April 12, 2020

“Dumbo” (2019) Review: An Unnecessary (Yet Magical) Remake

At least the elephant is cute.
We’re getting to a point in which Disney films from 25 years ago are being remade as live-action films, but thankfully, they’re not completely ignoring their most classic films, dating all the way back to the mid-20th century.

One of these films is Dumbo, originally released in 1941, which features an elephant born with rather big ears that soon discovers he has the ability to fly (seemingly magically) through the air. This cute film that ran barely over an hour is the latest film that Disney has remade in the style of live-action.

Tim Burton, the visionary filmmaker behind The Corpse Bride and Edward Scissorhands, was given directorial reigns over Disney’s remake of Dumbo, which uses the original film’s plot as inspiration for only its first half; its second and third acts use a completely new plot line that, in my opinion, could have been executed in a much cleaner fashion. The remake also trades off a spotlight on the titular elephant in favor of new protagonists Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell), and his children Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins).

The film begins at the Medici Bros Circus, where ringmaster Max Medici (Danny DeVito) welcomes home Holt, a soldier returning from the first World War (the film is set in 1919). Holt’s wife has since passed away (continuing the “dead mothers” trend that Disney might as well trademark), and Medici puts him in charge of managing the elephants, and soon Baby Jumbo (who of course later becomes known as Dumbo) is born. Soon, after his flying abilities become public knowledge, Medici is approached by circus tycoon (and Walt Disney allegory) V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), and soon Dumbo is in big leagues.

Even the exterior scenes were filmed on a soundstage.
There’s a lot of things that Dumbo does right, and a lot of things that it could’ve been done better, only under different circumstances. Tim Burton’s unique directorial style feels restrained under a Disney banner, and although the baby elephant is adorable (albeit being fully computer-generated), the film feels choppy. This is mostly because of the stark differences in tone and scenery between the first and second halves, but also because the addition of the human characters just feels frivolous. That’s also interesting because the humans are, traditionally speaking, the protagonists of the film, but they feel as if they’re only there to provide reactions to the majestic spectacle of the elephant flying around the circus tent.

Dumbo feels magical enough, and, while I must admit it’s pretty entertaining to watch a PG version of Tim Burton’s typically creepy visual flair, it’s asking a lot to sit through a lot of talking and arguing just for scattered scenes of Dumbo spreading his ears and showing doubtful character after doubtful character that he does have the ability that others claim that he has.

Needless to say, I still liked Dumbo. It kept me entertained, but I can’t say that it will have the same effect on younger children. Let’s hope Disney keeps learning lessons about how to make these live-action remakes even better. [Grade: C]

Director: Tim Burton
Writer: Ehren Kruger
Starring: Colin Farrell, Nico Parker, Finley Hobbins, Danny DeVito, Michael Keaton
Rated: PG for peril/action, some thematic elements, and brief mild language
Available: Disney+
Fun Fact: There was a swear jar on set. Whenever an actor cursed, they needed to put money in the jar. At the end of shooting, the total was given to charity. Allegedly, Colin Farrell was the worst offender and was responsible for the majority of the money.

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