I have to say, I’m not really on board with Disney doing all of these live action remakes. So few of them have improved on the originals that I struggle to see the value. I liked Cinderella a lot and I think a new Mulan could be really good but they need to be more selective. Maleficent went way off book, The Jungle Book had none of the charm of its predecessor and even Beauty & the Beast failed to add much to what we already had. I recognise that these new versions of their animated classics are making the studio a lot of money and much of that is because they are recognised properties but here as with everywhere (apart from the MCU) I’d much rather they invested in original ideas.
Also, and this is a bigger issue, it feels like they are devaluing the art form that made them what they are. It’s as though they are systematically replacing and fixing all of their classic cartoons because they’re not good enough anymore. Of course Disney are still producing animated films and actually it is here that the company continues to excel so it really makes no sense at all. The studio appears to have two conflicting strategic plans and the wrong one seems to be gaining favour. I know they have Frozen 2 coming out in December but it is three years since their fantastic double whammy of Zootopia and Moana in 2016 yet I saw two more of these redos trailered before this one. (Don’t even get me started on The Lion King and Aladdin; one is an animated remake of an animated film only using shiny new techniques reinforcing the point I am making here and the other looks like one of those cheap mockbusters, such as Transmorphers or The Lord of the Elves, that try to weakly cash in on bigger, better movies.)
So why, might you ask, do I keep giving these films my cash? It is because I always hope that the next might be the good one and because I really can’t be taught. (I keep watching the current crop of DC superhero movies for the same reason.) Dumbo had potential too. For a start I’m not a particular fan of the original film (apologies to my mother-in-law who always baulks and tuts when I say this). To my mind it’s overly sentimental and twee (I know Mrs B, I’m sorry). The bigger factor here though was Tim Burton. The man is an exceptional Hollywood visionary and this story of a freakish loner in a fantastical circus world should have suited his sensibilities perfectly. (When she heard that Burton was doing this film my eldest daughter instantly nicknamed it ‘Skelephant’ which was just genius and a better idea than any that ended up on screen.) Also, let’s not forget that while it was not perfect, Burton’s reimagining of Alice in Wonderland was another of the better examples of Disney mining it’s past. Unfortunately none of the brilliant design and smart characterisation seen in that film is evident here.
It isn’t that Dumbo is a terrible film; I’m sure a younger audience will respond to the baby elephant and the plucky kids but there is little surprise or excitement here and the setting and acting all feel a little flat. Crucially what it is missing most though is any sense of magic and in live action more than animation, you really need that to believe an elephant can fly.
I can’t help but think that the idea to do this film must have come before any ideas of how to do this film. All the best movies have a story that deserves to be told but this one doesn’t, despite the fact that much the same story has been told before. 2019’s Dumbo is forty five minutes longer than 1941’s Dumbo and the narrative is padded with war heroes, bereavement, capitalism, tokenistic feminism, fire, false limbs, mermaids and robots but none of it lands. Similarly many of the familiar elements feel shoehorned in, especially the pink elephants sequence which doesn’t make any sense at all. As for the new Dumbo himself, he just looked like someone had over inflated E.T.
Sorry Disney but it is time to go back to the drawing board.