The craze of Disney remaking their classic animated movies with live action and CGI effects continues, and whether you like it or not, so does their success. The quality of these movies very greatly, depending on if they use the live action environment to their advantage. Films like 2014’s Maleficent, 2015’s Cinderella, 2016’s Pete’s Dragon attempt to add new elements to the story, while films like 2017’s Beauty and the Beast only used it to copy the animated classic without adding anything of real substance.
Whether or not you’re for this trend, there is no real end in sight for these corporate remakes. Now, director Tim Burton journeys back to one of Disney’s earliest classics with Dumbo, a remake that puts the beloved, big-eared elephant into a new story with new characters. This version focuses on Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) and his two children Milly (Niko Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins), who work for a circus owned by the eccentric Max Medici (Danny DeVito). When the circus’s new elephant gives birth to a baby with giant ears, he is immediately labeled a freak and put into the show to be made fun of by the crowd, given the name Dumbo.
However, this all changes when Milly and Joe discover that the Dumbo’s ears allow him to fly, and he becomes a major attraction. His rising fame catches the attention of a conniving entertainment mogul named V.A. Vandervere (Micheal Keaton), who sees major profit potential for the flying pachyderm. But the more famous Dumbo becomes, the more miserable he gets. With the help of Milly, Joe, and Vandervere’s top acrobatic Colette Marchant (Eva Green), Dumbo will attempt to escape the circus and reunite with his mother.
In terms of a remake, this film went in the right direction. The original Dumbo featured little to no human characters, focusing entirely on the animals. To do a film like that in live action, you would have to add human characters to make the story flow better. There’s also a number of elements from the original that, unfortunately, are not culturally acceptable anymore. This film creates a new story with new characters, taking the concept of the original and making something new out of it.
However, for all it has going for it, this film fails to take flight. Dumbo makes a worthy attempt to update the classic for modern day, but falls flat on its face with a weak, unfocused story, bland performances, an overabundance of one-dimensional characters, and almost no real intent to try and recapture the magic of the original. It’s not necessarily a bad film, but for being one of the few Disney live action remakes to try and really reinvent the story, it should have turned out a lot better.
It all really begins right at the start, when we get the first look into these new characters and their lives. When the film opens, we’re introduced with a CGI version of the classic train that opened the animated film, which does spark a little bit of nostalgia. Then we arrive at the circus and meet the characters Milly and Joe first. It becomes clear that these kids are more rehashed caricatures of kids from other films. Milly is the girl who doesn’t want to be what the world wants her to be, and her brother Joe kind of acts like the moral support (sometimes).
This kind of thing continues throughout the film, like Keaton’s Vandervere, who acted like nothing but your stereotypical greedy businessman who puts profit first, and the safety of his attractions second. Even Danny DeVito’s character, the owner of the circus Dumbo is born in, isn’t anything we haven’t seen before. He was your average eccentric circus owner that looks for profit in everything, and jumps at any opportunity that could make his business money.
None of these characters ever feel like real humans. They feel like stock ones that have been pulled from a hat and thrown into this movie. They never have any traits, desires, or actions that set them apart from other similar films. They follow an established formula, and never veer off the path given to them, which makes the film more predictable than thrilling in the long run.
Of course, none of this is helped by the veteran actors’ portrayals of these flat characters. For everyone involved on screen, almost no one comes alive. They never feel like they’ve become their characters. They feel like they’re just reading lines from a script. The only actor to put some pep into his performance was DeVito, who throughout the film, provides some great moments of comic relief that harken back to the days of classic Disney animation. Overall, he pretty much did his job.
But the other’s weren’t so involving. Surprisingly, Michael Keaton delivered what is probably the worst performance of his career. Not only is his villain persona stale, but his performance was both unthreatening and hard to understand. No matter where he is; in a crowd, in a room, or during a performance; he’s always whispering and mumbling. He says everything under his own breath, and that makes him hard to hear half the time.
Eva Green is also one who is hard to understand. Her french accent was so thick that her dialogue is muffled most of the time. However, it also doesn’t help that she just comes off as useless in the end. Her character doesn’t provide anything of real substance to the story. It’s almost as if she was put there for the adults, since she spends most of her time in provocative acrobat outfits.
However, the one performance that is more than just bland is that of the young Niko Parker, who’s portrayal of Milly Farrier is a real head scratcher. She never shows any real emotion throughout the film. She just has a blank face. Even if she does show emotion in some scenes, it never feels genuine. It just feels like her attempt to express the right emotion at that moment. She is the one performance that is truly bad.
For all its attempts, the story of the film really falls apart here. Any elements of the original film that are remade into live action are all crammed into the first 30 to 45 minutes. From there, the film switches to what feels like a completely different story that takes away from the actual goals of the characters, and the audience away from the overall plot line.
This also means that much of what was in the original isn’t given enough time on screen. Within those first minutes, many parts of the original are featured quickly, sometimes in blink-and-miss visual references. Even the “Baby Mine” sequence doesn’t get a lot of time. It’s well done, and even capable of bringing a tear to the eye, but when that happens, that’s when it ends. We’re not given enough time to truly absorbed the emotion of the moment.
The other problem with the story is the complete overabundance of characters. One after another, more and more people are introduced into the story. This wouldn’t be a problem if the filmmakers knew what to do with them, but they didn’t. The more that enter the conflict, the less they really have to do with the story. This causes the filmmakers to put more focus on these characters we don’t really care about rather than on Dumbo himself, the character we all wanted to see.
No matter what anyone says, there is no real magic in CGI. Dumbo may have been cute, but there are too many moments here where he looks like a visual effect, especially during his flying scenes. There are other portions of the film that look unfinished as well, or they’re just so CGIed that it’s clear they are not real. The more CGI used, the less authentic it looks.
Dumbo is admittedly a worthy attempt to remake the timeless classic, with the focus put on trying to create a new story in order to justify the live action execution. Unfortunately, the attempts of the once great Burton are not enough to save this overstuffed piece of mediocrity. It’s not a bad film, it’s just underwhelming. It tries to fill us with feelings of wonder and magic, but the only feeling we’re left with is a desire to watch the original instead.