The general populace gets oddly defensive whenever someone attempts to remake an animated movie that was primarily watched in childhood. Nobody bats an eye when a third A Star is Born shows up and competes for Oscars, but make a new Dumbo for the first time since 1941—yes, it’s that old—and everyone loses their mind. It gets called unnecessary and a cash-grab, and while both of those accusations are true, they’re true of almost all commercial filmmaking. It’s designed, first and foremost, to make money (cash-grab), and there is no such thing as a necessary movie. Sorry, that’s just the truth.
But we get defensive about remakes of things from our childhoods because of nostalgia. Of course Dumbo is unnecessary and designed to make money, but because we saw the animated movie as a kid, we have more of a fondness for it than if we first saw it as an adult. Go back and watch Dumbo now, folks. It just might not hold up as well as it does in your memory.
Of course, that leads us to the remake, directed by Tim Burton of all people, which takes the basic plot of a circus and a miniature elephant that can fly and turns it into nothing much more than exactly that. I guess what I’m saying is that the only way to make Dumbo good would be to take that basic idea and do more with it than simply retell a similar story. You’d need to infuse stronger characters and themes, transforming it into something that only vaguely resembles the original. What’s been done here is a relatively faithful retelling; it just doesn’t do anything to justify its existence or its running time that is almost double that of the original. Maybe those “unnecessary” complaints are more valid than I first thought…
Okay, so apart from that, what is there to this new iteration of Dumbo? Well, the action centers a solid amount on two children, Milly and Joe (Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins), who befriend the eponymous elephant and discover that it can fly. Their father, Holt (Colin Farrell), recently returned from WWI sans one of his arms and has been tasked by the ringmaster (Danny DeVito) with dealing with the elephants. There’s a theme park owner (Michael Keaton) who may or may not be evil, there’s some peril, I’m pretty sure one unimportant character even dies, and there’s a distinct (and welcome) lack of racist crows.
It lacks the charm of the animated movie. Maybe it’s because the elephant, rendered in solid CGI, isn’t as cute. Or maybe it’s the reliance on the human characters to tell the elephant’s story. The two children are monotone and have little to their characters, while the adults are more boisterous but only marginally more well-defined. It also feels less colorful and creative than its original, but that could just be a result of it being a remake.
The new Dumbo isn’t a terrible movie but given that we’ve had 80+ years to figure out a better way to tell this story, it should be considered a failure. What Disney was able to do in 64 minutes in 1941 has not been topped with 112 minutes in 2019 (and a budget of $170 million). It doesn’t do anything better, doesn’t have any moments that especially stand out, and uses bland human characters to tell its story. Sure, most of it is just mediocre—there isn’t much that’s bad; it’s just lackluster and uninspired—but we should hope for more.
Conclusion: Dumbo is bland and mediocre, which puts it just about a tier below the decent original.
Recommendation: While there is no reason for Dumbo to exist, that’s true of most commercial filmmaking. It’s a mediocre live-action adaptation of a decent animated movie.