Directed by: Tim Burton
Premise: A live action remake of the animated 1941 feature film. A baby elephant is born with oversized ears. When it’s discovered that the elephant can fly, he becomes the star of the circus.
What Works: Dumbo is one title in a series of live action remakes of classic Disney animated features, preceded by Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast and to be followed by remakes of Aladdin and The Lion King. The original Dumbo had a thin story and only ran sixty-four minutes so a contemporary remake necessarily had to expound on the material. But the filmmakers use that to their advantage. Unlike the superfluous Beauty and the Beast, which was a nearly shot-for-shot remake of the 1991 animated feature, 2019’s Dumbo reimagines the story and brings a fresh approach to the material. The 1941 film played out from the point of view of the animals who, in Disney fashion, spoke English to one another. The remake shifts the focus to the human beings who run the circus and the animals are mostly realistic, unspeaking beasts. The new film is still recognizable as Dumbo; it repurposes most of the key plot points of the original story and features a few clever nods to the 1941 film but this is all packed into the first half. The second half of Dumbo is entirely new and it’s smart and even a little bit subversive, especially for a Disney feature, in the way it critiques large entertainment corporations buying up smaller independent acts and exploiting them. 2019’s Dumbo is also impressively crafted. There is some beautiful imagery in this picture and the animals are realistic looking but also expressive. The baby elephant possesses discernable human expressions in his eyes and mouth but without looking too cartoonish. The production design and costuming are impressive as well, capturing an early twentieth century feel while also maintaining the fanciful nature that this story requires.
What Doesn’t: In both versions of Dumbo, the heart of the story is in a child trying to reunite with his parent. The new version sets up an interesting parallel between the elephants and the human beings but it doesn’t work out. Shifting the focus to the human characters comes at the cost of the animals. There is little sense of how Dumbo’s separation from his mother impacts the baby pachyderm and the animals are absent from large sections of the film. The parallel with the human characters doesn’t work out because none of them are interesting. The story centers upon two children (Finley Hobbins and Nico Parker) and their father (Colin Farrell) who has recently returned from fighting World War I. The kids are ciphers. They have no personality and their relationship with their father is under-dramatized. The rest of the circus troupe is similarly vacant; we don’t get to know any of them and big character moments fall flat. The lack of character robs the films of dramatic stakes and Dumbo is emotionally staid.
Bottom Line: Dumbo is admirable as a remake because it does something new with familiar material and inserts some intelligent commentary about show business. But the film is also emotionally inert and unlike the 1941 film it is doubtful anyone will remember this version in seventy-eight years.
Episode: #744 (April 7, 2019)