People have visceral memories of Dumbo, one of the crowning achievements in Disney’s early traumatizing-adorable (traumadorable?) animated film oeuvre. Presumably that emotional connection is why Disney chose it for its next elephant-trunk grab for the peanuts in your pocket.
For me, it’s the rip-your-heart-out-and-step-on-it (with all the force of an actual pachyderm) feeling of the scene in which Dumbo’s mother cradles him in her trunk from behind bars, rocking him to sleep before she is cruelly carted away. Then there’s the demented sequence in which Dumbo gets accidentally drunk on champagne and hallucinates a terrifying spectacle of elephants on parade, projecting it directly into every five-year-old child’s nightmares.
The new Dumbo, a buzzy live-action reimagination directed by Tim Burton with an elephant-sized budget, boasts neither the stripped-down rawness nor the menacing weirdness of those aforementioned scenes.
It’s a production chock-full of gorgeous aesthetic and special effects wonder. With a dream-like palate near-constantly lit by a scorching burning-sky sunset, it certainly is beautiful. But for all the ways in which it’s dressed up in Burton’s signature visuals, it is emotionally and spiritually bare.
Here is a movie about, with all apologies to Hugh Jackman, the actual greatest show on earth—a baby elephant can fly with its ears!—and that spectacular is relegated to the sideshow. Instead, the main event: a lethargic, ultimately hollow father’s redemption tale.
If that’s what you paid to see, great! Also, huh? I came to see an elephant fly away with all my tears. Instead he haplessly circled around a circus tent, orbiting the point of it all.
The movie stars Colin Farrell, not Dumbo. It’s 1919 in western Florida, set against those final heydays of the circus coming to town, a weird moment that pop culture seems to constantly romanticize. We love a dying circus and its sad carnies.
Farrell is Holt Farrier, a former horse trickman at the Medici Brothers Circus, led by firecracker ringleader Danny DeVito as Max Medici. He’s just returned from war, where he lost an arm. His wife and partner in his act has died, leaving his two precocious children (Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins) largely to their own devices with a traveling circus as their home. With no arm and no partner, Holt can’t do his act anymore. With his children’s distrust of him on top of all that, he has no self-purpose.
Everything changes when an elephant DeVito’s Max had secured gives birth to what is meant to be the show’s main attraction: a cute little baby elephant. Everyone is dismayed, however, when the baby turns out to have unsightly floppy ears.
The Farrier children, Milly and Joe, don’t abandon the baby. While caring for him, they discover that a feather causes little Dumbo to sneeze, which makes him flap those big ears of his, which then makes him take flight. Accidentally, they seem to have stumbled upon the circus-saving act.
The tragedy of Dumbo is how exploited he becomes. First, he’s bullied for his ears. Then he’s merely used as a money pawn in the circus. Once news spreads of his high-flying ability, Dumbo all but exits the screen as an array of far less-interesting humans scheme for control over his act.
It’s here that we meet Eva Green’s trapeze artist Colette, not so much a character as a serene smile occasionally flashed on screen, so that you know she’s the good guy. Then there’s Michael Keaton, beamed in from an entirely different movie to play a cartoon villain who wants to kill Dumbo’s mother and take control of the Medici Brothers circus.
The whole “dialed up to 11” description is admittedly overused. But my god is Keaton dialed up to 11. In stark contrast is Alan Arkin, in a performance so phoned in I am convinced he would be surprised to learn he was in a Dumbo movie at all.
None of the performances cohere and it’s all very distracting, which is unfortunate considering what it’s distracting from: Some truly spell-binding visual and action set pieces, not to mention a CGI triumph in the form of big-eared little elephant. It’s arguably worth watching, because it’s all so sumptuous to literally watch. But you’ll hardly feel a thing, amounting to a bunch of magical nonsense.
Maybe that’s a metaphor for today, a bunch of shiny grifts and the mismanagement of actual wonder. At least when it comes to this glut of remakes, Dumbo reflects a misconception of what made the original so special.
Everyone is wondering what is going with all these expensive “live-action” Disney remakes. What is their value, outside of a guaranteed cash haul?
Beauty and the Beast, despite all the marketing about a “woke” Beast and an “exclusively gay moment,” offered little of actual re-imagination or a new perspective. The Jungle Book was a technical marvel, something that carries over to the much-anticipated The Lion King which, for all its impressive CGI, at this juncture appears to be nothing more than a frame-for-frame recreation of the original film, but with more sophisticated and realistic animation.
Dumbo is the antithesis, and arguably the most interesting of these remake efforts: an auteur’s reinterpretation of a story we know so well. That it still underwhelms may underline that, like us, when it comes to these remakes Disney may not be entirely sure of what it’s doing.