Dumbo: Another Disney remake we never needed

by Kristen Lopez

Disney’s latest CGI/live-action remake fails to inspire any whimsy or wonderment with a trite story they’ve done to death.

Disney’s original animated feature, their third of all things, was a sweet, simplistic, somewhat racist story of accepting one’s flaws and turning them into assets. Dumbo realizes he has magic and uses that to free his mother. It’s a movie that’s barely an hour long.

So, when the studio announced Dumbo was going to get their recent hybrid treatment of becoming a CGI/live-action feature the question was, “How?” The finished product has all the lift of a lead balloon. It’s not worth saying Disney’s recent trend of remaking their own movies is a cash grab because audiences know this. The problem is they’re becoming terrible at hiding it and the proof is within Dumbo itself.

DREAMING BIG — In Tim Burton’s all-new, live-action reimagining of “Dumbo,” persuasive entrepreneur V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton) decides that a young elephant from a struggling circus belongs in his newest, larger-than-life entertainment venture, Dreamland. Directed by Burton and produced by Katterli Frauenfelder, Derek Frey, Ehren Kruger and Justin Springer, “Dumbo” flies into theaters on March 29, 2019. © 2018 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

There’s no true love lost for the original, starting with this film moving its setting from 1941, when the original came out, to 1919 after the conclusion of WWI. Cowboy circus star Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) is returning to the Medici Brothers circus with one less arm and two children to raise after their mother’s death. When the circus debuts a new baby elephant with big ears, Holt’s daughter Millie (Nico Parker) discovers the elephant can fly.

As far as the title character is concerned, he loses something in becoming a three-dimensional figure. He’s sufficiently cute in the sense that he’s not outright terrifying, but there is a hard amount of uncanny valley to him. But, like with the previous Beauty and the Beast remake, there aren’t nearly enough close-ups on Dumbo, so he often comes off as little more than a big puppy. The audience never truly knows what he’s thinking or feeling. In the “Baby Mine” sequence, a moment Disney trots out merely because it’s the original’s most famous scene, there’s absolutely no emotion conjured as the camera stays far away and the CGI figures lack the expressiveness of what the original animators pulled off.

ON WITH THE SHOW – When a persuasive entrepreneur decides to make Dumbo a star at his larger-than-life entertainment venture, former circus star Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) and his children Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins) vow to stick with their beloved flying elephant the whole way. Directed by Tim Burton, Disney’s all-new, live-action, big-screen adventure “Dumbo” flies into theaters on March 29, 2019. ©2018 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Dumbo, more often than not, is a side player despite his name anchoring the story. (Ironically, the movie mentions how his name is derogatory to him and yet seems to say it’s being reclaimed by him? Okay.)

The nearly two-hour movie wants to make the central conceit that Dumbo can fly, but spends nearly as much time showing that he can’t. The narrative is a repetitious series of failures with Dumbo flying in private, but failing to do so publicly. However there’s absolutely no variation in these scenes, with nothing more than backgrounds swapped out. It makes the film’s climax, where Dumbo just has to fly (!), laughable because, so far, every time has gone wrong.

No one ever watched Dumbo and said, “That movie needed more humans” and that’s the biggest failing in this Tim Burton-directed reboot. The human heroes are never compelling, but are a loose assemblage of vaguely wacky personalities you’d commonly find in a Tim Burton kids film. There’s the requisite snake charmer, strong man, and other personalities you might have missed in The Greatest Showman. These characters barely have names and end up relying on their freakish personas to be memorable. (This movie goes as soft on the circuses of old as much as Showman did, right down to having a highly animal rights friendly ending. Take that, Barnum!)

SPECIAL ASSIGNMENT – In director Tim Burton’s all-new live-action adventure “Dumbo,” former circus star Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) and his children Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins) are charged with caring for a newborn elephant whose oversized ears make him a laughingstock in an already struggling circus. Expanding on the beloved classic story where differences are celebrated, family is cherished and dreams take flight, “Dumbo” flies into theaters on March 29, 2019. ©2018 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Colin Farrell did the Disney dad thing a few years back with Saving Mr. Banks, giving us a character who was charming yet troubled. Here, as Holt Farrier, it’s easy to see why the Irish actor would take this, but there’s absolutely nothing intriguing in his performance. With an overt Southern twang, Holt is never given anything to confront. Even the loss of his arm barely registers little more than some casual embarrassment. Despite how Burton has crafted several characters who explore disability, Holt never has a moment of clarity or even interest in his newfound situation. This isn’t the actor’s fault, and in fact Farrell tries his hardest to keep the movie watchable. It’s the script that undermines him.

The same can be said for Nico Parker, who gives a luminous debut performance as Millie. Disney understands they need to reshape their image where female characters are concerned but they’ve entered complacency here. Millie is a little girl interested in being a scientist and… that’s it. The script understands “we need to give her an interest” but it devolves into little more than a hobby, a fun-time gig and that’s it. Millie, as a character, has zero personality despite how sweet Parker herself is. The relationship between her and Dumbo doesn’t even amount to anything more than a trite “listen to your heart” mantra. For a girl whose mother dad and her father is absent, she’s way too well-adjusted.

CIRCUS FAMILY – In Disney’s all-new live-action adventure “Dumbo,” circus owner Max Medici (Danny DeVito) and circus performer Rongo the Strongo (Deobia Oparai)—plus the rest of their big-top team—welcome a newborn elephant with oversized ears to their tight-knit family. Directed by Tim Burton, “Dumbo” flies into theaters on March 29, 2019. ©2018 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Then you add in the villains, or what the movie seems to believe are villains. Danny Devito’s circus operator, Max Medici, starts out being an unsympathetic cad. He sells off Holt’s horses and refuses to give the former cowboy any job of substance — yet Holt never calls out the character for any of it — but just as quickly as that’s established, the movie transitions to the “real” villain.

Michael Keaton’s V.A. Vandervere is a bizarre Walt Disney caricature that could have been Disney at its most cynical, if Keaton wasn’t told to make the character so over-the-top. Keaton does everything from drop his Beetlejuice voice to mugging incessantly, which ends up filling in the script’s lack of conflict, but makes the character nothing more than a mustache-twirling villain.

And for you Eva Green fans, she certainly looks pretty! As the French-accented aerialist, Colette, she rocks the Coleen Atwood-designed fashions, but that’s it. She’s little more than a pretty face, barely being posited as a love interest. Like the rest of the cast she’s just… there.

It’s entirely unclear what the studio, Burton, and screenwriter Ehren Kruger wanted with Dumbo. The original features are there but are played off as an impediment, merely the old-fashioned thing that’s needed to be improved on.

It may be visually beautiful, but like a Disney evil stepmother, it holds an empty heart that could care less about what it’s telling you.

Kristen Lopez has a Masters from CSUS and spends her time watching movies and reading books. She's worked as a TCM Social Producer and has contributed articles to Flavorwire, The Playlist, Pacific Standard and Film School Rejects.