The self-cannibalization at Disney continues with Dumbo, a turgid, labored, bloated live-action remake of the 1941 animated classic with precisely none of the original’s emotion, charm, or joy. Why do these things that are obviously bad ideas to begin with keep turning out so bad? It is a mystery.
Directed by a somewhat toned-down Tim Burton from a screenplay by Ehren Kruger (writer of most of the Transformers movies), this version aims for quasi-realism: The animals don’t talk or (for the most part) do other things that animals cannot do. So instead of a wise-guy mouse helping the floppy-eared baby elephant become a star of the circus, that function is performed by an emotionless girl named Milly (Nico Parker) and her little brother Joe (Finley Hobbins), who travel with the circus because their father, Holt (Colin Farrell), works for it.
(The year is 1919, by the way, and Holt has just returned from the Great War minus one arm. Don’t worry, though — he’s soon given a dummy arm that can’t move but at least absolves the special-effects crew of having to digitally remove Farrell’s real one. Self-invented crisis that served no story purpose anyway averted!)
Anyway, the entire plot of the original 64-minute Dumbo is recreated more or less faithfully in 40 minutes, leaving an hour to address Dumbo’s life after his flying act saves the struggling circus. Max Medici (Danny DeVito), the sympathetic circus owner, becomes a partner to tycoon V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), who has just opened a Disney-like theme park and wants to make Dumbo the main attraction. Vandevere promises jobs at the park for Medici’s loyal performers, but you can guess how that goes. The kids want to reunite Dumbo with his mom, who’s on display in another part of the park, but Vandevere opposes this for reasons that are unclear beyond general evilness.
This points to a problem with turning animation into live-action. We tend to overlook logical flaws when they’re in a cartoon, but when flesh-and-blood (and CGI) creatures are involved, they stand out. This entire story is based on a flawed premise: Why would a crowd of circus-goers find a baby elephant with huge ears anything but adorable? Why in the world would their first instinct be to boo, jeer, and bully the thing? Yet without this reaction, Dumbo isn’t marginalized, doesn’t have to be cheered up by the kids, doesn’t discover his flying abilities, etc. The crowd reaction makes no sense but drives the entire story.
And what showman wouldn’t be thrilled at the publicity prospects of reuniting his star performer with his mother? Jumbo and Dumbo, proud momma and her amazing flying boy! Why would Vandevere react to the discovery that he already owns Mrs. Jumbo by plotting to kill her and keep Dumbo sad??
Even can’t-miss emotional moments like Dumbo visiting his locked-up mother manage to miss because everything feels phony and perfunctory. Elements of the original that don’t work in 2019 (baby elephants getting drunk; racially stereotyped crows singing songs) are wedged in anyway: The “pink elephants” hallucination now comes in the form of giant soap bubbles being blown as part of a circus act, and lines from “When I See an Elephant Fly” are worked into Dumbo’s introduction by the big top announcer, who’s played by the “Let’s get ready to rumble!” guy (Michael Buffer) and says, I crap you not, “Let’s get ready for Dumbo!” (Twice.) For a movie that’s completely unnecessary, not much thought seems to have been put into it. Who could have predicted??