Director: Tim Burton
Writers: Helen Aberson, Ehren Kruger, Harold Pearl
Composer: Danny Elfman
Starring: Colin Farrell, Michael Keaton, Eva Green, Danny DeVito, Nico Parker, Finley Hobbins
Genre: Family, Fantasy
There has been a mixed reaction towards Disney’s recent push to create live action remakes of their classic films. For some, it’s a chance to see another take on a story that they love. Yet others can see the money-grabbing exercise for what it is. But in the case of Dumbo, where the tale hasn’t aged well, a remake is perfectly understandable, if not desirable.
An oddly dark story about an outcast baby elephant, it makes sense that the opportunity to direct this piece went to the king of macabre, Tim Burton (though personally I’d like to see him tackle Pinocchio). Once a household name, disappointingly the director hasn’t produced the same level of quality in the tail end of his career. This is the second time he has been entrusted with a Disney remake, with the first being Alice in Wonderland–a film that didn’t perform as expected. Will this unlikely little elephant be what’s needed to make Burton’s career soar once again? Or is this a story that remains in the twentieth century?
Violence/Scary Images: One character is punched in the face. There are numerous scary animals: an elephant goes on a rampage, snakes frighten humans, and there is a monkey jump scare. There is an entire exhibit devoted to creepy and scary animals (“werewolves”, crocodiles), and one scene is set creeping around in that area. A man dies by being crushed–no blood, but he is seen being stretchered away with a sheet covering his body. One character only has one arm due to fighting in a war. There is talk of death from influenza. Several characters fall from a height. Lots of fire sequences, where characters’ lives are threatened. There is talk about killing an elephant, and Dumbo is treated poorly at times throughout the story.
Language/Crude Humor: A character starts to say the s-word but is interrupted partway. Several uses of h*ll. Lesser crude words spoken, such as heck and freak.
Drug/Alcohol References: One character asks for an alcoholic drink.
Sexual Content: Circus performers wear leotard-based costumes.
Spiritual Content: None.
Other Negative Content: The wellbeing of people and animals are sacrificed for the pursuit of money. Characters perform a selfless act, but there is a lot of destruction that results from that decision.
Positive Content: The movie promotes the idea of accepting one’s differences, whether it’s a physical feature or an intellectual pursuit–that uniqueness is a part of them and is what makes them special. There’s also a message about how memories and love will always be with us, where items, while they can be sentimental, are merely objects. An adult character learns to listen more to his children. The story affirms the strength of familial bonds.
Out of all the Disney remakes to come out recently, it comes as no surprise that Dumbo drifts the furthest from its source material. The original film is an oddly paced and weirdly structured story, set in a hard world filled with catty elephants, racially offensive crows, alcohol-induced psychedelic trips, and cringe-worthy, illiterate yet happy-hearted roustabouts. Unless viewed in a tongue-in-cheek or ironic tone, it’s not a film that gels well with modern-day politics. Yet beneath all the darkness is a tale of innocence, filled with brilliant endearing moments in amongst some of the saddest scenes Disney has ever produced. Say what you want about the 1941 film–it leaves an emotional impact no matter its affront to modern tastes.
So when it comes to remaking this story, half of it is gold, while the rest naturally needed to be scrapped… Which is exactly what happened in Tim Burton’s film, though it didn’t play out how one would think. Literally–it’s like Dumbo (1941) is cut in half. The original runs for a short 64 minutes. Divide by two and you get half an hour of content, which is the perfect length of time for the first act of a longer feature film … which is what happened. The first act of the remake is simply a slideshow of the best moments from the 1941 film, though without the emotional investment that naturally comes with longer pacing.
Tim Burton feels uninspired here, restricted by a series of scenes that need to be reproduced purely for nostalgic purposes. He doesn’t develop his stride until the story finally breaks into its original content, no longer hindered by another’s vision of Dumbo’s world. This is when we start to see Burton’s usual strengths, particularly in production design. It’s a colorfully fun mix, that’s almost a dark riff of Disney’s parks and EPCOT Centre. An eclectic marriage of Adventureland and Tomorrowland, it’s in stark contrast to the environment shown in the film’s opening act, though that is neither good nor bad. In fact, Tim Burton pulls off the Tomorrowland vibe better than Tomorrowland!
Available in both the 3D and 4D format, the CGI is marvelous, and no doubt some of the flying sequences will prove a treat. However, due to his character design, Dumbo never manages to look realistic and always has that cartoon feel. When it comes to the score, Danny Elfman has managed to hint towards the original throughout, while merging it with his own take. It does complement Burton’s world, even if the 1941 film had more toe-tapping songs.
Yet while Burton has succeeded in his technical elements, the film falls flat in every other area. The script, acting, and wonky pacing brings the rest of the movie down, creating a number of narrative issues that at times are tedious to watch. It’s obvious what direction the story was trying to take–two children are struggling with the loss of their mother whilst their father deals with his personal physical disability, befriend a baby elephant with similar issues, who eventually inspires them to overcome their internal obstacles. It’s a narrative sub-genre that I spoke about only a few months ago, except Bumblebee does it better. Dumbo just never manages to hit those emotional moments with the intensity it needs to produce the gravitas the tale requires.
Looking at the screenplay in greater depth, a lot of the film’s issues stem from there. It tries desperately to please fans of the original, whilst simultaneously needing to tell its own story. As a result, it contains the same messages of the 1941 film, and also some new ones. There are some great lessons to be learned, though there are so many of them. While some films develop more depth when there are multiple morals, with Dumbo it just feels muddied.
The decision to essentially clip the original story and designate it to the first act causes a number of issues. The opening is rushed, and what was once the climax of the story occurs at the midpoint this time around. This means that Dumbo’s signature moment–taking flight around the circus ring, proving all the haters wrong–loses its sense of awe, as the story peaks too early. Michael Keaton and Eva Green play significant roles, though they are introduced far too late, furthering the jarring change of direction of the movie’s second half.
The worst problem is that the hurried pacing results in a lack of justification. This is an acting term where its process is necessary for performers. For instance, one doesn’t simply act angry, rather actors must find a reason to be angry–their emotions need to be justified. With the script covering the content of the entire 1941 film during the first act, there’s no time to set anything up properly or to give certain moments their needed emotional pause. Characters have so little establishment that their motives often don’t make sense. Their actions don’t stem from their beliefs, rather they’re contrived in order to move the plot along.
This also directly impacts on the film’s comedic timing. There are a number of scenes or quips that are played for laughs, though the jokes never really seem to land. Once again, there’s no time to establish the status quo in order for the humor to work. This might also be an editing issue, where the comedic timing is slightly off, devaluing the punch line.
Naturally, a script like this doesn’t lend itself to great performances. There’s a lot of telling and not showing, and characters are poorly established. The dialogue is painfully direct at times; we know Nico Parker’s character, Milly, wishes to be a scientist solely because she says so ten times. Meanwhile, you know the homage to the pink elephant scene is completely out of place and isn’t working when you need DeVito to literally nod his head and mutter “Pink elephants!”
DeVito and Eva Green offer the best performances, mainly because their characters have an ounce of nuance. Michael Keaton, on the other hand, doesn’t have much to work with. Vandevere is a businessman that likes to make money (oh the horror!), and Keaton overworks to try and ramp up the evilness. Though all the pulled faces and unnecessary wild expressions in the world can’t cover up the fact that Vandevere’s ultimate decision doesn’t really align with his motives. He is evil purely because the plot demands it–there’s no depth here.
Like Keaton, Colin Farrell also has little to work with in terms of characterization. It seems he should be the main character of the story, though his presence is sorely absent for too long. Dumbo chose to not take the same route as The Jungle Book remake by removing the talking animals. While this may have been wise, it means the little elephant plays a more passive role, seen through the eyes of human protagonists.
Yet there’s no one that really steps into the role of the main character. Milly has an important character journey, though once again, it’s under established and doesn’t pack the emotional weight when needed. Burton also seems to have trouble in directing child actors–yes, Milly is a reserved, analytical child, though that doesn’t mean Nico Parker’s delivery needs to be one note. Finley Hobbins doesn’t fare much better.
In the end, this live-action remake demonstrates some of the strengths of animation. The story of Dumbo is one filled with careless, unthoughtful acts, where the cartoon art form can perfectly depict the exact grotesque expression needed to convey that underlying feeling that something is deeply wrong with this elephant’s world. Live action can’t capture that same tone, or rather Burton didn’t utilize enough camera techniques to make up for an actor’s limitations.
A character’s incompetence is seemingly more forgivable in a cartoon. It doesn’t come across as an unintentional display of stupidity, lessening the message the scene was meant to convey. Dumbo has adopted many wacky scenarios that worked well in an animated format, though it’s distractingly incompetent when played out in real life. Considering the amount of money that was riding on Dumbo’s performances, it’s flabbergasting how many times that baby elephant is waddled into the ring, where practically everyone yells “YOLO!” and hopes for the best. Tech and dress rehearsals exist for a reason…
Was this remake necessary? Well, yes. It does rectify a lot of the problems of the animated feature by either cutting out some things completely or offering a more modern perspective (although its approach to the topic of animals in captivity and the plight of the Asian elephant is horrendously simplistic and lacks the nuances of the issue). Yet ultimately this is a film aimed for children, and no doubt most will find this to be a sweet story, even if some of the classic scenes seem out of place in the new narrative. It’s just a shame that it doesn’t hit what it’s aiming for, save for the last few minutes. Lacking those crucial emotional beats, Dumbo is a mediocre film, leaving the classic to remain as a piece of art.
The Bottom Line