Of the original Disney animated features, no one is more infamous (or remembered, period) than Dumbo.  Released in 1941, it tells the story of Dumbo, a baby elephant whose  ridiculously large ears lead to him getting separated from his mother,  belittled and shamed by everyone in the circus he lives in, and  ultimately help him literally soar above the adversity in his life.

He also gets verbally abused multiple times, gets drunk on clown beer  and sees nightmares, and ultimately achieves his ability to fly after  encouragement by a group of black racial stereotypes. Not even going  into the controversy behind actually making this movie (Disney laid off  roughly 207 people for wanting to unionize during the production of this  thing!), it makes sense that Disney, currently in an era of remaking  its most famous films, would want a shot at making a Dumbo divorced of  the badly-dated elements of its source material. So, they did.

It did not pan out well.

My beautiful one-armed cowboy

Image from IMDb

Dumbo, released March 29 and directed by Tim Burton, is a  remake of the original film by Walt Disney Animation centered around the  eponymous pachyderm born with ears so large that he can achieve the  power of flight… except it isn’t. This version of Dumbo is  actually centered around Holt, a disabled war veteran/circus cowboy  (Colin Ferrell, phoning it in) who returns to the Medici Brothers Circus  only to find his wife dead from the flu and his two children as  precocious as ever. In the midst of this is Max Medici (Danny DeVito,  chewing scenery and having the time of his life) having to deal with  hard times for his traveling show, not helped by the fact that his prize  elephant, Mrs. Jumbo, has seemingly birthed an abomination of nature.  It isn’t until new baby Jumbo’s apparent power of flight comes to light  that he is able to gain the respect of the world around him and rise  above the negativity around him.

…and then it keeps going.

Undoubtedly, there isn’t a lot to go off of when remaking the  original film, mainly as a result of its short running time and  extremely basic narrative. Making this kind of film in the year 2019  requires expanding the core narrative, or at least finding a new angle  to approach the story in order to keep it fresh. So, for this film, they  effectively made Dumbo into E.T. While the titular character does have  his moments in the film, the primary focus is on Holt dealing with his  new disability, his dead wife, his daughter who’s more interested in  STEM than juggling (in a subplot that, while appreciated, feels as  crucial to the film as giving Belle an inventing streak in 2016’s Beauty and the Beast), and his son, who speaks only in exposition.

Actually, that’s practically what everybody speaks in during this film. Despite the original Dumbo being arguably one of Disney’s youngest-aiming films, this Dumbo  treats the audience like a hyperactive 5-year-old who needs everything  to be explained to them in the simplest of terms in order to actually  understand what’s going on. Characters can’t just feel sad, they need to  explain that they’re sad. The only people who actually sound like  people (even when delivering this kind of dialogue) are DeVito and  Michael Keaton, the latter of whom plays a faux-Disney analogue intent  on buying out the Medicis in pursuit of Dumbo. That, of course, is so he  can have his French trapeze artist girlfriend ride on the elephant at  his own massive, Bioshock-esque theme park, Dreamland. It’s absolutely  nuts.

The elephant’s going to Nightmare Island

Image from IMDb

What’s more insane are the actual visuals themselves. While I can  commend Burton for utilizing physical sets again, as opposed to the  digital backlots almost solely utilized for his Alice in Wonderland,  a lot of this movie feels like it was made in a computer and is just  uncanny enough to show. The film takes place in 1919 and, at times, it  feels like a proof of concept for technologies meant for movies like Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow  or its ilk. It’s evident from the drop that the most time and energy  was put into making Dumbo himself work, and I cannot help but commend  the filmmakers for their work here. At times, the elephant genuinely  feels like an actual presence in the scene, and it’s an effective  effect. The problem I have, however, is that Dumbo is done entirely in  CGI, and at times, the seams can be noticeable. The best way I can sum  this up, is that there are before and after photos of shots with Dumbo  and how he was achieved to assist the actors during filming, and to  imagine the actors having to work with what they were given is a  somewhat depressing visual.

Outside of that, there’s not much else to praise. The Danny Elfman  score feels out of place with what’s going on. The production design  leaves little room for awe or wonder, outside of Keaton’s Dreamland  roughly halfway through the flick. The cinematography does deserve some  level of kudos, though. What flying sequences are there feel majestic at  times, and rightly so.

At least the Crows are gone…

Image from IMDb

As I write this, it gets harder and harder to actively remember  specific details about this film that weren’t already in the original  film, and I feel that perfectly encapsulates the central issue behind  Dumbo. For all it does to actively fight against the widely-known  problems with the original, it fails to truly carve an identity for  itself outside of the brand name and the trappings of its director.

In a lot of ways, Dumbo (2019) is as much a portrait of the  era making it as the original was. It comes out at a time where Disney  is quickly becoming a Dreamland of its own, consuming its competitors  and firing the “fat,” while actively dressing up old properties with new  paint in the hopes that people will forget about the mistakes of the  past wholesale, so they’ll buy into Dumbo II: Top ‘Phant in IMAX 3D three odd years from now or something.

I want to believe that this company knows what it’s doing. I want to  believe that this company genuinely cares about the films it puts out  into the world and not just on “brand management” so people will buy  more. I genuinely do. Yet, when the flying elephant looks less  believable than its merchandise flying off the shelves, it really does  not help.

Images: IMDb

Featured Image: IMDb

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