Released in 1941, 'Dumbo' is one of the most gentle and beautiful films in the Disney canon. Executed with gorgeous simplicity, it hits you right in the heart with the story of an orphaned baby elephant who discovers he has the ability to fly. It's one of those films that sits with you, and subsequent revisits only emphasise its delicate magic. And now, in what has become standard practise for the studio, Disney have adapted it into a live action film, placing once-acclaimed director Tim Burton ('Beetlejuice', 'Edward Scissorhands') at the helm. However, as is always the question with these films, when the original still resonates so strongly after nearly 80 years, is there any good reason to remake it?
Considering how short the original is, Ehren Kruger's screenplay expands the narrative considerably. Set in the U.S. in 1919, the film shifts its focus from Dumbo to the Farrier family, part of a travelling circus run by Max Medici (Danny DeVito, 'Matilda', TV's 'It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia'). Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell, 'The Killing of a Sacred Deer') returns from the war severely injured, unable to take up his old act and responsible for his two children Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins). They find their new purpose though when one of the elephants gives birth to a calf with abnormally big ears, which they soon discover give him the ability to fly. When fame and fortune come knocking from showman V. A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton, 'Birdman'), they see a chance to help Dumbo reunite with his mother after she was taken away.
'Dumbo' may have seemed like an odd choice for a live action remake, especially considering how much of the focus of the original is on the animals, but this adaptation does suggest that there is a way to do it. The animation of Dumbo and the other animals is wonderful, and would certainly make the character enough to carry the film. Unfortunately, this film isn't interested in that. The degree to which Kruger and subsequently Burton expand 'Dumbo', with a frustratingly clunky plot and a crippling amount of characters, render the film both an inadequate and misguided adaptation, and a tiresome film in its own right. There are now too many characters and storylines for the film to juggle, so that very few feel developed and it's hard to connect with any of them.
Kruger's screenplay has no discernible charm, weighed down by thudding dialogue and endless clichés, and Burton's direction either muddies these flaws further or makes no attempt to solve them. The film plods along with inconsistent rhythm and unclear tone, and while risking visual thrills, never actually goes far enough to achieve them. The production design may be a delight, but it feels too contrived, too fantastical, and even the costume design leaves a lot to be desired. You definitely get the sense that Burton cares about the film, but his direction feels tired, the old tricks abandoned but no new tricks to take their place. It's hard to believe that this is the same director who, just over a decade ago, directed 'Sweeney Todd' with such extraordinary skill and imagination, both things 'Dumbo' severely lacks. It does offer some interesting commentary on where Burton is at this stage in his career with a thematic thread around the evils of corporate interference and the collision of art and commerce, but this is never delivered in a way that makes it feel vital to the film, and the rest just feels so inert that it's hard to muster much enthusiasm for it.
Its failures as a film only amplify its overwhelming failure as an adaptation. As seems to be standard operating procedure for these Disney remakes, little care has been taken to understand why 'Dumbo' is a classic, reducing the original to a series of narrative and visual markers that, when robbed of proper development and context, mean basically nothing. What made the original so resonant was the relationship between Dumbo and his mother, something it was able to develop properly even with its short run time. This relationship and the fallout of their separation was the spine, heart and soul, but here that focus is drastically shifted and that relationship underdeveloped to the point where it has no impact at all. The film seems more concerned with getting to the separation and the song 'Baby Mine' than ever actually earning that moment; it's as if the film expects you to care about Dumbo and his predicament without ever actually earning your sympathy. Even the moment where Dumbo finally learns to fly - both the climax and a moment of empowerment and self-realisation for Dumbo in the original - is here reduced to a trick encouraged for the benefit of others. Dumbo's journey is secondary to that of the newly-invented human characters, for whom he becomes a means to an end. The beauty of 'Dumbo' was its sincerity and its simplicity, but this film is too overstuffed, too complicated, too flaccid and too superficial to even be bothered to reach for the same kind of effect.
These Disney remakes are the weaponising of nostalgia for commercial purposes. They reduce great works of art to commercial properties, devoid of craft, care or consideration.
And this really hits at the heart of why, with very few exceptions, these Disney remakes have been such a consistent failure. 'Dumbo' emphasises the sense that Disney fundamentally do not understand the films they insist on remaking, or even worse, that they don't really care. They see them as a series of iconic signifiers, but don't care about what sits at the heart and soul of them or what actually makes them iconic, instead constructing films built entirely to get from one moment to another with little care for what gets them there. The soul of 'Dumbo' is nowhere to be found here, the same as it was with 'The Jungle Book' and 'Beauty And The Beast', and just as it will inevitably be with 'Aladdin' and 'The Lion King'. They don't seem to care about integrity or coherence, but getting to those bits you loved as quickly as possible, even if they have no reason to be there (in this case, a recreation of the Pink Elephant sequence that sticks out so badly for having no context whatsoever). They know you're going to get all nostalgically emotional when 'Baby Mine' plays so that's their priority, getting a nostalgically emotional response out of you, whether the moment is earned or not. These Disney remakes are the weaponising of nostalgia for commercial purposes. They reduce great works of art to commercial properties, devoid of craft, care or consideration. One could argue that has always been the way with Disney, but I refuse to accept that. This is a company responsible for great works like 'Pinocchio' and 'Fantasia', 'Sleeping Beauty' and the original 'Beauty And The Beast', hell, even 'Mary Poppins' and 'Moana'. Of course the originals are still there and nothing will ever take away their magic or beauty, but that doesn't make it any easier watching them being reduced in this form to something gaudy and forgettable and uninspired.
In the end, the lasting impression 'Dumbo' left me with was of something tired and pointless. It has no reason to exist other than to exist, and that frankly is not good enough. Maybe Tim Burton was trying to make a comment about the struggles of artistic creation within a corporate context, but you know what, it's hard to buy into that when the film itself is such a corporate creation, reducing a work of art to a product to be sold and consumed as quickly as possible. And what the hell does all that have to do with a baby elephant who realises it can fly? 'Dumbo' will make a lot of money and people will go on about how much they cried during it and how emotional it made them because oh my god my childhood, did you know I watched this film in my childhood, my childhood, my childhood, my fucking childhood - but this film and this whole woeful remake endeavour doesn't deserve neither the money nor the praise. At least the original is as untouched and pure as ever, a film that has more heart and soul in its 64 minutes than this film does in its thunderously dull two hours.