Cast: Colin Farrell, Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Eva Green, Nico Parker, Finlay Hobbes, Alan Arkin
Director: Tim Burton
Writer: Ehren Kruger
At 64 minutes long and made with a relatively modest budget for the time (less than $1 million), the 1941 Dumbo is one of the simplest and least ostentatious films in the Disney canon. It tells the tale of a baby elephant who is born in a circus, is separated from his mother, and is eventually reunited with her when his ability to fly turns him into a sensation. The film is admirably economic in its storytelling, refusing to indulge in subplots or characters that don’t have a direct role to play in the titular character’s arc; the one scene that does not make any contribution to the narrative is the Pink Elephant Parade, which gets a pass by virtue of being one of the most outstanding animated sequences ever put to film. The result of their efforts is an affective and disturbing film that has endured as a classic for decades. That the film compels you to feel such sympathy and regard for a protagonist who never utters a single word throughout is a testament to the expressiveness of Disney’s animation and the clarity of their storytelling. This 2019 live-action remake, which is twice as long as the original, was made with a budget of $170 million, and was helmed by the creative mind behind Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands and The Nightmare Before Christmas, doesn’t even come close to meeting its predecessor’s standard.
Dumbo, a CGI elephant with abnormally large ears and huge, blue eyes, is barely the main character in his own story this time around. The film seems to be much more interested in following the human characters, of which there are far more than there were in the cartoon. The most prominent of them is Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell), a circus performer who has just returned from the First World War having lost one of his arms in combat. His wife has also died from influenza by this point, leaving him in sole charge of their children Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins). The Medici Brothers’ Circus, run by the brotherless Max Medici (Danny DeVito), has also fallen on dire straits and had to sell Holt’s horses in his absence. Holt is thus placed in charge of the elephant Mrs. Jumbo, who soon gives birth to her big-eared baby. Jumbo Jr. is brought into the circus act but his debut goes awry when the crowd catches sight of his malformation. Dumbo, as they cruelly call him, becomes a laughing stock, leading his mother to violently lash out. She gets sold off, leaving Dumbo sad and alone. Later on the inquisitive children discover Dumbo’s miraculous ability to fly and realise that they can use his unique ability to boost ticket sales and raise the money they need to buy Dumbo’s mother back.
That is pretty much the plot to the 1941 film, only instead of a talking mouse and an ensemble of racist crows, we get the Farrier family blues and Dumbo donning some clown makeup. By the time this film gets there though, we’ve barely made it to the halfway mark. There’s still a whole lot of movie to go as V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), a flamboyant and enigmatic business tycoon, catches wind of the magnificent flying elephant. He whisks Dumbo and the rest of his carnival troupe off to his mammoth Coney Island amusement park Dreamland. This glitzy realm of wonders and attractions (a magic kingdom, if you will) becomes the setting for the remainder of the film as the avaricious, young-at-heart Vandevere proceeds with his plan to exploit this awe-inspiring, juvenile phenomenon with his capitalist machine for all it is worth. Whether Burton is making some kind of allusion to Disney and his own experiences of working with them, I can only speculate; then again that might be crediting the film with more self-awareness or substance than it merits. Either way, Keaton and Dreamland do at least bring some light and energy to what had heretofore been a drab and characterless film. If there’s one thing Burton can still do well, it’s playing around in a detailed and visually inventive setting with some colourful, if otherwise soulless, characters.
Dumbo, a CGI elephant who is impossibly cute while somehow simultaneously being a grotesque, photorealistic abomination, barely has any agency in his own story. His narrative passivity isn’t necessarily a flaw, he is a baby elephant after all, but without any strong sense of character he effectively functions as more of an animated prop than a protagonist. The simulation is expressive enough that it’s no great effort to identify Dumbo’s emotional state in the happier and sadder scenes, what’s less clear is how much he actually understands what’s happening around him in a given moment. There is an attempt to establish a connection between Dumbo and the one-armed Holt, who apparently sees something of a kindred spirit in the physically deformed elephant (kind of like Hiccup and Toothless in How to Train Your Dragon). However, if this bond is supposed to be understood as reciprocal between them, there is no indication that it is so on Dumbo’s end. He just pretty much sits there and grins at whoever happens to approach him the way that a cheerful infant with no understanding of the world would. One might not have even noticed that the relationship between Holt and Dumbo was even supposed to be a particular point of focus were it not evident in Farrell’s performance.
It is only by virtue of employing actors as talented as Farrell, Keaton, DeVito and Green (who plays a French trapeze artist tasked with riding Dumbo as he flies in Vandevere’s show) that their characters are able to convey any kind of humanity. The two who suffer the most in the movie are the children, whose performances are necessarily more reliant on the direction than the adults. Parker is the more prominent of the two and, if I were to learn that Burton had explicitly instructed not to display a single emotion throughout the production, it would not surprise me in the slightest. She plays a girl who follows in the example set by Mackenzie Foy’s character in The Nutcracker and the Four Realms of young heroines whose single personality trait is scientific inquisitiveness. The film doesn’t even attempt to integrate it into the story in a way that might feel at least vaguely organic; they just have her outright state her interest in “the scientific method” at every given opportunity. Even then, it doesn’t inform her growth as a character or figure into the larger themes of the story (a scientifically-minded child grappling with the reality of flying elephant might have made for an interesting source of friction, to give one example), it just comes across as a lazy attempt to score brownie points with feminist critics in search of smarter, more progressive female characters in big-budget children’s movies without bothering to write one.
Watching these live-action remakes make the same mistakes all over again year after year is getting so old that I’m as bored of writing about them as I am of watching them. Half of the problems in Dumbo are about trying to fix what was never broken (sans the racist crows) and the other half come about from errors in story, character and filmmaking that are so elementary, they wouldn’t even meet student film standards. All through the first half of the film, for example, the main concerns are on Dumbo being regarded as an outcast and on the familial troubles he and Holt suffer. All of a sudden, as soon as Dumbo learns to fly, a character we’ve never heard of before appears and moves the action to a location we’ve also never heard of and, just like that, the story becomes more about the evils of big business and the shamefulness of animal captivity and showmanship. These two halves have so little to do with one another, they may as well have been two separate films. What’s worse, they even screw up the ‘Baby Mine’ by having the song come from a source that’s entirely divorced from the moment! Dumbo is so ill conceived in so many aspects from its very structure down to the characterisation and motivations that I find myself wondering yet again why Disney even bothered in the first place. The an$wer, of cour$e, i$ a$ obviou$ a$ the$e movie$ are weari$ome.