Dumbo (2019) movie review: you will not believe an elephant can fly

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Dumbo 2019 red light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

The most soulless of the live-action Disney remakes yet, weighted down by too many blah characters, too much convoluted plot, unconvincing CGI, and a message that doesn’t say what it thinks it does.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): love Colin Farrell, Eva Green, Michael Keaton
I’m “biast” (con): mostly not a fan of the Disney live-action remakes
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
women’s participation in this film
male director, male screenwriter, female coprotagonist
(learn more about this)

If you hadn’t already noticed that Disney has — for some *cough* mercenary *cough* reason — embarked on a project to produce live-action remakes of all its classic animated films, 2019 is the year you will no longer be able to avoid this depressing reality. After 2015’s Cinderella, 2016’s The Jungle Book and 2017’s Beauty and the Beast, this year will bring, in rapid succession over the next few months, new versions of Dumbo, Aladdin, and The Lion King. Might as well lie back and enjoy this forced march of nostalgia, because it will be tough to avoid, the way saturation marketing works these days.

First up is Dumbo, the most soulless of the remakes so far, and the one that bears the least resemblance to its progenitor movie. In the way of his other recent fantasy projects — Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, Dark Shadows, Alice in Wonderland — director Tim Burton continues his campaign to convince us that he has become a parody of himself. (His Big Eyes is great. Maybe he needs to stick to quirk-tinged true stories these days.) Burton, again more devoted to baroque visual curlicues here than to emotional authenticity, manages to sap the formerly charming little weirdo bullied baby elephant of his sweetness and, ironically, the truth of his story. (Ahem! If Burton had turned this into Big Ears, it might have been great.) In the same way that fiction can often have more to say than reality, stylized animation can often have a bigger impact than “live action.” Sometimes sincerity and plausibility are better conveyed via simple sketches full of passion than via ostensibly photorealistic CG rendering drained of all character.

Dumbo 2019 Danny DeVito

I mean! Add 80 years of social-justice-warriorhood on from the original 1941 Dumbo and combine it with a vaguely realistic CGI baby elephant with big blue eyes, and you end up with a primary response to Burton’s Dumbo that is this: Why are our (semi)sentient, obviously emotional cousins being held captive in this nightmare circus?! Sure, yes, this Dumbo is set in 1919, long before there was any sort of mass cultural appreciation for the fact that *checks notes* highly social, highly intelligent elephants are not performing monkeys, and performing monkeys shouldn’t be performing monkeys either anyway. And yes, this Dumbo waves an amorphous hand at the notion that our animal cousins shouldn’t be forced to perform for the amusement of us humans. But this is still a movie that is all about cruel captivity and coerced entertainment… you know, for kids!

And yet, the movie’s bizarre inability to read the cultural room while it thinks it is doing precisely that is the least bad thing about this new Dumbo. For one perplexing thing, it’s tough to call this “live-action” when so much of it is CGI anyway, from the clearly fakey baby elephant with the enormous ears that allow him to fly, to the weirdly anachronistic post-steampunk yet somehow 1950s-ish-retro-future vibe of the production design — this is, recall, set in 1919 — to the impossibly golden sunlight and impossibly mystical fairway-esque glow that allegedly drenches much of what we see here. Very little in this movie, beyond the faces of the human cast, looks actually real, or strikes with much visceral impact.

Dumbo 2019 Danny DeVito Nico Parker Colin Farrell
Colin Farrell in sad-clown makeup: still hot.

All the people — too many people! — is a problem, too. This Dumbo, scripted by Ehren Kruger (Ghost in the Shell, Transformers: Age of Extinction), absolutely piles on the human characters yet has no idea who its protagonist is. It’s not Dumbo, unlike in the original film, who is more like a pet than anything else. But is it young Milly Farrier (Nico Parker), a child of the traveling Medici Bros Circus, into which Dumbo is born, who deploys her interest in science to craft an ill-defined empirical method to train the little elephant to use his oversized ears to fly? Is it her dad, Holt (Colin Farrell: Widows, The Beguiled), newly returned from the Great War minus an arm but eager to get back to the stunt horse-riding that had been his living before, but now corralled into elephant wrangling? Is it circus master Max Medici (Danny DeVito: The Lorax, I’m Still Here) — there is, in fact, no other brother — who agrees to a partnership with putative villain V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton: American Assassin, Spider-Man: Homecoming) to bring his entertainers to Vandevere’s proto-Disneyworld park Dreamland, at New York’s Coney Island? Is it Vandevere’s star trapeze artist, Colette Marchant (Eva Green: Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, The Salvation), who isn’t the accomplice of her boss/boyfriend that she appears to be at first?

Dumbo 2019
Does… does Disney realize it’s cast itself as the villain here?

It’s none of them, and all of them… and they’re all a bit blah to boot. Dumbo has no idea what it wants to say, or whose journey this is. It’s a hugely unsatisfying mishmash in which characters across the spectrum behave in wildly inconsistent and often outright absurd ways depending on the needs of the overly complicated plot. (Why does Dumbo sometimes seem to understand what the humans are saying to him, and sometimes not? Why does no one ever rehearse their circus shows with Dumbo in the arenas and with the distractions that his actual performances will have? Why does the movie require Vandevere behave so outrageously stupidly in the finale, when the ridiculous stakes were already plenty high enough?) Everything here is irritatingly calculated and blatantly constructed, right down to the “Pink Elephants on Parade” sequence that stops the action, such as it is, in its tracks, and has absolutely no bearing on anything at all here, except that clearly someone felt it needed to be included, because it’s an iconic element of the 1941 film.

Perhaps the most telling thing about this new Dumbo is that it features a bit in which customers at Vandevere’s Dreamland are eager to buy the stuffed toy Dumbos that are on sale in advance of the little pachyderm’s big debut there. The movie doesn’t seem to realize that this should be cast as a condemnation of the awful commodification of a living creature who has had no say in his monetization. It’s played as a joke, or, at best — or, perhaps, at worst — as a cynical, winking admission that this is just how the world is. Get your plush Dumbo at the Disney Store in your local mall now!

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