It’s clear to pretty much everyone that Disney’s decision to make live-action reboots of their animated hits was for the sake of business, not art. Studios are out to make a profit, after all, and it’s considered financially safer to adapt something the public is already familiar with than a completely original idea. People will see Cinderella (2015) and Beauty and the Beast (2017) for what they are, no matter how they are, which makes Disney’s extensive catalog of classics a veritable gold mine. That doesn’t mean a remake can’t also be a good film in its own right, of course — old stories are constantly being retold in new, interesting ways. The key is to put the project in the hands of talented filmmakers and allow them to become interpreters, translating the original work into their own cinematic language and vision.
When it was announced that Tim Burton would be directing the new Dumbo, the story of a circus elephant with ears big enough to fly, I was instantly excited. I have no particular connection to the 1941 original and haven’t seen it in years, but from what I remembered, this seemed to be the perfect marriage of director and material. A misfit-outsider narrative set in a circus (itself a community of misfit-outsiders) with a history of unsettling imagery? It made so much sense that I could already picture the world of the film in his singular, twisted aesthetic. With a talented ensemble cast, including Burton-regulars Danny DeVito, Michael Keaton, and Eva Green, and a runtime almost double the hour-long original, it became clear Dumbo would indeed be more reinterpretation than reboot and offer a new vision of the title character that would try to stand on its own.
Though I sincerely believe this approach to be the best path for this film and the many Disney reboots to come, the reality of Dumbo is a surprisingly feeble experience. The story transcends the titular elephant to focus on various characters in the Medici Brothers’ Circus, particularly the ringleader Max (DeVito), ex-rodeo star Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) and his daughter, Milly (Nico Parker), chronicling how their lives are changed by Dumbo’s rise to fame. This ensemble approach stretches the narrative too thin, flattening the characters and limiting our ability to empathize — with Dumbo’s perspective diluted, previously hard-hitting scenes like his separation from his mother are weakened significantly, and the film doesn’t do enough with the humans to compensate. Though they all live with different types of loss or loneliness, you’ll find it very difficult to care about any of them.
In fact, it’s not only the character-related moments of emotional impact that are dampened, but the visual ones as well. The film seems chiefly concerned with inspiring awe and wonder, which leads to some wonderfully handled performance scenes, but also misses out on the darkness that made the original striking. This is generally one of the lighter-toned Burton films I’ve seen, and the circus is treated with genuine love (though the warmth disappears when entertainment mogul V.A. Vandervere (Keaton) brings them all to his Dreamland amusement park). The clowns are part of the circus family in this film, instead of being deeply connected to Dumbo’s humiliation in a way that made them seem creepy and cruel. The pink elephants are integrated into a Dreamland performance, reducing the original’s most iconic, surreal sequence to empty spectacle. The 1941 version was willing to be dark for a kid’s film, but this one seems unwilling to take those risks. Without characters we care about or visuals that stick with us, Dumbo struggles to be memorable at all.
I must say in defense of this interpretation that there is a new vision here, even if it took some time for me to see it — Burton’s film is about spectacle. Beyond showing us performances, we often see the characters’ reactions to them, expressing with their eyes and smiles the admiration Burton has for showmanship. When the story transitions to Dreamland, the emphasis is suddenly on business and repetition, the concern for humanity is gone, and we are shown what happens when spectacle becomes soulless. The Disneyland parallels are blatant and hypercritical, a move that could have been daring if the love for the “real” circus didn’t seem so misplaced — when Dumbo, treated as the film’s one piece of genuine magic, is declared too good for any circus, are we still supposed to think of them as good places? With the line of contrast left too thin, Dumbo becomes the shallow spectacle it aims to criticize, and viewers are little more than temporarily diverted.
WhatsUpRI Rating: 2.5 out of 5
WhatsUp Ratings Guide
5- Excellent – Don’t miss it
4- Very Good – Well worth your time
3- Good – Solid, but not earthshattering
2- Fair – Not quite ready for prime time
1- Poor – Don’t waste your time or money