Released: 28th March
Seen: 29th March
In 1941 Disney released its fourth animated theatrical film. Dumbo holds a special place in Disney history. Clocking in at 64 minutes, the film was made to try and cover the losses brought on by Fantasia (Which at the time hadn’t turned a profit because WW2 cut off a large part of the market) and during its production, there was a five-week strike at Disney’s studio. On a budget of under a million dollars with a mandate to keep everything as simple as possible, Disney somehow did the impossible and created one of the most beautiful animated films of all time. The film still works today, with the notable exception of the crow sequence (one of the crows is called Jim… that should probably clue you into the problem), and it’s proof of just what Disney is capable of doing and is so truly beloved that it even earned a spot in the US National Film Registry in the Library of Congress, meaning it will be preserved forever as something culturally significant… and then Tim Burton said “WAIT! I HAVEN’T RUINED ENOUGH CLASSIC MOVIES YET!” and decided to remake it.
Dumbo (2019) alters the original story significantly by exchanging the previous whimsy and joy with cold harsh reality. Everyone treats Dumbo like a freak because of his gigantic ears and the circus owner Max Medici (Danny DeVito) decides that the newly returned war veteran Holt Darrier (Colin Darrell) must be the one to take care of the big dumb elephant with big dumb ears and a big dumb CGI smile that never looks right in the slightest. Because he’s a below average father (and a single father because his wife died, because every Disney mom must die and it must be slow and painful to warn the other mothers of what fate awaits them all in the Wonderful World of Disney) he barely pays attention to his children Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins) who stumble upon the fact that Dumbo’s big ears mean he can fly and they decide to try and teach Dumbo how to use this newfound power so that Dumbo can crush his enemies and kill all the people in the… sorry, that’s just how I was hoping the film would end up. No, they just teach him how to fly and that gets a lot of attention for the circus which means that an evil big corporation wants to buy the elephant, an evil corporation run by V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton) who, I might have mentioned this, is evil and also runs a giant corporation because that’s how we determine who is and isn’t evil. OH, and the entire plot revolves around these boring people, Dumbo is basically a prop used to progress the plot… WHEN I SEE AN ELEPHANT FLY!!!
So, in case it’s not obvious, I do not like this film. I do not like it one bit. I do not like how it decided to take one of the sweetest and most charming animated films of all time and remove everything charming about it. While I give Tim credit for trying to tell a different story, because these live-action remakes are a plague of unoriginality that has littered the cinematic landscape like turds in a barnyard filled with diarrheic animals (yep, we’re bringing out the poop jokes, because I’m at that level of anger), the problem is that every bit of joyful whimsy that the original films had has been forcibly removed with almost surgical precision. There was a real wholesome sweetness to the original characters, we spent so much time with Dumbo and Timothy Q Mouse that their adorable interactions were remembered for years and literally made that movie work… here, Timothy Q Mouse doesn’t exist, Dumbo is basically a chronic feather-snorter and I don’t care about the kids training them because they are characterless personality vacuums.
The acting in this film ranges somewhere between “Trying” and “Oh, I’m on camera now?” and I hate it all. Well, OK, not all of it. Colin Farrell actually tries with the material he’s had thrust upon him by a director who stopped caring around 2007, and Michael Keaton is clearly having the absolute best time playing a villain ripped straight out of the ‘Flamboyant Rich Upper-class Business Owner’ textbook (Which is a blue book and not very thick, fun little fact for you there). Danny DeVito is basically just being Danny DeVito, but fortunately, Danny DeVito is such an amazing human being that being himself would carry just about anything and then… oh wait, that’s it. Everyone else is a sentient mannequin with one character trait if the writer (Who previously wrote Scream 3 and multiple Transformers movies, which I’m sure weren’t indications of his talent level) decided that they deserve one. I know I have brought her up a few times but I swear the daughter’s only character trait is “SCIENCE” and an inability to react to external stimuli. She has a better character trait than her brother, which is “Inhales oxygen and occasionally walks around”.
Then we get to the musical numbers, those moments in the original that are so genuinely iconic that we all look beyond the racist imagery of the crows (Again, one is called Jim… Jim Crow) because When I See an Elephant Fly is such a beautiful song. Baby Mine makes grown men cry before the first verse is done. Pink Elephants on Parade counts as your first drug experience. These are some of the best songs in Disney canon… SO, in this film, we lose the Look out for Mr Stork because, remember, no whimsy allowed. Dumbo can’t be delivered by a stork because he must be fired out of an elephants vagina! Casey Junior? That song the sentient train sang that was one of the most joyfully fun songs in the original film? Yeah, instrumental during the montage that opens the movie because this movie needs a montage before we even get to the opening title because this 112-minute movie (TWICE THE LENGTH OF THE ORIGINAL!) needed more padding. Baby Mine, the most emotional song to be put in any early Disney movie? Sung by a mermaid woman on the ukulele because who cares about the genuine emotional moment between the mother and Dumbo, let’s make it about the humans. Pink Elephants on Parade? Instrumental backing their attempt at whimsy with balloons on stage (because we can’t have the Pink Elephants be the hallucination of a drunken elephant, which is why that sequence is so weird and iconic). The best one is When I See An Elephant Fly which has been excised completely but the opening lines of “I’ve seen a horse fly, I’ve seen a dragon fly, I’ve seen a house fly” have now been given to, and I swear I’m not making this up, Michael Buffer… the guy who is known for yelling “Let’s get ready to rumble”. Yeah, they give him the lines of that famous song and even take on his trademarked yell for what I think was meant to be a joke, but merely made me wonder what I had done wrong in my life to put me in the spot where I would be seeing this.
Sure the movie looks pretty, Tim Burton’s unique visual aesthetic is pretty hard to get upset about but if anything that almost makes it worse. So much effort put into making this look good when what it needed was effort into making it be good. I’ve referenced this song before but this film is another of those “Nice Video, Shame About The Song” movies where there was more time worrying about everything being pretty than anything else. I mean, all of Tim Burton’s films look good in some way because he has a unique visual style that stands out among his peers but the man hasn’t had a good script to work with in years. This is certainly one of the worst scripts he’s been given, because I need to remind you that the scriptwriter wrote multiple Transformers movies… MULTIPLE! Visual prowess will only be able to do so much work here because after a few minutes it just becomes another weird looking Tim Burton movie with a charmless plot and lazy writing that creates weak characters that no one knows how to play.
Dumbo (2019) is an insult of a film, it’s directly spitting in your face and pretending it’s magical for doing it. It’s a pale imitation of the idea behind the original film, and that’s if I’m being generous (believe me, this review is the kind version of my thoughts). It’s not Dumbo’s story, it’s the story of a family that I couldn’t care less about that happens to intersect with the story of an elephant that flies whenever he snorts a feather like it’s made of cocaine. There’s four more of these Disney remakes coming out this year, and there’s a slew of them on the horizon and we’re going to have to watch as Disney forgets what made them special while they just rest on their laurels and pretend like that’s acceptable. Just go watch the original, hell you could watch it twice in the time you would spend here. Maybe you’re more forgiving of remakes like this that add nothing of value and ignore what made the original special, and if you never saw the original then maybe this will work for you… but I grew up on the original Dumbo, it’s one of my top 10 favourite Disney animated films of all time and seeing it being abused like this hurts me a lot. I remember falling in love with the sweet adorable elephant with the giant ears that everyone made fun of… largely because I related to that. I related to that feeling of being the big outsider who everybody doubted and was made fun of for things I couldn’t control. Dumbo was bullied and he still managed to keep his head up and fly, something I really needed to see at a young age… and they took that away, to make a generic film about an evil corporate villain that happens to include a flying elephant. The only reason it’s getting anything above a one from me is because it’s pretty but if I wasn’t feeling that mild tinge of generosity, it’d be getting a one. I hope to god that Disney learns how to make these things work soon because I’m officially sick and tired of their flimsy pointless remakes.