The Live Action Dumbo Has Too Many Humans

I’ll be frank, I don’t recall much about the original Dumbo. I remember elephants on parade. I know there is a scene with crows that is incredibly racist. I know Dumbo flies. Beyond that? Not much. I watched it a few times as a kid and moved on to Mulan and The Lion King and Aladdin – if I saw remakes of those movies now, I’d certainly immediately begin to compare them, like it or not, to the originals. For Dumbo, not so much, which feels more a blessing than anything. I’m not strictly opposed to these “live action” aka CGI remakes of the original Disney flicks. I ask only what I ask of any adaptation: do something different. You need to justify the movie in and of itself, and if you have, then it being based on another property doesn’t matter. I would never say you need to see the Macbeth directed by X to enjoy the Macbeth directed by Y. They’re different beasts, and they should feel that way. So, let’s ignore the original Dumbo and take a look at just this Dumbo.

Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) returns home from one of the world wars (I don’t know which – I glanced down at my milkshake (thanks Alamo Drafthouse!) as the movie started and only caught enough of the title card to know I missed it). He is reunited with his daughter Milly (Nico Parker), who likes science, and his son Joe (Finley Hobbins), who has no character traits to speak of. They’ve been traveling with the Medici Brothers’ circus, run by Max Medici (Danny DeVito) where Holt and his recently deceased wife worked before the war. Max has sold Holt’s beloved horses and asks him to work with the elephants instead. One of those elephants, a recent purchase, is pregnant and soon gives birth to an elephant with abnormally large ears. At first disappointed, the circus soon learns it can fly! Dumbo is born! His acclaim attracts V. A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton) who plans to absorb Medici’s circus and combine Dumbo with his star trapeze artist, Collette Marchant (Eva Green).

Didn’t Dumbo have a talking mouse companion in the original who helped him out? I ask only because this movie feels as though it is mistitled. It’s called Dumbo, and Dumbo is in a… decent amount of it, I guess, but it could pretty easily be called About Forty Thinly-Drawn Characters Who Happen To Know Dumbo. For a movie about show business it seems to have forgotten who it’s star is. Dumbo is shuffled off to side frequently, and to the movie’s detriment. It’s not that anyone gives bad performances – every member of this cast is good at what they do. The trouble more stems from the sprawling narrative. Too many characters are given arcs, and eventually there isn’t enough time for them all to be developed, so all the arcs begin to suffer.

Which is a shame because when the movie works it’s a lot of fun. I hate to admit it but Dumbo’s flying is impressive. Whoever did the sound design for those ears flapping did a lot of the heavy lifting; it sounds and feels tangible  and as a result sounds and feels stunning. It’s a gosh darn flying elephant! The more theatrical elements work well too – most of Vandevere’s Dreamland is impressive – smoke filled, bright, colorful, and flashy. The elephants on parade sequence, while serving no narrative purpose, is just plain fun, as are all the acts. Burton is a director who is interested in spectacle, and as such he makes a lot of sense for this project. However, it feels that someone, either him or Disney, decided that making a family friendly movie meant putting on the safety rails. This is an outlandish and at times unforgiving story, and it never gets as bonkers or dark as it could.

Burton instead decides to focus the “dark” energies on the human characters, but again, they feel like a distraction more than anything. Holt is unsure how to interact with Milly, and it’s clear they both miss their wife/mother, who served as a bridge between the two. It’s obvious why it’s included, as it parallels Dumbo missing his mother, but the parallels aren’t ever drawn or expanded upon, and the message of the movie doesn’t end up being about that, really. I think more family oriented movies should be willing to take on difficult themes. Kids can take it. You just have to engage with it in a serious and committed way, and also make sure it’s still fun. Dumbo’s family oriented storyline feels both dour and shallow, and the lesson Dumbo learns (believe in yourself… ugh) has been used so many times it’s meaningless to me. I’m left wishing, again, that we just watched the darn elephant fly.

I give Dumbo five snake charmers out of ten Shakespearean monkeys.

OTHER THOUGHTS

  • It is, to Burton’s credit, a genuinely good looking movie. I’m used to Disney crushing all the ambition out of its tentpole projects, but this has some good camera work and interesting sets, even if they don’t quite reach old Burton heights.
  • This is an all-star cast, packed with some great returning Burton players, especially from his magnum opus, Batman Returns. DeVito isn’t given a lot to do here, but Keaton goes full Royalton.
  • A la “Solo” they explain how Dumbo got his name. It’s a bizarrely long process involving three separate scenes, yet Sam informs me the need for explanation is taken from the original? He’s an elephant name him whatever the heck you want he’ll literally never know. Wild.
  • Big shout out to the (spoiler) ship at the end of the movie that takes two seemingly unattended elephants on as passengers???
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