Review: Dumbo (2019)

Dumbo is one of several Disney remakes releasing this year, and the one that appeared to hold the most promise – instead of being an apparent shot by shot remake, this film attempts to tell its own version of the story. So, what happens when you expand the tightly-focused, 64 minute original to nearly two hours by shifting focus to a bunch of human characters?

I really hate to open this review by attacking a child actor, but if you’re going to put a young person in a lead role, you really should make sure they can act. Nico Parker’s performance is distracting throughout – it feels as if they were attempting for this sort of stoic, wise-beyond-her-years child, and the result is this really boring version of Violet Baudelaire. This film is loaded with shots of her responding to big moments with completely dull surprise.

Her lacking gaze is far from the only dull element of this film – this entire work felt like a slog. Much of the film’s plot focuses on an attempt to reunite Dumbo with his mother, and the human characters all feel so secondary to this – yet Dumbo himself feels reduced to a non-character. While Dumbo didn’t speak in the original, having him surrounded by animals made him feel like an equal. That film was the story of a young animal struggling to find purpose in a cruel world.

This remake quickly leaps through the flying wonder stage – with Dumbo’s magnificence being established early, there’s really not much for him to do on a personal level. Instead, the film shifts into this awkward take on corporate takeovers, coming from a company guilty of doing so on a large scale. The corporate circus at the end seems to be a direct riff on Disneyland, but it’s such a hollow sentiment coming out of a film that exists due to a corporation exploiting one of the properties that got it established.

Disney has no apparent interest in reestablishing these classic takes for a modern audience. Everything about this production suggests it was rushed. Much like Mary Poppins Returns, it falls so quickly into a cycle of the most basic Hollywood-style framing and editing, the camera desperately chasing the action. The original Dumbo contains one of Disney’s most iconic and experimental sequences – that film deserves better homage than this shallow take.

This is yet another prime example of what Tim Burton lacks as a director. He has always been a top director when it comes to the plastics of his film – the set design, the costumes, they’re all fine here. But he is rarely able to capture his daring designs with worthy technique, and his narratives largely tend to be shallow. He understands the visual aspect of the image but not how to capture it, to add meaning to it.

Again, Disney has pushed out a film that feels less like an artistic work and more like a product. The original has always been the odd one out among Disney’s first five animated features, and it’s one that deserves a better legacy – but this remake shifts the focus to an unnecessary lens and adds a few side stories to draw the plot out longer. I can understand the compulsion to go beyond the original’s 64 minutes, as a film of that length is practically unheard of these days, but stretching it to two hours is a simply violent act against the audience.

Tim Burton’s Dumbo is an unfocused mess of a film, one that loses all traces of charm from the original to tell an entirely different story it really has no right to be telling. An adaptation of a visually inventive film from a director that used to be accused of similar creativity, this work is disarmingly bland.

So, I will instead implore you to revisit the original. It comes from an era when Disney could take risks, back when animated film was still being established as a form. Some of it might seem familiar now, but it still feels like a fresher tale than this newly minted adaptation.

2 Out of 5 Stars

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