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'Dumbo' fails to take off

by Trevor Sheffield 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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