Disney’s live-action remake assembly line may have sat out 2018, but it’s back with a vengeance in 2019! With this year’s two most ambitious live-action Disney remakes, Aladdin and The Lion King, set for release later during the Summer blockbuster season, the House of Mouse is presenting an appetizer of sorts for Spring with Dumbo, a live-action revamp of the beloved 1941 animated movie of the same name. I do mean appetizer as well, since the original animated Dumbo falls well short of modern feature length, being just over an hour long, and was made to intentionally be simple, digestible and profitable for Disney, after cult musical hit, Fantasia failed to bring in a worthy box office gross for the studio. Appropriately, the live-action remake of Dumbo appears to be being positioned in much the same fashion, creating a quick and tidy profit for Disney early in the year, before they release bigger, riskier projects later in 2019.
Fortunately, now that Dumbo is being re-tooled into a proper live-action feature film for the modern era, there is nonetheless a golden opportunity to expand and modernize the material here, making it both more grounded and more in-depth. To this end, the live-action Dumbo remake is at least somewhat successful, taking the original story, and adding more of a sense of grounded humanity and vibrant style to it. It’s also true however that Dumbo’s live-action rendition, despite being very enjoyable to look at, is also disappointingly forgettable, despite certainly landing above the likes of misfires like Maleficent, and director, Tim Burton’s own disastrous live-action Alice in Wonderland movie. As an inoffensive March movie with satisfactory charm and just enough visual panache, Dumbo aims squarely for the middle, entertaining viewers while it lasts, but quickly exiting their minds as soon as they leave the theatre.
Now that Dumbo is presented in live-action, the pivotal animal characters of the original animated movie, most notably Dumbo’s mouse mentor, Timothy, are all absent in the remake. Instead, Timothy’s role is filled by a human family, led by Colin Farrell’s Great War veteran, Holt Farrier, who has been recently widowed, because Disney. It’s Holt’s two children, the precocious, intelligent daughter, Milly, and the excitable, but good-natured son, Joe, who end up having the most interaction with Dumbo himself. As in the original animated movie, Dumbo is completely mute here, and is left to express his emotions through action, while the Farrier children fill in the blanks regarding what he may be feeling at any given point.
The expansion of the storyline in this remake also brings in more new characters that work as both friend and foe to Dumbo and the Farrier family. These include Danny DeVito’s perpetually stressed out circus ringmaster, Max Medici, who ends up having to enlist the aid of the movie’s main antagonist, V.A. Vandevere, an entrepreneur and amusement park owner who is exactly as crooked as Keaton’s exceptionally slimy performance would suggest he is. Seeing Keaton and DeVito together again after their shared animosity in Tim Burton’s 1992 movie, Batman Returns, only now with their moralities reversed, is pretty entertaining for longtime Burton enthusiasts especially,, even if both of their characters are not terribly developed or full of surprises. It’s actually Eva Green’s circus performer, Colette Marchant who brings most of whatever added humanity the live-action Dumbo can manage to muster, delivering a highlight performance alongside Farrell and Keaton, wherein she begins as Vandevere’s begrudging squeeze, before eventually evolving into a semi-surprising influence on Dumbo and the Farrier family.
Ultimately though, if you’re seeing the live-action Dumbo remake for any reason, it’s probably for Dumbo himself, who does admittedly manage to be an adorable and mostly impressive CGI/motion-capture creation. Animal advocates may especially appreciate Dumbo being CGI too, so he can exist as a convincing special effect, rather than an actual elephant who would have obviously had to have been ‘trained’ pretty hard to perform the way that Dumbo has to in this movie. The character arcs are still exceedingly simple in this remake however, even for Dumbo himself, and that’s to be expected in a movie that’s remaking another movie that Disney intentionally made to be as simplistic as possible back in the 1940’s. To that end, the Dumbo remake works well enough as a decent crowd-pleaser for Disney fans, though it also doesn’t really provide the new personalities, nor the titular personality, with much of anything that you wouldn’t immediately anticipate for their storylines going in.
There is a commendable effort to expand and ground the storyline of the original animated Dumbo in the live-action remake, but it still doesn’t ultimately branch into new or unexpected territory. As far as feel-good animal movies go, Dumbo sticks pretty close to the established Hollywood playbook, not really challenging audiences, nor their expectations. On the one hand, if that’s what you’re looking for, then Dumbo works as a family-friendly crowd-pleaser, providing nice imagery, adorable animal antics, and a decent helping of lovable atmosphere. It also feels nicely quaint, calling back to a simpler time for family blockbusters, with its simple priorities and straightforward characters. There certainly isn’t anything in Dumbo’s storytelling that feels ineffective or bad. It just doesn’t really take any real narrative risks.
That’s what’s both most frustrating and most puzzling about Dumbo. Among 2019’s trio of live-action Disney remakes, Dumbo seems to be the one most initially determined to push the boat out on the storytelling, almost completely re-tooling the original animated movie’s story progression, and only calling back to its animated inspiration with a few iconic moments. Yes, this includes that infamous pink elephant champagne scene, though as you can imagine, that’s been considerably cleaned up in this remake! Even as the Dumbo remake tries to root itself in a credible 1919-era atmosphere however, it doesn’t feel like it truly has anything meaningful to say, nor any meaningful reason to exist, beyond further bumping up Disney’s profit margins. That’s well and good, but considering Dumbo’s obvious desire to examine the price of fame and the evolution of entertainment, it’s disappointing to see it settling for an easy surface read that’s all too afraid to go somewhere truly engaging.
Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland may be among the most despised Disney movies and the most despised Tim Burton movies, but it is difficult to argue with its $1 billion-plus worldwide box office intake, especially for 2010! Thus, it’s no wonder that Disney would inevitably entrust another of their animated classics to Burton for a revamp in live-action, and I suppose that Dumbo is as good a candidate as any. The stakes are certainly lower with Dumbo as well, seeing as it’s a movie without any prior beloved fairy tale legacy behind it (even if it did adapt a children’s book), and it seems that even Burton is treating this remake as a work-for-hire project, with his dark, elongated style and gloomy, but comical wardrobe choices being presented with a less blatant hand than usual, with the Disney-approved gloss always being front-and-center instead.
Burton does however still have some fun with the spectacular circus visuals, which present an old-school charm that effectively combines itself with more modern Hollywood production value. Despite these occasionally awe-inspiring circus sequences though, there’s still very little to ultimately say about the direction of Dumbo, which never truly intrigues or excites, even if it does at least positively stimulate the eyes well enough. Arguably the biggest highlight of Burton’s direction is managing Dumbo himself, and even then, you could probably compliment the actors and especially the special effects/motion-capture team even more so. Some of Burton’s usual kooky charm manages to shine through, but Dumbo nonetheless fails to stand out among a rapidly growing catalogue of Disney’s live-action remakes, simply keeping its head down and doing its job with a disappointing lack of enthusiasm on the director’s part.
As some may predict, considering many of Tim Burton’s directing efforts, Danny Elfman composes the score for Dumbo. Elfman is one of the better-known Hollywood composers, and his stylings would theoretically be well-suited to a production like Dumbo, which presents a charming story of wholesome spirit overcoming greedy cynicism. Even Elfman sometimes feels like he’s working at half-speed however, delivering a score with just enough of his recognizable flourishes, but one that also feels like it’s gone through the Disney machine quite extensively. There are highlight tracks for sure, and Elfman’s score certainly gets the job done with its loftier, more quaint stylings. On the other hand though, the score doesn’t end up standing out much in contrast to Elfman’s better known musical suites, doing its job, but not really standing out, much like Dumbo as a whole.
The rest of Dumbo’s sound design is mostly well-done, carrying surprising punch at times, considering the rest of the movie’s lightweight nature. The spectacular circus sequences are often where the sound mixing is at its most bold, especially in premium formats like IMAX, where Dumbo’s mighty ears and stylish flights are presented with an astonishing amount of presence and power. There are a few other instances of more pronounced audio, but it’s clear that most of the sound engineering is centered around Dumbo’s flights, which certainly feels appropriate. The rest of Dumbo however is pretty affectionate and laid-back with its sound design, leaving its titular character to present the most attention-grabbing audio much of the time, even if the rest of the Medici Circus also manages a few other impressive feats of sound work throughout the highlight scenes.
As I mentioned, arguably the best visual element of the Dumbo remake is Dumbo himself, who is brought to life with genuinely impressive detail and vitality. The period detail and costume design is also highly commendable though, with the semi-fantastical 1919 setting deftly walking the line between reality and fantasy. Once again, it’s the highlight circus sequences that tend to push the visuals furthest, presenting compelling CGI displays of light, colour and sound, and bringing modern Hollywood punch to otherwise venerable circus entertainment. The abundance of CGI can sometimes disturb the circus-themed spectacle, mind you, with a few genuinely impressive displays of stunt work sometimes being overshadowed by a main attraction that’s almost completely computer-generated. Still, Dumbo certainly elevates the more aged production values of its animated predecessor to a considerable extent, even if it’s bound to be outdone by the upcoming Aladdin and The Lion King remakes when they hit theatres later this year.
Regrettably, I wasn’t able to attend a 3D screening of Dumbo, though I was able to catch the movie in a 2D IMAX showing. The IMAX presentation most benefits the sound design over the visual design, but it does at least somewhat boost the sense of scope in Dumbo’s presentation, so that premium format may be worth shelling out for, if you’re so inclined. There do seem to be quite a few scenes that would theoretically lend themselves well to a 3D presentation, particularly Dumbo’s flight sequences at the circus, though I didn’t feel like I was necessarily missing something by having to watch the movie in 2D. I imagine that this case would come down to personal preference for how you wish to consume your movies, though regardless of format, there’s a solid blend between Tim Burton’s stylings and faithfully recognizable Disney presentation, which is a solid treat for the eyes, no matter how you prefer to view it.
On the wide spectrum of Disney’s modern live-action revamps, Dumbo seems to fall almost exactly in the middle, for better or for worse. The movie doesn’t contain any pressing issues, and it provides a reliably enjoyable Disney blockbuster experience, between its likable characters and its colourful, family-friendly presentation. That’s both the best and worst thing you can say about it however. Despite some of Tim Burton’s recognizable directing touch, and despite this remake making at least somewhat of an effort to build upon the story premise of its animated inspiration, Dumbo feels like a disappointingly forgettable Disney blockbuster, made as a product of design-by-committee, in an effort to provide the same quick, easy cash grab that the original animated movie was also meant to provide so many decades ago.
Still, even if some of that corporate cynicism that Dumbo’s leads attempt to stand against is nonetheless present in much of this remake, Dumbo is pleasant and enjoyable enough while it lasts. It’s just not special. Perhaps this is an issue with the original Dumbo story being very old and simplistic, and not yielding as much narrative potential as Disney may have initially hoped for. More likely however is the nagging issue that the Dumbo remake just too transparently feels like a product, rather than a truly inspired cinematic experience. Despite some successful emotional moments with Dumbo himself, everything tends to otherwise feel too hollow and calculated, begging the question of why Disney bothered to remake a movie that didn’t seem to have that much to ultimately say in the first place. Still, it’s not like the Disney live-action remake machine is going to stop in the near future, and when you look at it that way, Dumbo certainly could have turned out a lot worse, even if it also deserved to be at least a little bit more noteworthy.
- Dumbo himself is an adorable CGI creation
- Many strong performances, particularly from Farrell, Green and Keaton
- Striking visuals, especially during the circus sequences
- Expanded storyline remains too predictable and shallow
- Most characters feel too underdeveloped
- Presentation fails to stand out in any meaningful way