It tarnishes Burton’s legacy and drags down the Disney original in the process.
You can say this about Tim Burton’s live-action remake of the 1941 animated classic Dumbo: there’s nary a single racist bird in sight. This notable omission marks a genuine improvement on the beloved, troublesome original. Alas, you have to squint hard to find another upgrade.
Burton’s Dumbo is feather-light, lacking the pathos of its forlorn namesake. But it’s also far less enchanting, despite the many dazzling visual elements haphazardly packed into the camera’s frame at any given moment. Worst of all, it climaxes a third of the way in, thus missing the point of what made the title character a cinematic icon.
After the big payoff – you know the one, where outsized ears lift a pachyderm through the air, feather firmly planted in trunk – this remake devolves into a wearying combination of The Greatest Showman and Free Willy. Once Dumbo soars high, in an indisputably thrilling sequence, the film’s screenplay (by Ehren Kruger) loses the thread, shifts its focus to cookie-cutter humans, and abandons wonder to instead tell a shopworn story, one of greedy businessmen wrangling and marketing a money-making beast.
It’s a big-screen concept that no doubt felt fresh in 1933, when a giant gorilla first scaled the Empire State Building. Tale as old as time? Maybe not, but it’s a trope we’ve experienced in various iterations from King Kong right up to the current Jurassic Park franchise.
However problematic, the first Dumbo was elegant in its brevity, a mere 64 minutes long. Burton’s version doubles the runtime, and likewise, not only pads the fundamental narrative, but alters its DNA. So we get the story of a once-famous cowboy named Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) returning home, minus an arm, to a traveling circus after serving in the Great War. He’s a widower with two children (a precocious daughter and a placeholder of a son) who’ve been raised by carnies in his absence. The big boss, Max Medici (Danny DeVito), has scaled back the troupe and is doubling down on a new acquisition: a pregnant elephant.
Her name is Jumbo. And her floppy-eared offspring? Take a guess. The two are separated early on. Holt’s moppets discover the young elephant can fly. Cue a big-city huckster (Michael Keaton, the “Columbus of Coney Island”), who swoops in to cash in on the novelty. And then, we’re whisked away to Dreamland, a stylized amusement park bankrolled by a Wall Street tycoon (Alan Arkin playing Al Pacino playing Roy Cohn in Angels in America). Oh, have I mentioned the French trapeze artist (an excellent Eva Green), who’s thrown into the mix because, well, why the hell not? After all, there’s plenty of time to kill.
The most confounding aspect of this Dumbo is the creative decision to keep the animals quiet. (All the beasts in the ’41 film spoke, except for Dumbo himself.) Though this may seem like a minor change, it has cascading effects with regard to plot and character motivation. For example, in the original feature, Dumbo’s outsized ears scandalize the other elephants. They ostracize him because he doesn’t fit their mold. In this version, it’s Max who’s most upset about Dumbo’s physical appearance. But this makes no sense: The man not only runs a circus but also a freak show. Even if they didn’t act like wings, those babies ought to be big-time money makers for their novelty alone.
Later, after Dumbo’s become a star, it’s discovered his mother is featured elsewhere in Dreamland. This revelation should be greeted with the sound of popping champagne corks. A mother-and-son act? Ka-ching! I won’t spoil what happens next, but their response is, to be mild, not ecstatic.
Dumbo reunites Tim Burton with Keaton and DeVito, who last worked together on Batman Returns. That superhero sequel, however flawed, seemingly exists in another universe, one where Burton is still an oddball director in conversation with Terry Gilliam and David Lynch. Early reports claimed Dumbo marked a Big Burton Comeback. Alas, it only further tarnishes his legacy and drags down the original Dumbo – a sad and simple tale of latent potential and maternal love – in the process.