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Movie Review: Dumbo

Dumbo

You’ve seen a housefly, you’ve seen a dragonfly, but have you ever seen a live-action remake flop? Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls of all ages (and shout out to all the gender non-binary/non-conforming people, too!), prepare yourselves for disappointment and to leave theaters scratching your heads wondering exactly what you just watched. It’s Tim Burton‘s remake of the Disney animated classic Dumbo!

The weakest part of this film is that it is trying to update and remake Dumbo, a beautiful but problematic animated film whose running time is a scant 64 minutes, and probably only 40 minutes or so once you remove all of the objectionable elements. And so Burton’s updated version here actually zooms through most of what we think of as the Dumbo story in the first hour of the film, leaving room for an additional story where our baby flying elephant goes to work for a big city circus led by Michael Keaton. Here he’s paired with a French acrobat Colette (Eva Green) and expected to make big bucks for the big circus, which transforms into a messy third act that seems to simultaneously indict capitalism and the circus as an institution as Dumbo’s human friends (of course led by two plucky children!) and a team of circus folk plot a rescue for Dumbo and his mother to set them free.

Blame screenwriter Ehren Kruger for this mess, as he is also responsible for the travesties of the worst of the Transformer movies (Revenge of the Fallen, Dark of the Moon, and Age of Extinction) Yes, the guy who gave us problematic racist sterotype robots was asked to reshape Dumbo and its problematic racist stereotype crows. PS- the film just skips over the crows.

But in skipping over some of the glaring imperfections, we’re also left with an incredibly hollow and predictable story. All of the parts of this film that are uniquely Dumbo were better done in the animated film. Pink Elephants on Parade gets a Circue de Soleil type reimagining with acrobats and giant bubble machines and pink lights put on for a cheering audience. But gone is the charm and menace of this being a hallucination brought on by a baby elephant getting drunk on champagne. Baby Mine is still sad and heartbreaking, but isn’t adding anything that the original didn’t already have.

Despite all those negatives, there are some nice spots in the film. The central idea of the precocious misfit kids (the girl wants to be a scientist like Marie Curie! How progressive!) and their bond with the misfit baby elephant is still charming. The actors’ performances are doing all they can with this lackluster script. Eva Green is as captivating as always, even if her part is woefully underwritten. And then into the third act saunters Alan Arkin as a rich investor and steals every moment he’s on screen.

Some of the best moments come from the on-screen chemistry between rival and then partner circus ringmasters Danny DeVito and Michael Keaton. They’re both a joy to watch, even if they occasionally take me out of the film reminding me this isn’t the first time I’ve seen them paired up against one another in a Tim Burton film.

And therin lies part of the crux of the problem with Dumbo. As I’ve said, the parts that are uniquely Dumbo are simply better done in the original animated film. And what’s left? Well, perhaps it would have been better as an original Tim Burton movie about a creepy circus and an attempt to free the animals from subjugation. It’s where the movie actually really shines and the only place where it feels like a Tim Burton film as we get into the cool art deco design of the (intentionally/subversively?) Disneyland-esque “Dreamland” park, and especially “Nightmare Island” where the “dangerous creatures” are kept.

Any resemblance to actual Disney theme parks, living or dead, are entirely coincidental.

There are even two long, lingering shots of Dreamland selling Dumbo plush toys, as though Burton is trying to send us a coded message that he knows this is all a pretense to sell merchandise. There are also a couple of waaaaaay inside jokes aimed at people with an intimate knowledge of the Disneyland parks of yesteryear. That’s where this movie shines, where it feels subversive and like Burton is poking fun at the cashgrab nature of his enterprise. I’m here for that Tim Burton for days. But then he intersperses it with cringeworthy moments like a cameo from Michael Buffer, and if you are familiar with his work. . . you know what’s coming. And it’s terrible.

No no. . . Dreamland isn’t at all like Disneyland. . .

And also, for god’s sake, don’t waste Danny Elfman‘s talents asking him to redo the 1941 score. It’s the most underwhelming waste of his talents since his Age of Ultron score, which he famously complained about being so limited because he was just asked to ape a temp track. It feels very much the same here.

And so, unfortunately, all I’m left with is a weird feeling that I wish I’d just watched Big Fish and the original Dumbo instead. Those are great movies: even despite Dumbo‘s problematic elements, it’s still a classic. This. . . this is just not.

I’ve been fine with most of the previous Disney live-action remakes. Each of them, up to now, at least brought something new or different to the party. Despite occasional flashes of brilliance, this does not. As so we’re left to ask, who exactly is this movie for? Fans aren’t going to get what they want, and this is by no means new or innovative or interesting enough to warrant your hard-earned money (reminder that taking a family of four to a full-price movie plus snacks can cost almost as much as a single Disneyland ticket). Stay home and pop in your copy of the original or Big Fish and enjoy yourself.

2.5 out of 5 stars

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