The Disney nostalgia train rumbles on with Tim Burton back at the throttle — not quite throttling the iconic tale of the flying baby elephant, but only barely rising to the challenge, sort of like Casey Junior struggling to clear that daunting hill.
One of the surprises of revisiting Disney’s 1941 cartoon Dumbo is how the famous magic feather is barely a thing. Dumbo’s magic feather went on to become a substantial pop-culture metaphor, referenced in everyday speech and in titles to books and articles, blending the placebo effect, Linus’ security blanket, and believing in yourself. On The Orville a couple of years ago, Seth MacFarlane had the first officer tell the captain, “It’s not the feather, Dumbo; it’s you.” A Google search suggests that some people now “remember” Timothy Q. Mouse saying these words in the cartoon, though what he actually says is less inspirational: “The magic feather was just a gag. You can fly. Honest, you can!”
One of the things Burton’s Dumbo gets right is that the feather gets more attention, along with Dumbo’s flying. In the cartoon we don’t see Dumbo flying until the last few minutes, which would have made sense for an animated short, but when a feature film is about a flying elephant, the elephant should, you know, fly.
Alas, the list of things this new Dumbo gets right is not long. You can see that they’re trying, not entirely unsuccessfully. We’re worlds way from Burton’s dreadful Alice in Wonderland, which kicked off the current wave of Disney remakes. Back then, it looked like the future belonged to darkly subversive, revisionist fairy tales deconstructing their source material. Linda Woolverton, who wrote Alice, went on to subvert the Christian symbolism of Sleeping Beauty in Maleficent before turning in the mindlessly mercenary Alice Through the Looking Glass. (Elsewhere the director and star of Twilight contributed revisionist takes on, respectively, Red Riding Hood and Snow White.)
But then a funny thing happened: Kenneth Branagh’s lovely Cinderella showed that sincerity, nostalgia and even virtue could be a winning approach, too. Jon Favreau’s rollicking Jungle Book and David Lowery’s soulful Pete’s Dragon followed — a trio of remakes that both honored and transcended their Disney sources. Alas, it was too good to last. Bill Condon’s Beauty and the Beast continued the trend of sincere nostalgia — but at the expense of creative reimagining, with a tepid attempt to replicate the beloved 1991 cartoon as slavishly as possible. The coming remakes of The Lion King and Aladdin may well be more of the same.
At least Dumbo shows there’s still room for reinterpretation — if not for popular Disney Renaissance musicals, at least for older fare. Written by Ehren Kruger, Burton’s Dumbo has about as much in common with its predecessor as Favreau’s Jungle Book, which puts it in about the middle of the pack, less than Cinderella but more than Pete’s Dragon. Little Dumbo is still born to a circus elephant named Mrs. Jumbo and mocked for his enormous ears, separated from his protective mother when her efforts to protect him from a cruel world lead to trouble, and turned into a circus clown before his unexpected gift for flying — ostensibly relying on an all-important feather — makes him a celebrity. Then the film takes a different track as a larger world tries to exploit Dumbo’s gifts for its own gain.
That’s probably about the right balance of new and old, since the original Dumbo was a) barely an hour long and b) rather thin on story. (This is where I admit I’m no Dumbo fan; I have the dubious distinction of having contributed the sole “rotten” review to Dumbo’s Tomatometer rating, ruining its 100% “Fresh” status. But then I love Lowery’s Pete’s Dragon despite the badness of the original, so anything is possible.) All of which is to say there’s no particular reason Dumbo couldn’t have been good, given the right treatment and especially the right writer and director. Perhaps the screenwriter of Ghost in the Shell and Transformers: Dark of the Moon was not that writer, and Tim Burton — well, these days it’s hard to know what he’s right for.
The first mistake was to try to tell this story in a world without talking animals. Dumbo was always mute, but in the cartoon the adult elephant cows talked, and so did Timothy Mouse. (The mice in Branagh’s Cinderella can kind of talk, but the story isn’t about them, which is a good thing. Of course the animals in Favreau’s Jungle Book and upcoming Lion King talk.) Without the catty, cruel elephant cows and amicable Timothy Mouse defining Dumbo’s emotional world, the story naturally shifts focus to the human characters — in the process leaving Dumbo a supporting player in his own story. What’s more, the human characters seem like leftovers from other stories. At least the supporting cast is often kind of fun to watch. Danny DeVito goes enjoyably over the top as a third-rate ringmaster, Max Medici, the kind of role he could do in his sleep. Eva Green lights up every scene she’s in as a French trapeze artist, and Alan Arkin, playing a Wall Street investor, has that rare gift of making every line he utters funny seemingly just because he’s saying it.
Max’s circus consists mostly of low-grade oddities of the sort much beloved by Burton: a plump woman in a mermaid tail (Sharon Rooney); an Indian snake charmer (Roshan Seth); a strongman (DeObia Oparei). (The last is the only notable black character: no happy roustabouts, no real reference to the jive-talking crows. Eliminating the original’s racist overtones is an obvious move, but, as usual, Burton shows little interest in casting people of color.) When Dumbo’s enormous ears are revealed for the first time, Max is horrified. “I have fake freaks in the freak show,” he splutters. “I don’t need a real one in the center ring!” Does that line make any sense at all? All the humans laugh, but there’s no replacing the snobbish rejection of Dumbo by the elephant cows, or the injured Mrs. Jumbo’s protective love for her unique baby.
Then there’s Michael Keaton as an unprincipled, predatory entrepreneur named V.A. Vandevere, a variation on Roy Croc from The Founder, though he might also be a satiric riff on Uncle Walt himself. The way Vandevere woos Max in order to co-opt his flying elephant for his Disneyland-like theme park reminds me of Tom Hanks’ Disney trying to wheedle the rights to Mary Poppins from Emma Thompson’s P.A. Travers in Saving Mr. Banks, except Saving Mr. Banks had to pretend that Travers wasn’t right to distrust Disney.
Speaking of Mr. Banks, Colin Farrell plays another diminished Disney dad with a storied past in need of some saving. This time he’s Holt Farrier, a onetime circus rider returning from World War I in 1919 having lost an arm. In his absence, his wife, also a trick rider, died of the flu, leaving his two half-orphaned children in the care of Max’s circus. The elder, daughter Milly (Nico Parker), doesn’t care for the family show-business line. Instead, she says she’s interested in — wait for it — science, because of course she is, just like the heroines of The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, A Wrinkle in Time and Tomorrowland, and for that matter the male protagonist of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (and, on the animation side, Big Hero 6). At this point Disney’s pro-STEM signaling (and especially pro–girls in STEM) is becoming rote and boring, not to mention a crutch for a lack of characterization. It doesn’t help that Burton has Parker deliver her lines in a nearly robotic monotone, with as little affect as possible.
The computer-animated elephants are never as persuasively real as the animals in The Jungle Book, even Mrs. Jumbo, who generally looks pretty normal. Dumbo is exaggerated in more than just the enormous ears: His baby blue eyes are also larger than life, and he’s somehow cuddlier than a real baby elephant. Try as they might, though, the animators can’t make this relatively realistic pachyderm as emotionally expressive as the hand-drawn protagonist of the 1941 cartoon. It’s the same problem that Beauty and the Beast had with its realistically rendered anthropomorphic household accoutrements — Lumière, Cogsworth, Mrs. Potts and so forth. Bagheera and Baloo in The Jungle Book were also less expressively rendered than their hand-drawn counterparts, but at least they could talk.
The realism is also a problem because even though it’s set in 1919, this 2019 Dumbo knows elephants don’t thrive in captivity, especially not as performing animals in a two-bit traveling circus. The original Dumbo is almost unremittingly tragic, but it’s set in a cartoon world where anthropomorphic elephants are perfectly happy to travel by train and perform in the center ring. Back then, the happy ending was Dumbo getting his own celebrity car on the train and, of course, being reunited with his mother. Since that won’t do in 2019, we get a more satisfactory ending — but it still makes the whole premise darker and more oppressive, especially with anthropomorphic elephants who are more like slaves than performing animals.
In spite of this and other problems, Dumbo is generally pretty tolerable, with imaginative production design and game supporting players keeping things watchable. Still, at no time did Dumbo feel to me like a movie with its own inspiration, with a reason for existing.
Perhaps the least effective moment for me was the attempt to evoke the groundbreaking “Pink Elephants on Parade” sequence, the one scene in the original that’s as brilliant as anything in Disney’s other early masterpieces. Burton knows he’s got to have some kind of “Pink Elephants” bit, but he can’t let baby Dumbo get drunk, and he can’t think what else to do to replicate the surreal quality of the original. He settles for something pretty but unremarkable, a pale reminder of an unforgettable achievement. If that’s the best one can do, why bother?
Somebody has to say it: Made at the height of Disney’s early brilliance alongside Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Fantasia, Pinocchio, and Bambi, Dumbo is the odd weak link in the chain.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.