Disney just keeps remaking their animated movies, huh? It all could be traced back to 2010’s Alice in Wonderland – fittingly directed by Tim Burton, the same director helming this latest live-action remake. From there, Disney just kept on going down the proverbial rabbit hole with remakes. Their latest trip down said rabbit hole – one of no less than three live-action remakes due to be released theatrically this year (with a fourth expected to premiere on the Disney + streaming service by the end of the year), Dumbo is a live-action remake of the classic 1941 Disney cartoon of the same name. This time, helmed by director Tim Burton and screenwriter Ehren Kruger, Dumbo expands that fairly short animated film into a nearly two-hour long Tim Burton extravaganza. The problem is: nobody was really asking for a Dumbo remake. So, is it actually any good, or is it just another mediocre film from Disney, a company that seems to specialize in releasing mediocre films all throughout their various film studios? Answer: it’s the latter.
From Disney and visionary director Tim Burton, the all-new grand live-action adventure “Dumbo” expands on the beloved classic story where differences are celebrated, family is cherished and dreams take flight. Circus owner Max Medici (Danny DeVito) enlists former star Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) and his children Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins) to care for a newborn elephant whose oversized ears make him a laughingstock in an already struggling circus. But when they discover that Dumbo can fly, the circus makes an incredible comeback, attracting persuasive entrepreneur V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), who recruits the peculiar pachyderm for his newest, larger-than-life entertainment venture, Dreamland. Dumbo soars to new heights alongside a charming and spectacular aerial artist, Colette Marchant (Eva Green), until Holt learns that beneath its shiny veneer, Dreamland is full of dark secrets.
This movie is an utter mess. Nearly everything about it is completely flat. The script, and the characters within it, are one dimensional; the acting is extraordinarily weak – especially from Michael Keaton (doing his best Johnny Depp impersonation) and the two child actors, both of whom are given a total of one characteristic to play and nothing else; and the pacing is either dreadfully slow or way too fast, depending on what part of the film you’re at. The plot is so cut-and-dry that the moment you get into the story, you immediately know what’s gonna happen. Small-time circus buys pregnant elephant, pregnant elephant gives birth to weird child, weird child ends up being able to fly, child and parent are separated, circus becomes successful, circus is bought by evil corporation who wants to separate child from its mother, child is broken free, we all live happily ever after. There’s your plot. It’s not as though the original Dumbo was particularly well-written, but at least it knew what it was. This remake wants to say something important but doesn’t actually spend the time doing so. Some people suggest all the stuff with Dreamland and Michael Keaton’s Vandevere is a critique on giant companies – like Disney – but the film never actually spends any time developing Vandevere beyond mustache-twirling villain. In the end, it’s his own hubris that gets the best of him. It’s not an indictment of the system that would allow someone like him to take power, but an indictment of an obviously awful man. How innovative!
Similarly, none of the protagonists are ever given any real development. Millie’s one characteristic is “she likes science” – but the film doesn’t actually explore her love of science. Joe, the other kid, has no singular characteristic; he’s just sort of there except for when he disappears. Holt is the sad, newly widowed father who has trouble connecting with his children. Eva Green’s Colette is the “girlfriend” of Keaton’s Vandevere who immediately turns on Vandevere with very little convincing needing to happen – because Vandevere is so obviously evil. There are a bunch of interchangeable “freaks” whose only purpose seems to be to pad out the cast of the film as they hardly make any kind of an impression. Every character in the film exists solely to tick off some element of the plot. None of them feel like actual people in any regard, so it’s impossible to sympathize with them at all.
The only reason this film comes anywhere close to working is due to its remarkable visuals. For once, Tim Burton actually managed to tone down his excessive visuals and focus them into something that actually works within the context of the story he’s telling. Nearly every shot in this film is genuinely beautiful, especially the scenes that take place in Dreamland. Dreamland, perhaps, is the one place where Burton lets his imagination really soar to Burton-esque heights – but it’s one of the only occasions where something like that happening wouldn’t prove completely distracting. For much of the film, the visuals are still interesting and creative, but very muted and it all works perfectly. This movie is a really nice movie to look at and Dreamland is the kind of nightmarish amusement park anybody who finds Disneyland too G-Rated would probably long to visit.
These gorgeous visuals also prove to be a problem for the movie, particularly when it comes to Dumbo himself. The CGI on Dumbo is beautiful; he’s rendered in such careful realism and he’s really brought to life with his facial expressions. But that’s also the problem. Much of the film is about the horrific way animals like Dumbo were treated in circuses, so it’s a good thing that the film doesn’t shy away from that, but Dumbo is so cute that it genuinely hurts to see him treated so poorly. I understand that that’s the point, but he’s so cute and innocent that it becomes very unpleasant to watch him suffer. He’s so realistic and he looks and acts so much like any young animal – especially a young puppy or kitten – that it’s just so painful watching him suffer. I understand that’s the point, but it happens so frequently during the first half of the film that it makes the film even less enjoyable. Nobody wants to watch a super cute, super realistic animal suffer. You could potentially get away with that kind of thing in a more traditionally animated film, but here, it’s just deeply unpleasant. You could do it once or twice to make your point, but after a while, it just hurts. It’s like Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 torturing Groot. It’s something nobody wants to see, no matter how vital it is to the plot.
All in all, Dumbo is not a good movie. While it has some gorgeous visuals and a strong score from Danny Elfman, it’s brought down by an enormously weak script, some pretty bland acting, and nonexistent character development. To be fair to the actors, they try their best, but there’s so little material for them to work with that it’s no wonder that none of them are anywhere near as memorable as a CGI elephant. The film’s not a trainwreck, though. The visuals are, mostly, what saves it from becoming one. And the fact that, in its barest form, it is a coherent and cohesive film. It’s just a poorly written one that you won’t remember in the long haul. It’s another forgettable film from Disney, a company that keeps putting up forgettable films in all of its film studios (Disney Animation, Disney Live Action, Marvel, Star Wars, etc.). If these are the kinds of movies Disney keeps making, it really doesn’t bode well for the films from 20th Century Fox that Disney will produce in the future. Hope y’all are ready for more films with utterly bland scripts because that’s what Disney seems content to give us. Bring on Aladdin, I guess.
2.5 out of 5 wands