If there is a topic that seems to dominate among film geeks this year, it is Walt Disney’s growing program of live-action adaptations based on their animated back catalogue. It was only back in late May that I wrote: ‘It is a program of films powered by crass commercialism and audience nostalgia, and most of the results to date have resulted in tidy profits but low cultural footprints.’ That was in a review of Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin. In less than a week Jon Favreau’s computer-generated The Lion King hits cinemas, and both have been preceded by Tim Burton’s CG-heavy re-imagining of Dumbo. By year’s end audiences will also have seen a sequel to Sleeping Beauty remake Maleficent, and the Disney+ streaming service will have launched with a live-action Lady and the Tramp.
I missed Dumbo in theatres, but have caught up with it now on home video. In all honesty, it turns out that there was no need for me to rush. Or, indeed, bother. Tim Burton’s Dumbo is a deeply misguided and unfortunate work. It acts as an instruction manual on how to ruin a film. It is – and this is a phrase I find myself linking far too often to Burton’s films – actively awful cinema.
The film spins such a complex web of misfortune that it is difficult to work out where one should begin. The film is positively soaked in computer-generated graphics: not just the titular elephant but backgrounds, sets, and colours. The entire production feels smoothed over and superficial. This is a familiar issue with Tim Burton’s films. During the first decade of his directing career his film’s extensively used models and stop-motion animation to bring his fantasy stories to life. There was a delightful hand-built quality to films like Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands, all now lost and replaced by comparatively soulless digital imagery. There is no sense of charm to Dumbo, and it is a story for which charm is an absolute requirement.
Accompanying the charmless imagery are mostly charmless performances. The name actors have, for the most part, done much better performances elsewhere, including Eva Green, Michael Keaton, and Alan Arkin. Colin Farrell does his best as the film’s rather listless protagonist, World War I veteran Holt. He returns home to the circus minus an arm and grieving for a dead wife. It is a fairly predictable character hook, but as soon as it is introducted it is mostly ignored. Somewhere in California there are also likely to be a few resentful amputee actors who finally had a chance to play a major screen role but who got ignored in favour of Farrell and some digital removal techniques. It would be nice to see Hollywood’s studios take a progressive stand on these issues. 2019 also marks the 17th anniversary of Hollywood pushing Farrell as a leading man. I think he is a very talented actor, and regularly under-utilised by casting him in comparatively bland lead roles, but for whatever reason the studios will not stop trying. With Dumbo under-performing in theatres, and following middling reactions to Phone Booth, The Recruit, SWAT, Daredevil, Alexander, The New World, Miami Vice, Fright Night, Total Recall, and The Winter’s Tale, I suppose Farrell may be down to his last three or four chances to prove himself a box office draw rather than a strong supporting player.
It feels churlish to criticise juvenile players, but neither of Holt’s children feel convincing despite the overwhelming feeling that the film should be focused on them. Finley Hoppins (Joe) feels well-intentioned but bland. Nico Parker (Millie) comes across as if she is reading from cue cards, and largely performs in a monotone.
The sole stand-out in the cast is Danny Devito, who plays the role of ringmaster Max Medici with humour, energy, and grace. His performance pitches into the box when nothing else in the film seems to land. As a result Devito’s contribution is sadly wasted: it was never going to be able to save the film, but to his credit he does salvage it a little.
The screenplay, by Ehren Kruger (writer of three of the Transfomers movies), has a bizarre attitude to the original film. The plot of the 1941 original – at 64 minutes the second-shortest of Walt Disney’s animated features – is raced through in the mosy truncated fashion, eliminating many key story beats in the race to reach new material. Dumbo’s first moments of flight take place within minutes of the film starting. The second and third acts see him taken to a large, elaborate theme park run by entrepreneur V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton).
Burton does not include 1941 plot elements or songs. Rather he insinuates them – a mumbled song here, a visual reference there – and in doing so constantly reminds the audience of a better version of the story already on the market. The entire extended plot is weirdly terrible. It is regularly rather boring to sit through, and wastes a number of decent actors in dull roles. Vandevere seems a remarkably inexplicable villain: as an entertainment giant with a theme park buying up new intellectual property to boost his business, he feels oddly like Burton and Kruger are biting the hand that feeds them.
The crows are gone, of course. They have been lost to concerns about racism, of course, without being given a chance to be redeveloped or improved. In the original film it’s striking that the only characters supporting Dumbo against bigotry and ridicule over his appearance are styled after trditional African-American caricatures. Something could have been made from this, or from portraying Vandevere as 21st-century Disney, or in tying together young Millie’s loss of a mother with Dumbo’s, or Holt’s disability with Dumbo’s. On and on it goes. Dozens of opportunities, but no risks taken. Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin gave us strong racial representation and improved agency for its female lead. Bill Condon’s Beauty and the Beast gave us a more powerful Belle and a positive representation of homosexuality. Dumbo gives us nothing. It is charmless, overly long, ugly to look at, and terribly boring. The only surprise here is how many opportunities were dropped. It is a crushing disappointment.