbo in the cinema is catching the trailer for Aladdin beforehand (hearing ‘A Whole New World’ may give you goosebumps). It seems that, no matter what, these remakes/reboots are going to keep happening, so we may as well take them one by one rather than lump them in should- or should-not-be-remade categories. Dumbo will probably be worth a watch of a Sunday afternoon when it arrives on VOD or on TV in a couple of years, but it’s not one to rush to the cinema for.
tim burton, Michael Keaton, danny devito, eva green