Let Your Imagination Soar
Set shortly after the events of World War I, circus cowboy Holt Farrier [Farrell] returns home to find his wife has died of Spanish flu and the circus on hard times. What’s more, he has lost an arm fighting for his country and can no longer perform to the same level. Worried for the wellbeing of his son Joe [Finley Hobbins] and daughter [Parker], Holt takes whatever job he can get and is put in charge of the elephants by ringmaster Max Medici [DeVito]. After a short time, one of the newly acquired elephants gives birth to a large-eared elephant they name Baby Jumbo. Max is horrified by the freakish ears and is forced to get rid of the elephant’s mother when a show goes badly and the crowd mock the big-eared elephant which is then nicknamed Dumbo. Max is then approached by mogul V A Vandevere [Keaton] and his assistant Colette [Green] when it is discovered that Dumbo can use his wings to fly but while Vandevere claims he can save Max’s circus, he is seemingly solely interested in helping himself.
From the very get-go there is a clear sense that the film is trying so hard but the whole thing is very two dimensional. From the characters to the story itself, attempts seem to have been made to create something new that will reflect contemporary attitudes and sensibilities while capturing the magic of the original. What we end up with is a Dumbo in name only that doesn’t really know what to do with itself after cherry picking a very meagre selection of memorable key moments and padding the remainder with hollow fluff. To add extra frustration, several mixed messages are introduced that fail to resonate. The film breaks its back trying to highlight that Milly is both very creative and scientifically minded but when it comes to the emotional payoff toward the finale (wherein she realises both “the power was in her all along” and she will honour her mother’s memory by throwing away a prized possession passed from mother to daughter before her death) the message amalgamates a handful of clichéd platitudes, hoping the audience won’t notice anything off.
Of the parts salvaged (and others strongly and forcefully ejected – crows, I’m talking about the crows), Dumbo is very much intact. As a CGI creation, the giant-glassy-eyed elephant is incredibly cute and will reduce many audience members to tears. But for all the technical acumen that has gone into bringing this creature to life, there is a distinct lack of soul. Specifically, in the way Dumbo is treated. I appreciate we are being shown a different time and during a post-World War I era, there wasn’t an exceptional amount of mirth to go around but the fact this elephant calf is born with large ears being a point of ridicule makes next to no sense. I never understood the conceit in the cartoon and I don’t understand it here. It’s not as if only we enlightened, woke individuals are able to see past the brutal exterior and see the beauty inside; this is a purposefully created concoction of cuteness. Subsequently, the rather mature villain being fiscal responsibility and evolving social pressures, the film is reduced to using absurdly clichéd and laughably mean villains. Firstly we have Rufus the mean roustabout animal handler who is seemingly only working with animals to abuse them, only for him to be replaced by an even more absurd elephant-skin-boot wearing South African, who sneers and is simply itching for the opportunity to murder the eponymous character.
The “heroic” counterparts are a bit trickier to gauge. We have Holt’s kids and for the most part they are perfectly fine; brave, smart and kind, they are the typical model of how Disney live-action films expect children to be. Holt himself has the opportunity for more complexity and Farrell is extremely capable as a father who clearly loves his children but is adrift in life (he played that exact role rather pleasingly in Saving Mr Banks) but it doesn’t really go anywhere. I don’t know what the overall arc for the character was but he came off as a largely ineffective individual due to his timid nature. Again, this could quite easily be chalked up to PTSD, survivor’s guilt, adjusting to life out of the spotlight and with a disability but the film doesn’t really do enough with it to earn any of that. Eva Green is sort of similar, playing a bit of a hostage but we are never given a strong look into who she is or what brought her to this point, outside of a few throwaway lines of dialogue. That and her accentuating her natural French accent felt like Ewan McGregor in Beauty & The Beast. And finally we have Danny DeVito as ringmaster Max Medici, who redeems himself in the final act but only because he’s Danny DeVito and that man is charming as hell, because the character does very little from start to end that displays a shred of decency.
I must confess, I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with these live action remakes. As an artist I feel they are an act of stagnation, a slap in the face for older animation techniques and a blockage for new writers and new ideas. On the other hand, the execution of a great many of these releases has been extremely praiseworthy and I can’t help but enjoy them. Burton’s Alice In Wonderland didn’t impress me but it made one billion at the box office and signalled to Disney that this idea was a winner. So why wouldn’t Burton be a good choice for Dumbo? It’s got a sad lead, parenting issues, circus aesthetics and the potential for wonder and mayhem. The closest we get to the usual Burton flare is Dreamland itself, which transitions the film from flat period feature to bombastic recreation of colourful elements of Vincent, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure and Big Fish. But this is only really during its introduction and outside of the main tent itself we don’t see a great deal of the attractions, rides and wonder that Burton could conjure up. Made worse for the fact that a great deal of the sets were constructed but muddied down with some truly nasty, blurry, hazy CGI. Maybe they were trying to emulate an old faded photograph, maybe they were trying to present the dizzying world of the circus, whatever the intention, it was lost and what we end up with is a visually disappointing setting, accompanied by a completely forgettable score with only hints of the original soundtrack.
In all honesty, Dumbo is a perfectly serviceable release. For anyone who hasn’t seen the original, it will probably entertain and sell a few stuffed elephant toys. But ultimately it suffers from the fact that nobody was asking for this. It may sound unnecessarily aggressive but Dumbo is no one’s favourite Disney film. Sure, you can enjoy it and have fond memories of watching its standout moments as a child but is it really your favourite Disney film? Unlikely. So other than money, why did anyone think this would be a success in the same year as Disney is releasing live-action adaptations of two of its biggest successes, Aladdin and The Lion King?
29th March 2019
The Scene To Look Out For:
A prime example of everything wrong with this film takes place in one scene (that I’m quietly confident they repeat). You may not know the name Michael Buffer but he has made a fortune on television, in movies and at live events for five words: let’s get ready to rumble. It’s his trademark and we are all very familiar with him and it. So during the Dreamland sequence, as Dumbo is to premiere his act, Buffer steps into the ring. As an announcer by trade, he’s actually rather well cast. Oddly, we see Buffer reflected in Dumbo’s eyes but using the same footage so clearly an afterthought as the visual doesn’t actually work properly. But, I give this a pass too. Then finally, he bellows to the crowd, “Let’s get ready for Dumbo.” And I was done. I sat in the dark cinema mouthing “what the absolute fuck!?” over and over.
**spoilers in this paragraph**
As upbeat as the ending is, Vandervere is right: the future of the travelling circus is a theme park. This is another fine example of the mixed messages the film gives. Milly is constantly looking to the future, wanting little to do with the circus, wanting to further the advancements of science and her exhibit isn’t very different from that set up in Dreamland (although the Dreamland one is painfully 50s and is just Burton revelling in the time period he favours the most). So for a film talking about going forward, adapting and belonging to something special, it’s odd that the conclusion takes everyone back to square one with a moderate rebranding that ignores the problems facing the circus in the first place. But to stick with Vandervere for a moment, sure he’s a shrewd businessman but comically so, rather than the dually charming and unpleasant Ray Kroc in The Founder or lavishly enthusiastic Barnum in The Greatest Showman, Vandervere is self-serving and thinking of what will work for his business. I’m not trying to defend the clearly unscrupulous villain but the only difference between him and Max is a modicum of remorse and that just makes the writing feel very cheap and rushed.
“Nobody wants to be alone”
In A Few Words:
“A wholly unremarkable and uninspired remake from a creator who is capable of so much more”