For a good time, skip this week’s remake of Walt Disney’s animated classic Dumbo and watch the 1941 original instead. It’s more concise, enjoyable and full of wonder.
The new version is awful. For full disclosure, this is probably one of the most anticipated movies this year by yours truly, both because I’m an admirer of classic Disney pictures, and occasionally enjoy the Burbank studio’s run of remakes. I also tend to find something good about movies directed by Burbank native Tim Burton, who directed Disney’s 2019 Dumbo.
Not this picture. Unlike his best movies, such as Big Fish, The Nightmare Before Christmas or Edward Scissorhands, 2019’s Dumbo lacks Mr. Burton’s stylized visual imprint. The nearly two-hour film, which goes from Florida to Missouri to a fantastical New York City theme park, is devoid of flourish. From the beginning, Dumbo is generic.
Taking place in 1919, most of the original plot points are included by reference only. Look instead for refashioned motifs, symbols and gestures. Do not look for the spirit of the baby elephant with big ears that masters how to fly. He’s been turned into a science experiment for a bland girl character that seems written from some sort of STEM feminist propaganda leaflet, stripped of all friendship with the entrepreneurial mouse and sanitized into a poster animal for PETA and other animal rights and intimidation-based pressure groups.
Seriously. The cast is miscast, though it’s always good to see Colin Farrell (The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Alexander, Total Recall), the best actor in the film as a wounded war veteran. Danny De Vito (Other People’s Money) has never been worse. Michael Keaton (The Founder, Birdman), an outstanding actor, barely registers. Eva Green (The Golden Compass) gives one of the screen’s worst performances. The child actors as cast and directed are blank and would have Walt Disney turning over in his grave with their lifelessness. Unfortunately, they dominate the film, which replaces the original’s bullying with cartoonish white male villains with anti-capitalist overtones.
Scenes just happen without pretext, context or reason. Crowds magically show up overnight for circus attractions that were assembled with hardly any practice or training. Adam Arkin is wasted as a banker. Danny Elfman’s moody oohing and aahing musical accompaniment highlights Dumbo‘s deficiencies. The dialogue ranges from “we think your ears are great” passing for childlike wonder to “Hey! Get those kids!” This reminded of Disney’s hilariously atrocious Witch Mountain pictures of the 1970s. But Dumbo never gains any momentum to lose so I was never really invested.
I wanted Tim Burton’s movie to be his best. I’ve been looking forward to seeing this picture since last year. This is one of a string of disappointing movies from Hollywood’s biggest studio. But, with the most uninteresting children characters on screen in decades, this picture is Mr. Burton’s worst since his 2001 Planet of the Apes remake. Given Disney’s movies-by-generic-formula direction I’m not convinced it’s Tim Burton’s handiwork that’s the problem.
No black crows (which means no black feather), no real musicality (“Baby Mine” is reduced to next to nothing) and considerably less Dumbo on screen leaves this 21st century Dumbo as a joyless, politicized paste imposing miserable little doll-children onto what ought to be a fond fable about finding one’s way in the world. Oh, what Bob Iger’s let be done to Dumbo is a fiasco.