The idea of remaking the original Dumbo is a stupid idea for many reasons. Disney has been gung-ho on regurgitating its animated classics as live-action versions in order to drum up some renewed interest in their older properties and prey on the nostalgia of people that grew up with the Disney Rennaissance with shiny remakes. Now for the most part these remakes have ranged from unnecessary, like Beauty and the Beast, to arguably better than the original, like Cinderella. That being said, I can’t think of anyone that regards Dumbo as being one of Disney’s all-time classics that deserves a remake. It’s not bad in the slightest, it’s actually quite charming and cute, but when compared to Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, or Aladdin, Dumbo is fine but unremarkable.
So fast forward 78 years from its original release (wow that’s a while…) and Disney, most likely after throwing darts at a dartboard to decide which franchise to revive next, settles on remaking Dumbo. But the original movie was only 64 minutes. Plus there really weren’t any celebrities in it. And Dumbo didn’t fly that often there. And Tim Burton didn’t direct it. So Disney decides to make every bad decision possible when remaking Dumbo, turning it into a lifeless and dull embodiment of everything wrong with Disney’s live-action remake practice.
Director: Tim Burton
Release Date: March 29, 2019
If you think you know the original story of Dumbo, throw all of that out the window cause barely any of that applies here. Our story, instead of following Dumbo, is about Collin Farrel and his two kids, who work at a circus run by Max Medici (Danny DeVito). Farrell just returned from World War I with one less arm than he used to have and one less wife since she died of Disney Disease, I mean of an illness, while he was at war. So now he tends to the elephants, but one elephant happens to give birth to a baby with big ears, who his kids discover can fly. This eventually gains the attention of V.A. Vandervere (Michael Keaton), who wants to use Dumbo in his carnival and become filthy stinking rich. Meanwhile, Dumbo misses his mom since she killed a guy who was harassing Dumbo and was sold off because of it, so Farrell’s kids make it their mission to find Dumbo’s mom for him.
There are many ways to make a successful adaptation, but the most important part of successfully remaking a movie is to understand the source material while simultaneously adapting it for modern times. The 1941 version of Dumbo has a classic timelessness to it that doesn’t need any major fine tuning if you want to remake it. The plot was focused around Dumbo gaining confidence in himself not only to fly but to believe that he isn’t some kind of deformed freak. Then you also have Dumbo constantly dealing with the separation from his mother and how it tears him apart, usually involving both him and the audience crying at how sad and relatable it is.
The 2019 remake abandons nearly everything about the original to push an entirely different, more complex story. Instead of watching Dumbo discover his self-confidence and reunite with his mother, we instead follow around a bunch of squishy humans that have no personality to them and deal with their own issues. Farrell is on autopilot while his daughter, played by Nico Parker, has some spectacularly stilted delivery that is unfortunately all too common for child actors. The trials that Dumbo has to overcome that were naturally integrated in the original feel shoehorned in here. We’ll see Dumbo sad being separated from his mother, but it’s ruined by Farrell’s children explaining to the camera that Dumbo’s sad and misses his mom.
The best humans here are easily are Michael Keaton and Danny DeVito, who at least give their unremarkable characters something that could qualify as a pulse. Keaton chews up the scenery as a businessman who will casually ruin the lives of dozens of performers while knawing on toast, while Devito is just… Danny Devito. You can have him recite the Cheesecake Factory menu and I’ll still find him hilarious and captivating. They don’t save the movie, but I didn’t mind when they were on screen instead of Dumbo.
But yeah, Dumbo’s here. Remember him? The elephant that can fly? Remember how in the original movie he didn’t fly until the very end and it was a magical sequence not only because you were watching an elephant fly, but because Dumbo finally decided to believe in himself and was able to reunite with his mother because of it? Well don’t worry about it, because the movie makes sure that you don’t forget that Dumbo flies.
There are so many sequences where Dumbo takes flight that I lost track of it by the end. In theory, that wouldn’t be a bad idea. It’s Dumbo after all. We all know that he can fly and we’d want to see an elephant fly. That being said, the original showed restraint with him taking to the skies. He did fly, but he wasn’t flying every 10 minutes. Here Dumbo keeps flying, but every time he’s about to fly he gets scared. Couple that with how many times he flies and you start to see a pattern: Dumbo wants to fly, Dumbo gets scared, some human tells him he can fly, suddenly he can fly! It’s a pattern that gets played the same way every time. Will Dumbo fly, or will he fall to the ground? Of course we know Dumbo is going to fly. He’s Dumbo. We know that he isn’t going to crack his skull on the ground, so cut the constant suspense and get on with it. It would be one thing if Dumbo only flew a handful of times, building tension infrequently, but because it happens so often it becomes repetitive and draws out an already bloated movie.
What kills me about this remake is that it feels so safe. There’s nothing to make this stand out and like every Disney live-action remake, I have to ask what does this movie do better than the original? Why did it necessitate a remake? And the answer is not much. Dumbo himself is well animated, sure, but there was nothing wrong with his joyous expressions in the 1941 version. The 2019 version feels less unique compared to the original, instead throwing together a generic story in a generic world. The famous Pink Elephants are here, but instead of having a trippy and frightening sequence that stands out compared to the rest of the movie, we get a minute version that feels more like an obligation than anything else.
And keep in mind, this is Tim Burton at the director’s helm. Say what you will about his aesthetics, at least they’re distinct and unique to him, but that individuality is sucked clean out of Dumbo. There’s nothing that made me even think of Burton on display. At least Alice in Wonderland, for as misguided and terrible as it was, had a personality to it. You can look at it and go “Yup, this is a Tim Burton movie.” If you didn’t tell me that this was made by THE Time Burton, the man who gave us one of the best Batman movies ever, I would assume that this was made by some director as their first feature film.
At the end of the day, if I was to describe Dumbo in one word, it would be commercial. Like Vandervere, Disney took a small, pleasant little movie and made it bigger and bolder than it had any right to be. It lost the soul of the original all in the pursuit of making another multi-million dollar remake. It lost sight of the morals and message of the original, instead choosing to stuff it full of secondary characters, making Dumbo a supporting character in his own movie. This should be a textbook definition of how you shouldn’t do a remake and is a new low point for Disney’s live-action adaptations.