It makes sense for Tim Burton to be tapped to direct a live-action adaptation of Disney’s beloved animated classic about the bullied baby elephant with gigantic ears whose “disability” turns out to be what makes him extraordinary. Throughout his career, Burton has been drawn to telling the stories of melancholic outcasts and social rejects who build a world. Add to this the film’s setting, an early 20th Century small traveling circus full of all of the whimsical tropes that come packaged with such things—snake charmers, wild animal trainers, clowns, strong men, etc.—and the project has Burton’s name written all over it.
However, Burton begins on the wrong foot here by treating the material as the kind of grand spectacle that worked well for recent Disney live-action remakes like Beauty and the Beast and The Jungle Book. Those movies had issues, but matching the grandiosity of their adventure and thrills-filled originals wasn’t one of them. The 1941 Dumbo is a more low-key and intimate story. Its production tale, and its personal connection to Disney almost mirrored the arc of its protagonist. Just like the character Dumbo, the movie Dumbo was a property in which many at Disney didn’t have much faith. It was a lower budget fare, barely a feature at sixty minutes, with an almost aggressively streamlined and episodic story structure that adopted a cartoonish tone that slid between bizarre and downright psychedelic. But it was a hit because it had heart, and showed an extraordinary amount of compassion for its protagonist.
The 2019 Dumbo unwisely pushes its titular hero into the background in favor of human characters who lack depth, and an action-heavy script that runs out of steam barely after the first act is over. Colin Farrell plays Holt, who comes back to work at the small-time circus of frumpy but warmhearted Max Medici (Danny DeVito). Not only did Holt lose his arm in the war, but he finds out that Max has sold the horses he used to train for his act, forcing him to work with elephants. One of the elephants, Jumbo, gives birth to Dumbo, whose giant ears become a source of ridicule amongst the staff and the circus’ audience. However, Holt’s adorable children Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins) see something special in the baby elephant, and through their private training sessions, find out that he can actually fly using his ears as wings.
To this point, Ehren Kruger’s script sticks pretty close to the story beats of the original, but the human characters are cardboard cutout Disney placeholders. For example, since Holt’s been away for so long, he needs to figure out a way to reconnect with his children, and that constitutes his entire arc. We’ve seen this in countless Disney films before, and Kruger and Burton don’t really add anything new here. The character missing an arm is obviously added as a way for him to connect with Dumbo’s disability, but that’s all it’s used as: plot convenience for easy motivation. Because of the heavy emphasis on these new characters, reimaginings of beloved moments from the original fall flat. The most famous of them is of course the “Baby Mine” sequence, where Dumbo snuggles with his mother after she’s locked up for protecting her baby from bullies. The scene in the animated version is the source for many ugly crying sessions over the last eight decades. In Burton’s vision, it merely comes and goes without much impact.
Kruger further shoots himself in the foot by completing the entire story arc of the original Dumbo within the first act of the remake. This leaves an hour of runtime to go, so enter V. A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton) and one of his star performers, Colette Marchant (Eva Green). Vandevere owns a giant theme park in New York and wants to incorporate Dumbo into his grand show. Vandevere is smarmy, sly, rich, and doesn’t like kids or animals. In typical Disney terms, this equals “bad guy.” On paper, nothing above that cliché is added to the antagonist, but at least Keaton has some campy fun with the role to keep us slightly interested.
Since the overall emotional arc of the story and its protagonist is pretty much over, we’re treated to the same scene of Dumbo flying around the circus, but this time it’s bigger and shinier, an apt and hopefully unintentional self-criticism the movie throws at itself. Since the only plot thread remaining from the original animated film is the whereabouts of Dumbo’s mother, the third act awkwardly switches into an action-packed rescue mission to reunite Dumbo with Jumbo. The premise of a bunch of 1919 circus freaks whimsically conspiring to save an elephant from captivity should be an easy layup for Burton, but he just goes through the motions here with a paint-by-numbers Disney climax.
Director: Tim Burton
Writer: Ehren Kruger
Starring: Colin Farrell, Danny DeVito, Michael Keaton, Eva GreenAlan Arkin, Nico Parker, Finley Hobbins
Release Date: March 29, 2019
Oktay Ege Kozak is a screenwriter, script coach and film critic. He lives near Portland, Ore., with his wife, daughter, and two King Charles Spaniels.