Run Time: 1 hour 52 minutes
Cast: Colin Farrell, Danny DeVito, Michael Keaton, Eva Green
Writer: Ehren Kruger (From the novel by Helen Aberson and Harold Pearl)
Director: Tim Burton
The biggest problem with Disney’s live-action remake of its animated classic Dumbois as plain as the trunk on your face: It’s just no fun.
It’s hard to imagine how anyone could suck all the whimsy out of a story that involves an adorable baby elephant who, urged on by his little mouse friend, discovers he can fly by flapping his enormous ears. But Tim Burton, the man who made Batman a brooder and Willy Wonka a weirdo, has managed the trick.
First of all, this Dumbo’s world is dark. Gotham City dark. Even the opening scenes, set at the circus’ winter home in Florida, seem to be lit with a 15-watt bulb. Then there are the morose brother and sister, who in this version sub for the original’s perky mouse as Dumbo’s friends. Their mother has just died in the 1918 flu epidemic, and their father (Colin Farrell), who apparently has not smiled since the Titanic sank, has just returned from World War I minus one arm. Baby Dumbo is revealed cowering under a bale of hay only after a cruel animal handler prods his mother from her shabby rail car using a harpoon-like prodder, and within minutes she is torn from him for good, jailed as a “Mad Elephant.” Before long she is sold to a sadistic animal trainer as big tears fall from Dumbo’s enormous blue eyes.
Are we having fun yet?
Of course, things start looking up for Dumbo after he discovers his avionic abilities, but even the spectacularly realized flying sequences come only after the poor elephant faces one peril after another.
For a villain, Dumbo can do no better than resort to the most exhausted trope in all of moviedom: The Greedy Businessman. In the person of Michael Keaton, this time the bad guy is an early 20thCentury entertainment mogul who runs a dystopian amusement park called Dreamland. He gets wind of Dumbo’s high-flying talent and promises the moon to the opportunistic circus owner (Danny DeVito, whose character goes not one step beyond the guy he played 40 years ago on Taxi).
Thus the action shifts to Dreamland, which is a cross between the Chicago World’s Fair’s White City and Pinocchio’s Pleasure Island. The businessman’s big idea is to have his previously biggest attraction, a comely acrobat known as The Queen of the Sky (Eva Green), perch on Dumbo’s back while he flies around the interior of an enormous circus tent.
One look at Keaton’s trademark evil smirk and we know what’s afoot: He plans to take Dumbo away from his circus friends and create a “brand” around him. And just in case there’s any doubt about his irredeemable awfulness, Dumbo’s mother is brought back into the story just so he can rip her away from him again — and this time order her murder.
All of which is to say it’s a long, long road to Dumbo’s happy ending — an ending, by the way, engineered to appease the tut-tutters who object to circuses and trained elephants.
Of all the weirdness going on in Dumbo, perhaps nothing is more weird than the nagging feeling that Burton is drawing his veil of darkness not only over a beloved old cartoon, but over his employer, as well. After all, what is Dreamland but a pre-incarnation of Disneyland, and what is Keaton’s character if not the embodiment of the Disney company itself, absorbing every entertainment entity in sight (Lucasfilm, Marvel, 20thCentury Fox, Pixar), shedding the assets it’s not interested in and claiming the hot properties as its own?
Only occasionally does Dumbo transcend its heavy-lidded attitude, and those moments come largely when the film evokes memories of the original. The scene of Dumbo visiting his mother in her Mad Elephant Cage — which rivals only the death of Bambi’s mother in the Disney Gallery of Uncontrollable Sobs — is gently and tastefully recreated, complete with a lovely rendition of the 1941 Oscar-nominated song “Baby Mine.” And the animated film’s psychedelic centerpiece, “Pink Elephants on Parade,” gets a visual and musical rendition that is wondrously rendered.
But I miss Dumbo’s mouse friend Jeremy. And I want to see Mr. Stork delivering those baby animals. I especially miss the original’s much-maligned group of singing crows, who speak and sing with an African American dialect but are voiced by a largely white cast (one of them was named, astonishingly, Jim Crow). This remake was Disney’s one and only chance to redeem that scene by voicing it with an all-Black cast, but as you’d expect the studio took the coward’s way out by eliminating them completely.
It’s understandable, of course. Those guys were fun. And for this Dumbo, fun has nothing to do with it.