The legendary Walt Disney Company developed a lengthy and high quality catalog in their 90 years of filmmaking history. As such, people were surprised when the studio announced it would be freshening up their classic (64 minute) 1941 picture Dumbo. How would the rather unconventional choice end up looking on the big screen? Here’s what you need to know before venturing out to see the live-action remake.
Dumbo is a redo on the classic 1941 Disney animated feature about an adorable elephant who can fly. Add in some plucky kids, a pleasantly evil villain and a “Jim” Crow free narrative, and you have the update. Colin Farrell, Nico Parker, Finley Hobbins, Eva Green and Michael Keaton star in the film which Tim Burton directs from a script by Ehren Kruger.
Tim Burton is a long-standing, albeit quirky, directing legend. The man worked steadily in Hollywood, crafting an auteur like persona over more than three decades of filmmaking. As the movie plays out on-screen, Tim Burton’s dark and highly stylized eye turns out to be the perfect one through which to view Dumbo. Burton, like we saw in 2003’s Big Fish, brings an intimate understanding of how to shoot the rather fantastic, period circus setting. Dumbo is a visual spectacle in the way it should be. Burton crafts a rich and colorful (if somewhat macabre) world, definitely worthy of the animated version.
Unfortunately, while the movie is an absolute visual marvel, Dumbo struggles under the weight of its clunky and poorly developed script. The film quickly lays out what could be an interesting story; however, it loses any ground in a sea of thinly crafted and even tremendously unlikable characters.
While the performances are completely fine, the actors struggle to step past the material they’re given. Despite the best attempts of the talented cast, these characters are little more than minimally developed archetypes. You have the shell-shocked veteran, the science loving pre-teen girl, the stereotypical kid brother and the mustache twirling villain. These are all interesting on the surface; however, in the rush to check the socially acceptable boxes, Dumbo can’t be bothered to fill in the bubbles to capture their humanity.
Writer Ehren Kruger crafts the story through a shallow and largely poorly constructed “freak” metaphor. Dumbo, Holt (Farrell) and Milly (Parker) all share this bond. None of them quite fit in. This is a Tim Burton standard. The director absolutely shines in making you feel something for the “outcasts” of society. However, Burton and these talented and likable performers struggle to hit the level of the director’s previous work. The one-dimensional characters don’t illicit the sympathy needed to fuel the emotionality Dumbo hopes to capitalize on.
To make matters worse, outside of Dumbo and the film’s three human leads, the supporting characters are one dimensional and completely unlikable. Tim Burton’s directing in the past spotlights the complexity of the human spirit. Nothing is ever quite how it appears on the surface. Unfortunately, the same depth of understanding in Burton’s past work is shrouded in a lazy historical narrative this time around. The good guys are angelically good. Everyone else might as well be twirling their mustaches as they tie women to railroad tracks. In bringing the story to the real world, Dumbo should be stepping away from relying on simplistic, cartoonish archetypes (like Jim Crow in the original). However, as the plot is established, the lack of any real development hinders the world-building, thus turning any real wonder or emotionality into purely manipulative attempts to illicit sympathy.
It’s difficult to tell who this movie is supposed to cater too. Yes, it’s a Disney picture… so, kids! Not quite. Viewers of the original film will remember that Dumbo can be as triggering as Bambi. Add in Tim Burton as a director and a longer run-time, and you get a first act which borders on unpleasant. Like, ugly crying unpleasant. If your children (or you!) struggle with animal related trauma, really think about seeing this one. On top of this, the story can’t quite master its pacing. The 112 minutes is a bit of a slog. Combine this with long stretches without Dumbo cuteness (the adorable elephant is largely a supporting player in his own narrative), it might not be the best choice for all kids.
Finally, the question of disabled representation is a legitimate one, particularly in contemporary Hollywood. Dumbo wants to draw some interesting points through Holt’s story as a World War One veteran and amputee. However, any attempts at crafting an interesting tale are shallow at best. At the very least, Dumbo is most certainly guilty of using Holt’s disability as little more than a plot device. He is quickly given a fake arm and after this point, Holt is only seen without his arm when it’s necessary for the story. So much of the scripting doesn’t gel that the film’s attempt at crafting the disability narrative struggles to feel integrated. Ultimately, the bigger point is that while Farrell is very good, how will disabled actors every become truly “bankable” if they aren’t even considered for roles?
As a finished product, Dumbo is not a good look for Disney. This is a dated story which truly doesn’t need to be remade, and this is evident in the rushed and poorly constructed script. Ultimately, the film feels like a shallow cash grab from the storied studio and it’s unfortunate. For such a memorable character in the Disney Vault, Dumbo deserved a lot better. Unless your heart is set on this one, save your money for the two more Disney remakes we have coming later this summer.
Dumbo is playing in theaters around the country now.