Film review: Dumbo – Just watch the original

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About the only enduring thing about this film is a question, or several: Why? Why have they remade it? Why have they got Tim Burton to do it? And can I have my money back? 

Dumbo opens on a run-down Medici Brothers circus, and circus performer Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) returning home from The Great War one-arm shorter and his wife has passed away, so he is left to take care of his two young children. Max Medici (Danny DeVito) has sold Holt’s stallions and invested in a pregnant elephant. Mrs. Jumbo gives birth to a baby elephant with giant ears and Medici is convinced he’s been sold a dud. Little does he know that Dumbo is his ticket to success.

Colin Farrell, Nico Parker, and Finley Hobbins in Dumbo (2019). Photo: Walt Disney Pictures

The film is very dark and sombre. Except, it’s not really. The enduring scene from the 1941 version is the truly heart-breaking scene where Dumbo’s mother is whipped and shackled for protecting him. Here that scene is spectacularly mishandled, evoking little to no emotion, rushing their separation and moving quickly along to Dumbo’s new life as a flying sensation. The original Dumbo went to very dark places and trusted that children could and should watch challenging films. This version has been mercilessly stripped of any of that depth or emotion.

The overriding feeling is that Disney has brought in Tim Burton and then told him to, well, not be Tim Burton. His films are at their best when they are weird and subversive, darkly funny, and full of wonder. Dumbo is none of those things. Even the visuals, a Burton calling-card, are overwhelmed by a distracting and frankly unnecessary amount of CGI. 

Danny DeVito in Dumbo (2019). Photo: Walt Disney Pictures

The elements for a great Tim Burton movie are all at hand. Danny DeVito, Michael Keaton and a flying elephant, for crying out loud! What emerges is a total mess, neither particularly dark nor uplifting, operating an unpleasant middle ground which only leaves you wishing you were watching the original. This is best exhibited by a strangely subdued performance from Danny DeVito, whose only direction seems to be “don’t be too weird or interesting”. Not exactly an inspirational ringleader. 

Colin Farrell phones it in, although the script does him no favours. He’s just come home from war, lost his wife to Spanish flu, his horses have been sold and he’s forced to take care of elephants and his two young kids. And the only emotional scene he is given is a 5-second cut to him crying over a picture of his wife. Subtle. 

Danny DeVito and Michael Keaton in Dumbo (2019). Photo: Walt Disney Pictures

Michael Keaton is the baddie, although in actuality he’s just the personification of the real baddie – the circus and humans. Neither he nor the delivery of the message is compelling, and the final scene is just a sledgehammer to the head to make sure you got it. Circus – bad. Freedom – good. 

This is the first of a trio of Disney live-action remakes coming out this year. If this was meant to be a marquee introduction, it has failed spectacularly, making me genuinely fearful of the two more to come. However, Disney has achieved one thing with Dumbo. It has set the bar so low that The Lion King and Aladdin can hardly fail to be better. 

Dumbo (2019) rating: 3/10