Having only watched it once as a little kid, the original Dumbo lives on in my memory as hazy fragments. I don’t have an emotional connection to the 1941 Disney classic as I do to say The Lion King, Tarzan or even Mulan, so when I say the live-action remake doesn’t quite work, know that I don’t mean that in comparison to its original. Dumbo simply doesn’t work, period. Large parts of the movie feel like pointless fluff just conjured up inorganically and dropped in for the sole purpose of dragging its runtime (the original was an hour long; this is 52 minutes longer). It’s a bummer because sprinkled throughout this overall mundane affair are awe-inspiring moments that are absolutely stunning to behold on the big screen.
These moments, which are almost always purely visual, are quite obviously courtesy of director Tim Burton (Beetlejuice, Batman, Edward Scissorhands), who’s a beast of a visual stylist, one of the best to ever grace the planet. Many have tried and will continue to try, but nobody paints whimsical, gothic pictures quite like Burton, who really understands the art of crafting magic and wonder. The first time Dumbo flies around the Medici circus and sprays water on a bunch of rowdy teenagers is a heart-racing moment of pure bliss. Indeed, you will believe!
Collette (Eva Green) performing acrobatics while Dumbo glides around her and the Farriers look on is a scene that will steal your breath away. And then there’s the weird pink bubble sequence from the animated film reimagined by Burton to hypnotising effect. We see a close up of Dumbo bobbing his head as a bunch of circus performers make large, pink elephant shape bubbles. It’s a trippy scene that’s also dark and beautifully melancholic — you can feel Burton’s excitement seep through the screen and engulf you. Accompanied by Danny Elfman’s addictive musical score, this entrancing, spine-chilling sequence is better than any other sequence of the Disney live-action remakes so far.
These beautifully crafted pieces of visual storytelling make the overall viewing experience of Dumbo frustrating because you can’t help but think about what could’ve been. It’s frustrating that we don’t care about any of the characters, not even Dumbo (despite how bloody cute he is) on a deeper level. It’s frustrating that we have to lumber through meaningless fluff to get to the great parts. And it’s not exactly Burton’s fault.
Dumbo lacks a genuine emotional centre because of screenwriter Ehren Kruger. I wonder what about Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Dark of the Moon and Age of Extinction made Disney go, “god damn! We gotta hire one of those screenwriters to pen the remake of one of our most beloved films”? Just like with the Transformers films, the emotional core is snatched away from the character we want to grow attached to, which is Dumbo (and his mom) and given to a bunch of human beings.
Dumbo, whose CG and character design is fantastic, is but one of the many characters in a film about the Medici circus. Instead of a film about an elephant that’s trying to reach its fullest potential, the remake is about an elephant trying to get back to its mom but is held captive and turned into a show by a wealthy circus owner. It’s also about a father, Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell), a war veteran and a once famous trick rider, who has not only lost an arm, lost his wife but also struggling to bond with his two children. What did you expect? It’s a Tim Burton film!
There’s also Eva Green’s Colette, the gorgeous acrobat. Treated as nothing but a trophy and an arm candy by the big-time circus owner, Vandevere (Michael Keaton), she’s desperate to break free, just like Dumbo. Finally, we have Dani Devito’s Max Medici, a small-time circus owner, both sweet and eccentric who gets tricked by the villainous Vandevere. These are all frankly great ideas that make up the bones of the film. But films aren’t just made of bones. There needs to be flesh and blood, tissue and muscle.
None of these interesting ideas are fleshed out and given meaning. We don’t get enough of Dumbo’s relationship with his mother. As a result their separation is sad (a child being separated from his/her mom is always going to be sad) but not agonizing. The film also tries to use ‘flight’ as a symbol of freedom, but because the story is told from the humans’ perspective and not Dumbo’s, we don’t feel the young elephant’s desperate desire for it. The parallels between Colette and Dumbo is fascinating in concept, but Kruger barely scratches the surface. We don’t see Vandevere (who by the way, is a very weak villain) actually keep her on a metaphorical leash, so what exactly is she trying to fly away from?
Why doesn’t the film explore Holt’s loneliness after his wife’s passing or his agony of losing an arm and with it, his ability to ride horses like Rex Rossi? Why is his daughter (Nico Parker), who’s given so much screen time, one dimensional and bland? — she’s just ‘the girl who likes to make stuff.’ Danny Devito, perhaps the only actor here who understands the movie that he’s in — a Tim Burton kooky spectacle — brings his eccentric best and chews up the scenery and spits it out. He’s great! But when the end credits rolled, I realised I didn’t understand him on a human level either.
It’s frankly a huge bummer because I always get excited when auteurs are brought in to reimagine, remake or adapt mainstream properties. I get excited to see what they would do differently. To see their vision come to life. But Dumbo is all style and no substance. And Tim Burton hasn’t made a good movie since 1994. He’s a unique director of immense talent and the ridiculously awesome bubbles sequence is proof that he’s still got his magic touch. I just wish he’d collaborate with writers who are just as talented with a pen as he is behind the camera.