By: BabyRuth (Four Beers) –
Everyone’s favorite flying elephant is back in a live-action adventure for kids of all ages!
No, not that! (any other children of the 80s remember this?)
Of course, I’m referring to the latest in the seemingly never-ending parade of live-action Disney remakes, Dumbo. You know that beloved classic about a sweet baby elephant with giant ears who is ridiculed until everyone discovers he has the ability to fly and then an evil tycoon exploits it and a one-armed man, his children, and a rag-tag group of circus performers band together to set him free and reunite him with his mother?
Oh, you don’t remember that part?
Let’s get ready to Dumbo.
Tim Burton’s much-anticipated version is set in post-World War I 1919, as we are introduced to the Medici Bros. Circus, a small traveling attraction headed by ringmaster Max Medici (Danny DeVito).
It’s former star, horseman Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) returns from war to find the circus in financial trouble after an influenza outbreak that claimed the lives of many of the performers, Holt’s wife and act-partner included (keeping with that time-honored Disney tradition of mother-cide). No longer able to perform his act due to losing an arm in the war and Max having to sell off the horses to keep things afloat, Holt begs Max for a new job so he can provide for his two children, aspiring scientist Milly (Nico Parker) and just kind of there Joe (Finley Hobbins).
Max appoints Holt as the animal caretaker, specifically tasked with tending to the company’s newest addition, a pregnant elephant named Jumbo (who likely cost more than a couple of horses). Max hopes the arrival of the new baby will result in an increase in ticket sales, but is disappointed when the calf is born and revealed to have freakishly large ears.
Which, shouldn’t the reaction for a guy running an attraction of sideshow oddities be like, the exact opposite? Not to mention, it only makes the little elephant more adorable but okay, sure.
After a performance goes awry and Dumbo’s mother causes the unintentional death one of the animal wranglers (it’s okay, he totally deserves it) while trying to protect her child, she is quarantined and deemed “mad.”
Dumbo, as the baby is soon renamed, is mocked by audiences and reduced to performing as part of the clown act. Separated from his mama, his only friends are Milly and Joe, who by chance discover something pretty amazing about the little guy once he accidentally inhales a stray feather. SPOILER ALERT! He can fly! He can fly He can fly! Hoping to reunite Dumbo with his mother, the children train him to become the star of the show.
This draws the attention of a rich man also in the circus business named Wa V. A. Vandever (Michael Keaton), who hopes to acquire Dumbo and make him the main attraction in a routine with his show’s star performer (and his armcandy) aerialist Colette (Eva Green), and makes Max an offer he can’t refuse. But there’s something kind of fishy about this Vandever guy…
First off, no, there are no offensive jive-talking crows anywhere to be found. Toast!
Along with that omission, there are a few tweaks to make this Dumbo more fitting in current times, including a statement on the mistreatment of animals in the entertainment industry. Again, this is a smart and very welcome decision and is handled well (if maybe little heavy-handedly).
Everything looks great and is unmistakably Burton. The set designs, the costumes, and the cinematography are stunning. Danny Elfman’s score complements everything perfectly and beautifully. As for the main attraction, it’s almost impossible not to “aww” at the adorable character design of little baby Dumbo and his expressive eyes.
Aside from our giant-eared hero, the film’s cast is the big draw, featuring Danny DeVito, Michael Keaton, Colin Farrell, and Eva Green. The reunion of Michael Keaton and Danny DeVito is quite fun, at least at first, especially with the role-reversal from their most famous previous Burton collaboration with Keaton now playing the villain.
Speaking of, Keaton’s character, with his “the impossible is possible” mantra and magical “Dreamland” theme park seems to be based on a certain real-life person but, no, that can’t be, right? That would never slip through in a film produced by the very company founded by person the character seems to be an interpretation of. Surely someone would notice the similarities… Right? Right?
And you know, that was a pretty punk rock move, so I’ll raise my glass to that ballsy choice that somehow got approved.
An uplifting story about a picked-on misfit set against a backdrop of a circus? That sure sounds like a slam-dunk for Tim Burton. But instead of a slam-dunk, we get the ball ricocheting off the backboard then bouncing off every wall, out the doors, down the street, through a park, then a few tunnels, until just rolling down a road until it eventually deflates and stops.
What the hell happened?
In all fairness to Burton, the blame shouldn’t all fall on him. A director can only do so much with a screenplay. And this screenplay by Ehren Kruger (known for the The Ring and three of the Transformers movies) is certainly ambitious, but also completely overstuffed, unnecessary, and misses the entire point of the original story, losing its heart in the process. It all feels so superficial and cold; even the heart-wrenching “Baby Mine” scene only manages to produce a couple tears compared to the buckets of snot the animated version does. How do you screw that up?
Part of what makes the 1941 animated film so beloved is the beauty and depth in its simplicity. At only 64 minutes long it tells an endearing story about identity, acceptance, and friendship. At nearly twice the length, 2019’s version quickly gets through the original’s plot in the first half hour, with Dumbo taking flight (this time not with a “magic” red feather, but any old feather he sucks up into his trunk and sneezes out –which I found to be a strange change, but that’s the least of the this film’s issues) to the amazement of the previously heckling audience. Soon after, it takes an odd turn with the introduction of Keaton’s Vandevere and the focus shifts to the human characters, pushing Dumbo into the background of his own story.
Another non-human character audiences may remember most from the original, second only to Dumbo himself (no, not the damn crows), is all but omitted from Burton’s remake, save for a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it obligatory cameo. That would be Timothy Q. Mouse. Yeah, one of the MAIN characters of the 1941 film. He’s reduced to one of several caged mice the children bring in to keep Dumbo company, and then is never seen again. WHAT THE HELL MOVIE? The friendship between Dumbo and Timothy was one of the driving forces of the story. I kept waiting and waiting for the moment when they’d come back to Timothy, but it never happens.
And on top of that, he’s played by a white mouse! WTF?
Burton and Kruger keep the film grounded in reality, well, as grounded in reality as a film can be that features a flying elephant, so there are no talking animals to be found. And it feels, wrong. This is a story where realism is not required and even seems unnatural. This is a fantasy where magic and wonder are expected and with a director of Burton’s creative caliber and where endless millions invested in CGI and production can make that magic and wonder come to life in that big, beautiful visual spectacle the trailers teased, to not take full advantage of that is a missed opportunity and a letdown.
This is most evident in the “Pink Elephants on Parade” sequence. I was so excited to see what kind of wonderfully wackadoo trippy interpretation Burton would deliver, but like the “Baby Mine” scene, it feels shoehorned in because it had to be included and is underwhelming and tame as a result. Again, hoowww does this happen!? Even without the underage intoxication (which of course is taken out of this version) this is the one instance where Burton is given a pass to go completely sky’s the limit, let your freak flag fly, in-fucking-sane. But nah.
Sharing the narrative with added human characters is not a bad idea, the problem is none are ever fully developed enough for the audience to care much about them. They’re each given something unique that provides multiple opportunities for some kind of payoff, but that payoff never comes. Farrell’s character’s disability at first seems like it is clearly a plot device to provide a bonding moment with Dumbo. Does that ever happen? Nope. Likewise, Milly’s love of science surely will result in a genius idea that will help to save the day at the end, right? Take a guess. Has little, useless Joe been underestimated this entire time and will get the chance to prove he is special? HAHAHA! Of course not! The only character who gets some semblance of an arc is Colette (and credit for that goes mostly to Eva Green’s heartfelt performance).
Oh man, how do I say this without sounding like a complete asshole? The child actors…weren’t…good. (I guess there’s really no way to say that without sounding like a complete asshole.)
Okay, maybe I’m being a little unfair, at least to Finley Hobbins, who really tries, but is never given that much to do to the point where his character could have been completely omitted and it would not have changed a single thing. And hey, Nico Parker would be FANTASTIC as Wednesday Addams if they ever do an Addams Family reboot, if you get where I’m going with my thoughts on her performance. (If we’ve learned anything from recent headlines, isn’t that just because a child is an offspring of a talented, famous person, they shouldn’t just get an automatic, unearned opportunity?)
When it’s time for everything to come to a head and the big action-packed finale to kick in, the film goes bananas and all that “realism” stuff goes right out the window. (So then, why did we need to sacrifice the talking mice?)
The circus freaks are pretty much forgotten about (a running theme in recent circus-based films, and these don’t even get an inspiring song) until their assistance is required to help pull off a Big Last Minute Complicated Plan That Must Go Exactly Right!
Dumbo goes from being barely trainable to hilariously understanding how to operate complex electrical breakers as well as grasping a far-reaching metaphor to something that was mentioned exactly once earlier in the movie and comprehending that parallel to his situation just in the nick of time to save the day because he doesn’t need to sneeze out a feather to fly after all!
It’s plot contrivance after plot contrivance as if they suddenly remembered, oh this needs to end somehow. Okay, how about some more fire!
Here at Movieboozer, four beers usually represents “mediocre.” Mediocre would be a blandly passable, beat-by-beat, remake of the animated Disney film (See: 2017’s Beauty and the Beast). Tim Burton’s Dumbo is disappointing in a whole mind-blowingly different way. While I appreciated some of the updates and the initiative to build-upon the bare-bones story by introducing new characters and plot elements, it goes so far away from the tone and heart of the original (and yet at the same time, not far enough from a fantastical standpoint) that the end result is a strange mess that never makes any kind of impact other than the viewer scratching their head wondering how they could have possibly gotten so much wrong.
Dumbo (2019) Drinking Game
Take a Drink: whenever there is a feather
Take a Drink: every time Dumbo is put in danger
Take a Drink: whenever there is fire
Take a Drink: whenever Millie talks about science
Take a Drink: every time a character pronounces “schedule” like “shed-yul”
Do a Shot: whenever Michael Buffer appears and says “LET’S GET READY TO DUMBO!!” (I wish I was kidding. Make sure you have enough liquor for two shots)