Dumbo movie review: An elephant flies but no one cries in Tim Burton’s woke but boring remake of a Disney classic
Dumbo movie review: Tim Burton’s remake of 1941 Disney classic fails to take off. It underuses important scenes and introduces needless others.
Director: Tim Burton
Cast: Colin Farrell, Michael Keaton, Eva Green
To make people fall in love with an outcast is not something that director Tim Burton hasn’t done before. He could humanise a corpse bride and even a man with scissors for hands. And yet, when it came to warming us up again to the classic and universally adored story of a baby elephant with large ears and an even larger heart, we have been served a disappointment.
Burton’s Dumbo, a yet another live-action remake of a Disney animated classic, is a boring and complicated retelling of the simple, sweet and hauntingly depressing 1941 movie. Burton’s version, while building on the same premise of a baby elephant who is separated from his mother, adds several needless new bits to the story. Even tailoring it to fit the woke environment of 2019, while appreciable, is not enough.
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In the new version as well, a beautiful baby elephant is born in a circus. But the baby’s impossibly large ears are a butt of jokes among the circus’ patrons, who call him a fake, and attack him with peanuts. The mother comes to the baby’s rescue, as anyone would expect, but is declared mad and locked up in a cage, away from Dumbo.
This time, the sad and lonely Dumbo doesn’t find a friend in a sassy little rat, but in two human kids. In the animated version, we never saw the faces of humans or looked at their midnight revelry through a curtain. They thought the elephants don’t feel anything and are ‘made of rubber’. The film treated them in a similar manner by not even bothering to give them faces. Dumbo was helped not by the humans, whose sole purpose was to use the animals to their advantage, but by the rats who told him he is not ugly and by the crows who taught him how to fly.
But now, the ‘human saviour trope’ is stronger than ever. The kids promise to bring Dumbo’s mother back with the help of their father. A man promises the mother he’ll take care of her son, and another group (of human beings) rescues her from a horrific fate. Burton not only attempts to give a clean chit to Disney for suggesting 70 years ago that animals are happy as circus slaves but also that humans are also not half bad. Not all of them though.
The circus is taken to a Disneyland-inspired, money minting amusement park called Dreamland. It turns out to be the stuff of nightmares, instead. This park, made from rusty old leftover props from Burton’s Alice In Wonderland and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, is run by the horrible and profiteering millionaire, Mr Vandemere (Michael Keaton).
In a way, the film also serves as a sequel to the old classic. What happens when the world learns of Dumbo’s flying abilities? Do they leave him alone in his sweet old circus with nice people to care for him and no pot bellied men selling him out for the big bucks? Surely not in this version.
But even with more opportunities to mine the story for tragedy, tears and turmoil, Burton puts none of it to good use. The film looks like it is made by a Burton fan in awe of his trademark gloomy skies and clown make-up, with none of his sentimentality - there’s an absence of Burton’s love for the weird and the misunderstood. They seem to have done a half-hearted job of emulating his aesthetic. Is it really a Tim Burton film if none of the characters have insane hairstyles?
The filmmaker does, however, try to absolve Dumbo and Disney of their previous sins. Though it was considered one of the most adored classics of the golden age, the original Dumbo was far from ideal. There are problems of racism in the film and a misplaced sense of a man’s ownership of nature and its creations. This time, the racist scene that showed cigar-smoking crows who appeared to be stand-ins for black American men, is completely scratched out and booze is kept away from babies. The true, happy ending for Dumbo should not have been buying a private condo for his mother while still slaving it away in a circus, but to follow her into the jungle, right where they belong.
Though all these things are what the new generations have always asked of Disney, even the Mouse House would refuse to believe that it comes at the price of a story that makes you sob violently in your bed. The film makes a big miscalculation in underplaying one of the most depressing scenes I have ever seen in a film. After getting laughed at and being called a failure, Dumbo is finally taken to his mother, trapped in a cage. She extends her trunk out of the bars and touches Dumbo’s face, wipes his tears and sings Baby Mine Don’t You Cry. They show us all the other animals cuddling with their children, putting them to sleep. But not Mrs Jumbo. She can’t even see her child’s face. Both of them are crying, but they’re happy. If that doesn’t make your eyes well up with tears, I wonder what can.
And somehow, Burton decided to give that scene the most boring treatment. He snatched the song away from it, playing just a single note at the beginning. The scene itself last only a few seconds, rendering it completely useless.
With no tears and no Tim Burton-y tropes, Dumbo fails to take off, without or without the magic feather.
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