It is only March but it is clear that 2019 will forever be known as the Year of the Disney Live Action Remake. Sure, they’ve been at the game of remaking their animated classics into live action (though still chock full of CG animation) epics for a few years, but this year boasts no less than four if you count the sequel to Maleficent opening in October.
But before we feast our eyes upon Angelina Jolie’s witchy return, Will Smith’s confounding appearance as the Genie in Aladdin, or Jon Favreau’s Beyonce-fueled re-telling of The Lion King, we have this week’s release of Dumbo, reimagined by famed genre director Tim Burton. And I’ve gotta be honest, when Disney started this live action remake racket, Dumbo was NOT a title I expected to get the treatment any time soon.
For starters, the 1941 original doesn’t exactly offer a lot in terms of story. Clocking in at a slim 64 minutes the film keeps things extremely simple and even dedicates 5 of those precious minutes to Dumbo accidentally getting drunk and tripping balls about pink elephants, which has no bearing on the plot whatsoever. Throw in some racist crows and a storyline that keeps the animal characters in fairly depressing circus captivity, it just doesn’t feel like great fodder for modern audiences.
It therefore falls upon Burton and screenwriter Ehren Kruger to seriously flesh the story out to last a more substantial 112 minutes. And while they succeed in delivering something that consistently entertains for that entire duration, the movie never takes off in a way that makes your heart soar alongside Dumbo.
In this telling of the story the animal characters are stripped of speaking voices, which requires the introduction of a wide host of human characters to carry the weight of exposition and drama. Leading this charge is Colin Farrell as Holt Farrier, a wounded soldier returning to his children (Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins) and circus life after serving in the first World War. Once a famed equestrian in the circus, Holt is now faced with a new role of caring for a newly acquired elephant named Jumbo and her soon to be born baby.
As in the original, Jumbo gives birth to an adorable baby elephant who comes outfitted with tremendously large ears and eventually earns the name of Dumbo after botching his first performance under the big top. Dumbo is then separated from his loving mother and everything seems terrible until Holt’s children discover the magic of Dumbo’s ability to fly, which is soon put to good use in the circus and becomes a media sensation.
It is at this point that the remake’s story dramatically deviates from the original by introducing V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton) as a wealthy entertainer from New York City who strikes a deal with Dumbo’s circus owner (Danny DeVito) to move the entire circus to live and work out of his futuristic amusement park. It’s no secret that Vandevere’s main goal is to exploit Dumbo for every penny he’s worth and this eventually leads our heroes to plot an escape from this wannabe entertainment Utopia and reunite Dumbo with his mother for good.
This is all nicely paced and works well enough but never succeeds in completely enveloping you as a totally invested viewer. In fact, much of the film’s emotional strength can be attributed to the incredibly high cuteness level of the title character. I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that Dumbo himself is so adorable that you’d do anything for him. If this Dumbo asked you to rob a bank so you could buy him more peanuts, you’d do it. He is just THAT CUTE. He’s so cute that I’m tempted to call Tim Burton out for emotional manipulation and cheating, but I’m gonna let it slide because…he’s so fucking cute.
The movie also benefits from some eye-popping art direction and cinematography that make every scene enough of a visual treat that you won’t really mind if your brain isn’t being challenged at all.
The cast also delivers the goods with humorous turns from DeVito, Keaton, and Alan Arkin as a potential millionaire investor. Farrell makes a charming (and ridiculously attractive) father, the kids handles their often cheesy dialogue with panache, and even though she isn’t given nearly enough to do, Eva Green shines as Dumbo’s artistic partner in the air. But really all you need to know about this cast is that Batman and the Penguin are on screen together again with Burton behind the camera. What more could a movie nerd ask for?
I’m tempted to argue that Dumbo could be so much more than it is, but given the original subject matter I’m not quite sure it could get much better than what Burton gives us here. It’s occasionally cheesy and completely implausible (even once you’ve made peace with the flying elephant aspect) but visually stunning and cute enough to make for a lovely time at the movies with your family. Kids will absolutely love it and adults could do so much worse.