I had low expectations going into Dumbo for a variety of reasons. While I haven’t seen any of the “live-action” (read: CG+) remakes of Disney’s remarkable older films before this one, popular consensus has been that they have been all over the place in terms of quality and worthiness to exist. Lindsay Ellis made an excellent video essay last year about the Beauty and the Beast remake, which I can’t recommend enough. In it, she details the ways in which, on paper, it is a shot-for-shot remake (so why should it exist at all?) and in practice, it misses the point or over-explains things that don’t need to be, and makes for a great exercise in cinematic uselessness.
To my mind, an unnecessary shot-for-shot remake is about the best these things can aspire to be. In so doing, one loses the expressive quality and reason for being of the classic. And while I’m not staking any of my review on all this—that these movies shouldn’t even exist—I do feel it’s worth pointing out, as I said at the start, that Dumbo 2019 is a perfect example of why they shouldn’t.
The new Dumbo is awful. And while I know it is awful compared with the original, that is also not the angle from which I’ll be writing, because I haven’t seen the original since something like 1993. I really don’t remember the bulk of it. My memory of the thing is so hazy, in fact, that I’ve been bitching since I left the theater that the film didn’t have Jiminy Cricket, a character that was actually in the film Pinocchio. So I hope you’ll take me at my word then, when I tell you that on its own merits, Dumbo 2019 is bad.
For a start, Dumbo is not the star character. He and his mother are basically props. Humans are our main characters, and they are largely neither interesting, nor well-acted. There are two child actors who remind one of those videos you see online featuring uncanny valley automatons, which accompany articles about the ethics of rights for robots. The little girl of this pair also has some weird obsession with science that is in no way fleshed out, and which feels like a lazy pander toward modern attitudes about driving women into STEM fields.
The children’s father is played, well enough, by Colin Farrell. He is a one-armed veteran of war and single father who works in a circus run by Danny DeVito. DeVito’s was the only performance I was looking forward to, and he is uncharacteristically bad here, delivering his lines in a stilted, juttery way that makes one wonder, often, why they didn’t try to get another take out of him.
The confusing quality of performances mount into a larger question as Michael Keaton appears wasted and Eva Green, like Farrell, does a better job with the bad material she is given: is Tim Burton just not a talent director? I mean, he always works with Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, both of whom don’t seem like they need much direction in the first place. But then, I think back to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, a movie I actually kind of like, and the child actors in that film—as well as everyone else, come to think of it—did great jobs.
So what is it about this movie? I haven’t got an answer, I just know that almost everyone in this picture does a poor job, particularly the hammy extras with speaking lines, like the audience members who taunt Dumbo when he debuts in the circus. By the end I was just chuckling at how bad many of these performances were, with the two children taking the gold medal for shit acting. And yet, again, I wonder how much of this was their fault. If everyone in the movie except the finest actors available do a bad job, then isn’t it probable the director fucked up more than they did?
The film is also drab, both visually and tonally. The colors are all washed-out, and I think that is to give the impression of a faded photo or piece of commercial art from the early 20th century, only, why should that be, when the characters on-screen are living in reality and not in faded, flaking paint on the side of an antique circus carriage? This film had every opportunity to be colorful, and it might have helped the lack of cheer.
But this movie is utterly joyless. Burton captures, quite on purpose, much of the horrific imagery of the circus, but he never seems to capture the mirth or excitement of it. What we see are a lot of unhappy people in an unattractive occupation, entertaining an audience of disgusting hogs. We see meaner, and then still meaner villains emerge to make it all worse. We see unhappy and abused CG elephants being used by people from start to finish, and all along, I am wondering what my nephew and nieces can possibly be getting from this experience.
They seemed to enjoy it when Dumbo flew. One of my nieces clapped her little hands off each time it happened. In those moments, however, I could only reflect on how Danny Elfman’s (pretty good) score was trying its goddamnedest to inject some passion into scenes where there otherwise was none, and despite his best efforts, an enthusiastic score alone cannot save a dispassionate film from being boring.
There is just nothing to like about this version of Dumbo. The CG is awful, and the camerawork heavily focuses on it in too many close-ups throughout, possibly because to have many wider shots would make the work of producing this entirely-CG backdrop much heavier. The performances are somehow worse than the phony world they inhabit, and the title character is little more than set dressing for a bunch of unhappy humans to march about, frowning at each other for two fucking hours.
By contrast, may we now look back on an early scene from the original Dumbo, after his mother, who had waited so long for the stork to bring her a baby, is separated from the newborn. There is more emotion and expressiveness in this three-minute clip than in the whole of Dumbo 2019, and for that reason, it is the finest example of why these goddamn “live-action” Disney remakes do not need to exist.
Dumbo is Bad