Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (June 13, 2019)
In the studio’s relentless quest to remake each and every one of their animated classics, 1941’s Dumbo gets an update via this 2019 Tim Burton-directed live-action affair. Set in 1919, widower Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) returns from World War I minus an arm.
This complicates his career as a circus horse rider. An even bigger problem emerges because ringmaster Max Medici (Danny DeVito) sold the equines to keep the struggling operation afloat.
To spur ticket sales, Max buys “Mrs. Jumbo”, a pregnant elephant. He hopes that the baby pachyderm will entice customers, but when Max sees that newborn “Jumbo Jr.” sports enormous ears, he despairs, though he soon pivots and attempts to use the child as a comedy act. This doesn’t go well and results in the cruel nickname “Dumbo” for the little guy.
Holt’s kids Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins) bond with Dumbo and before long, they discover that his massive ears allow him to fly. This turns Dumbo into the circus’s star attraction, though various complications occur as he earns fame.
At a mere 64 minutes, the 1941 Dumbo remains the shortest feature film Disney animation ever put on screens, and at its heart, it offers a slight tale. Really, it barely attempts a plot, as it mostly concentrates on character elements and Dumbo’s ability to overcome prejudice.
Circa 2019, another 64-minute movie wouldn’t fly, but at 112 minutes, the new Dumbo feels much too long, and it takes a slew of liberties with the original. Though other Disney remakes like 2016’s Jungle Book and 2017’s Beauty and the Beast redid their predecessors in a fairly literal manner, the 2019 Dumbo uses the source more as inspiration than anything else.
In theory, I like this choice. The 1941 Dumbo remains lovely and charming, and a mostly slavish remake wouldn’t improve on that model, so it makes sense to take the characters and story down different paths.
However, the 2019 film gets too far away from what made the original so delightful: Dumbo himself. Despite his name in the title, our floppy-eared pachyderm pal feels like the 10th leading character at best, as he gets surprisingly little to do in his own movie.
Instead, this version is about the returning veteran. And his kids. And the circus owner. And the villain. And the aerial hottie. And pretty much everyone else you can find.
Who wants a Dumbo that spends 90% of its time with superfluous humans? This is a progression of plot points in search of interesting characters and charm, and it never finds them.
As I mentioned, I do appreciate the filmmakers’ willingness to add their own spin to the property, but I think they tried too hard to differentiate the two movies. The 2019 edition loses touch with the simplicity and sweetness at the core of the 1941 flick, and it becomes plodding and dull along the way.
Dumbo wastes a lot of talent along the way. In addition to the once-great Burton, Farrell and DeVito, the movie includes folks like Michael Keaton, Eva Green and Alan Arkin.
For a fan of 1992’s Batman Returns, it’s fun to see Keaton and DeVito teamed with Burton once again, but none of them bring their “A” games. Even the scenes that directly pit Keaton and DeVito lack sparks, and none of the other castmembers manage to provide lively performances.
The movie’s relative absence of the title character himself remains the biggest drawback, though, and some less than convincing computer animation doesn’t help. Dumbo himself looks adorable but not believable, mainly because the CG artists still can’t pull off eyes that feel real.
While other aspects of Dumbo’s animation work fine, the absence of life in the eyes makes the character seem artificial. As a result, the lead never earns the affection he deserves, as he just feels fake too much of the time.
Dumbo works best in its first act, as our introduction to the circus and its oddballs offers some entertainment. Our first glimpses of Dumbo himself seem decent as well, so we get about 40 minutes of reasonable execution.
The longer the film runs, though, the less satisfying it becomes, mainly because Dumbo stretches itself too thin. Rather than a tale about a misfit who finds strength and grows, the movie becomes about animal welfare and corporate greed and the family unit and probably five or six other themes I forgot.
By the time the credits finally roll, I let out a sigh of relief. Not every story needs to push the two-hour mark, and Dumbo makes more sense at 90 minutes, tops.
Dumbo also makes more sense as a cute story of an under-elephant, not as a bloated tale of human foibles. This live-action remake becomes a dull, sluggish disappointment.