Disney is a cinematic powerhouse, releasing several movies every year that are powered by imagination and fine-tuned with an illustrious coat of polish. One habit that’s colored the conglomerate’s recent output, however, is remaking its older animated films in live-action. Several are slated for this year, of which Tim Burton’s Dumbo was the first. 


The original Dumbo was a whimsical animated film Disney produced in 1941. It was an hour-long tale about a newborn elephant, the titular Dumbo, who was gifted with abnormally big ears that allowed him to fly, elevating his circus act. Burton and his crew spoke at length in the several making-of special features that preserving the original’s theme of family was a driving goal in his remake. While those core elements persisted into his take, several of the finer points — including its cast — were mostly eschewed in favor of new human characters and melodrama. I should stress that playing with a classic’s premise in a remake isn’t an inherently poor decision (David Kajganich’s Suspiria is a success in part because of its subversions), but the liberties Burton took kneecapped his flying elephant. 

In place of Dumbo’s original mouse friend Timothy is a new human family consisting of widowed World War I veteran Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell), empathetic daughter Milly (Nico Parker) and energetic son Joe (Finley Hobbins). The three travel alongside the beggarly Medici Brothers’ Circus, a troupe maintained by ringleader Max Medici (Danny DeVito). These newcomers and their associates are just as essential as Dumbo in Burton’s vision, and his film is diluted for it. The Farriers muster enough likeability among them, owing to their respective actors’ serviceable performances and to how their arc parallels Dumbo’s (both parties miss their mothers), but their success ends there. Save for them and Max, none of the human characters are characters, they’re props needed, used and if need be discarded to move the story along. Comically amoral business tycoon V. A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton) is the most egregious offender; he lacks any charisma or subtly, and his machinations amount to little beyond justifying a bombastic, explosive climax. Burton, DeVito and Keaton have collaborated before, and it’s disappointing their reunion amounted to what’s, at best, a trite famiscle of a far stronger film. If you want to watch Dumbo, watch the 1941 incarnation.



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