In many ways, 1941’s “Dumbo” is something of a museum piece.
The film, in not one but two musical numbers, features regressive stereotypes of African Americans. (Let’s not forget that one of the characters is literally named “Jim Crow”). There is a surprising amount of alcohol. The circus world depicted in the film would likely mystify the children of today as circuses have largely been disbanded due to animal cruelty concerns.
But despite its demerits, that original “Dumbo” works. From the opening baby delivery via stork to the final chorus of “When I See an Elephant Fly,” just about everything connects. It has a way of bypassing your brain and going straight to your heart.
“Dumbo is the nicest, kindest Disney yet,” Cecilia Ager wrote in a review of the original film in 1941 for the now defunct newspaper “PM”. “It has the most heart, taste, beauty, compassion, skill, restraint.”
Director Tim Burton of “Sweeney Todd” and “Sleepy Hollow” has many good qualities as a filmmaker, but heart, taste and beauty aren’t among them. Ehren Kruger, the screenwriter who wrote no fewer than three interchangeable “Transformers” movies, isn’t exactly known for his compassion, skill or restraint.
Hiring those two for Disney’s “Dumbo” remake is one of the most flabbergasting mismatches of personnel to material since Wes Craven directed that tear-jerking Meryl Streep movie. The ballsiness of hiring Burton and Kruger would have been impressive if it had worked. As it is, this “Dumbo” is grounded- a joyless whimsy-free mess.
What’s most frustrating is that this could have worked. The original “Dumbo”, you might remember, was one of Disney’s most lightweight films, clocking in at just over an hour. Thus, there was plenty of room to expand on this world, which is what Burton and Kruger attempt to do.
Burton and Kruger throw out the original film’s talking animals and add in a troupe of human characters played by such ringers as Colin Farrell, Danny DeVito, Michael Keaton and Eva Green. You’re likely to feel a little thrill as they each walk into frame before you realize that not a one has been given anything to do.
All the human characters are paper thin- Farrell is the hero, Green’s the leading lady, DeVito is (naturally) the comic relief, Keaton is the villain. Their motivations are all so thinly defined (or completely absent) that the actors seem a bit lost. Keaton and DeVito, at least, make up for it by frantically mugging, which is entertaining enough for a few minutes.
And don’t even get me started on child actors Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins who play Farrell’s children and Dumbo’s handlers. To call them flat is an insult to pressed flowers. To call them wooden is an insult to trees.
In expanding Dumbo’s story, Burton and Kruger have also lost its heart in a tangle of confusing plot points involving an amusement park, World War I, a Wall Street business tycoon, an obese mermaid and a place called “Nightmare Island” among other things. As I watched all this, I began to sympathize with Parker and Hobbins a bit. I would have a hard time pretending to be excited about all this myself.
There are moments of Burton’s signature creepiness, but little of the original film’s joy and buoyancy.
For all of the failings of this “Dumbo”, Dumbo himself is not one of them. As imagined by the team at the Moving Picture Company, he is utterly charming, and the flight sequences are appropriately breathtaking. It’s just too bad that the elephant is often sidelined for this nothing of a plot.
All of the best moments in this “Dumbo” (rated PG for peril/action, some thematic elements and brief mild language) are thin echos of the original’s pleasures – a few notes from “Casey Jr.” in Danny Elfman’s score, a largely perfunctory retread of “Pink Elephants on Parade”, and a mid-film rendition of “Baby Mine”.
The one new scene that works is the final scene, which offers a heartwarming rewrite for the ending of Dumbo’s story. After nearly two hours of feeling numb, I was moved for at least a few minutes.
In a year where Disney also churned out slavish-to-a-fault remakes of “Aladdin”, “The Lion King” and “Lady and the Tramp”, you have to give them kudos for trying to do something different with “Dumbo”. But if the original film was a dream mixed with a whimsical fairy tale, this version never feels like anything more than a nightmare performed by a community theater troupe.
About the author
Stephen Dow is an award-winning journalist with a passion for film – not just consuming it, but thoughtfully and actively engaging with it. He believes that these modern myths have a lot to tell us about our world and ourselves. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.