'Dumbo' 2019 Review: Why Be Cheery When You Can Be Dreary?

Posted: Mar 29, 2019 2:00 PM

I really don't get the popularity around the Disney live-action remakes. However, I'm always looking for something to change my opinion, so next in line is "Dumbo," a live-action remake of the 1941 Disney entry of the same name.

A struggling circus comes into possession of a baby elephant that can miraculously fly using its giant ears. Soon after his premiere, Dumbo is sought out by an entertainment tycoon (Michael Keaton) seeking to get rich off of him. The circus is bought out by the businessman who promises all the members riches and fame, but they ultimately learn a lesson about being true to themselves and not selling out. In a meta way, it's actually kind of funny the way they go about it. The mega circus owned by the villain is an obvious parody of Disney World of all things, with shiny rides, merchandise for the kids and even, I kid you not, an area that's exactly like the retro version of Tomorrowland.

There's also the problem that this plot completely takes away from Dumbo's story. For a title character, the pitiable pachyderm barely has anything to do with the story. Now, it's true that in the original Dumbo was more of an observer of the world around him than a participant, but it was still undeniably his movie. He had to learn to use his ears, deal with the world around him, etc. Here, the movie seems way more interested in the problems of the humans than giving Dumbo an arc of his own, which I really don't get. In the original, it didn't really matter what was happening to the circus, because the movie wasn't about that. When the whole circus came down we didn't suddenly focus on how that affected the financial state of the big top. That would've been confusing and unfocused.

Before I go any further, let's establish something about reviewing a remake: it's not wrong to compare it to the original it's based on. The only reason for this new one to exist is because people remember the first one and how good it was. Thus, if you're going to remake it, then be prepared for comparisons to the original in both the good and bad sense.

The one thing that has consistently compromised the quality of all of these Disney live-action remakes is their decision to adhere to "realism," which basically means they took the charm of the original and took it away. The mice from "Cinderella" were stripped of their personalities and ability to speak. The animal designs in "Jungle Book" were so adherent to reality that there wasn't a lot of opportunity for expression. The furniture and appliances of "Beauty and the Beast" were terrifying because of their insistence that they needed to look realistic rather than charming. While "Dumbo" fixes the problem of expression (Dumbo himself is adorable and his design does allow for some character to shine through), everything else is toned down to be less interesting. The animals don't talk so there's no bumbling stork in the beginning, no Timothy Q. Mouse and no singing crows (but you already knew that. Lord knows Disney's so into revisionism of late they'd never allow that in).

Not only is a lot of the fun taken out, but it's replaced with a really dreary tone. The film begins with the circus' star (Colin Farrell) coming back from war with an arm missing. That doesn't scream light-hearted kids movie.

I think I can summarize what exactly went wrong with the tone of the film by describing how they handled the pink elephants. In the original, it's a trippy, constantly imaginative sequence of visuals. However, because everything in these remakes has to be toned down for "realism," they do the sequence with... bubbles. Just big bubbles. The animation team does what they can with them and they do get some good visuals, but the point is that if the filmmakers hadn't been so concerned about whether or not flying pink elephants were plausible, they could've done a lot more. Even the visuals they do manage to pull out are made silly by the constraint of realism placed on the rest of the film. The dower tone makes an elephant bubble blowing littler elephant bubbles out of his trunk seem silly rather than magical.

The acting is the one thing that's consistently good across the board. Colin Farrell pulls off a pretty good southern drawl. Danny DeVito pretty much just plays himself, which ain't bad. Michael Keaton is a lot of fun as basically Walt Disney, but dressed like Colonel Sanders. However, almost the entire cast is brought down by the child performances. Think of every wooden, emotionless, "I'm just reading this off the script" kid performance you've seen. It's basically like that. Add to that that the personality of the girl is just "wants to be a scientist" in a really retroactive Steve Urkel kind of way and it crosses the line of completely unbearable.

The highest compliment I can give is that the visuals have improved over "Beauty and the Beast," Disney's last live-action foray. Whereas the sets in that one looked like cheap leftovers from a high school production of "Fiddler on the Roof," the ones in "Dumbo" actually look convincing. Dumbo himself, again, is adorable. It mostly has to do with the eyes; rather than the realistic small, black eyes they give him bigger, more expressive eyes, allowing for a lot more personality to come through.

The other aspect I will say was executed well were the emotional moments between Dumbo and his mother. However, the problem is that they don't feel earned. In the original, Dumbo reuniting with his mother came after a long period where they were parted for almost the entire film. It was a moment when you just went "Finally!" In this version, it comes just a few minutes after they were separated, so it doesn't feel as much of a relief.

In every sense, "Dumbo" feels like one of the movies Disney would've made back in the 60s that we'd look back on now and go "Aw, isn't that quaint?" It's a cliché story with clearly drawn hero/villain lines, inconsistent acting and surprisingly little imagination. The attempt to make a more adult version of a story about a flying elephant has resulted in a more childish, simplistic film hiding behind muted colors. I guess if you have kids this is a fair option and they'll have a good time, but they'd have more fun just staying home and watching the original.