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Dumbo (2019)

I’m not typically a critic who goes back to revisit films for the year-end lists, but this is one time when I felt obliged to make an exception. In this, the year when the Disney live-action remake trend hit peak saturation, no review of 2019 would be complete without at least a cursory look at Dumbo (2019).

Let’s take it back to 2010, with the fluke box office success of Alice in Underland. Disney had quickly decided to make the “Disney live-action remake” trend a thing, and it makes all manner of sense that they’d want to keep the original auteur on board for it. So looking back at the entire Disney animated canon, if you had to pick just one film for Burton to direct (besides Alice in Wonderland, obviously), what are you going to give him? You want to give Beauty and the Beast to the guy who made Edward Scissorhands? Would you trust The Lion King to the creative mind of The Nightmare Before Christmas? No, of course Tim Burton is going to take the project about circus freaks. Duh.

Moreover, the original is an hour-long film with maybe only two or three things about it that anyone actually remembers. And one of those things (*ahem*) is also the reason why Disney can’t screen or even talk about the full movie anymore without bringing up a host of uncomfortable conversations. So really, if the ideal remake is a film that salvages and refines the good and timeless aspects of an older film that’s otherwise outdated or flat-out bad, it seems like Dumbo would be an ideal candidate. And of course, we have a solid cast (Colin Farrell, Danny DeVito, Eva Green, Michael Keaton, Alan Arkin, et al.) under a director who seems tailor-made for this material.

It was actually a pretty decent idea on paper. In practice, the film only made $114 million domestic against a reported $170 million budget. (The worldwide take was $353 million.) So what went wrong here?

Let’s start with Ehren Kruger.

When Kruger started out, he was primarily known as the writer of Scream 3, in addition to The Ring and its sequel. Nowadays, he’s better known as the writer of The Brothers Grimm (that godawful Terry Gilliam picture), the last three of Michael Bay’s Transformers films, and the Ghost in the Shell adaptation with Scarlett Johansson. Ehren Kruger is a hack, his inclusion immediately dooms a film to mediocrity at best, and this movie is yet another fine case in point.

The dialogue is stilted and leaden. Not a single joke is funny. Not a single character resembles an actual human being. The motivations are so weak that the filmmakers have to tie themselves into knots trying to justify the needs of the plot. The film is padded to an inch of its life, scrambling to find any sliver of justification for the two-hour runtime.

Yet as flat and boring as the character development arcs are, the themes are so half-baked that it feels more appropriate to call them raw. It makes sense that a movie about Dumbo would be about outcasts learning to own what makes them special. It makes sense that a film about circus freaks would be about the circus struggling to thrive under the corporate pressure to sell out (more on that in a minute). And given that animal conservation is such a hot topic right now, especially where performing elephants are concerned, it makes all kinds of sense that the movie would try to capitalize on that.

Any one of these would’ve made for a fine message to hang a Dumbo remake on. But all of them in a plot at once, without any way of tying them all together, means that they all collapse into an incoherent shapeless mess.

This is also part of why Michael Keaton’s character doesn’t work. He plays V.A. Vandevere, the entertainment tycoon who relocates Dumbo’s troupe to a gaudy Disneyland stand-in. But of course Disney’s self-parody never makes any kind of point or draws any blood. For one thing, we all know that Disney keeps its corporate image so tightly controlled, they would never give themselves a black eye like that. For another thing, Disney’s carefully controlled brand of self-deprecation has been a staple of Disney films since Frozen (or Tangled or Enchanted, depending on how far back you want to go).

The problem is that those winks and nudges are a spice, not a meal. In all of Disney’s other recent films, the references to outdated tropes are at their best when they’re a tacit admission that Disney’s older films have aged in some awkward ways and they’re trying to be better (except with regards to racism, but we’ll see how that Mulan remake works out). But when so much of the film is occupied by this calculated and superficial Disney self-parody, it makes the whole movie feel like a calculated and superficial parody of the original Disney film. The remake references Disney without actually saying anything intelligent or coherent about Disney, thus rendering a huge chunk of the film thematically void.

Also, there’s the fact that this short-sighted narcissist Vandevere wouldn’t last a day in Walt Disney’s shoes. This inept self-serving coward couldn’t run a food cart, never mind one of the greatest media enterprises on the planet.

Speaking of which, it’s unfortunate that pretty much everyone in this cast is either chewing the scenery (Keaton and DeVito) or blending into it (Farrell and Arkin). Everyone’s either overacting or underacting, and Eva Green is the only performer in this cast who seems to have found a happy medium. But then we have the child actors.

Nico Parker (the daughter of Thandie Newton, if you couldn’t tell) plays the daughter to Farrell’s character, which probably makes her the first person of color to ever get a lead role in a Tim Burton movie. Her brother is played by newcomer Finley Hobbins, who is inexplicably white even though both children are supposedly the product of the same interracial marriage. This feels like a good time to point out that the film takes place in 1919, a good five decades before interracial marriage was legal in the USA. Whatever.

Anyway, the point is that these kids are flat fucking awful. It’s painful to watch. Their performances are pathetically wooden and void of all charisma. And it’s not that Tim Burton doesn’t know how to cast or direct child actors, he’s proven quite firmly that he can (See: The Charlie and the Chocolate Factory remake). No, it’s far more likely that the script gave them nothing to work with. Parker’s character has no personality to speak of except that she misses her mom and she has a superficial interest in science, and Hobbins’ character doesn’t even have that much. Even if these young actors had any shred of talent, it would probably take the second coming of Judy Garland and goddamn Mickey Rooney to salvage anything out of so little.

Yes, the movie did at least get the title character right, brought to life with beautifully expressive CGI, but that counts for little when Dumbo is as thin and poorly developed as any of the other characters. I want to give the film credit for including clever nods to Timothy Q. Mouse, “Baby Mine”, and a legitimately solid adaptation of the “Magic Feather” plot point. But I have to take all that credit right back for the stone-stupid “Pink Elephants on Parade” adaptation that stops the whole movie dead in its tracks. Hell, even when the filmmakers throw in an amusing and tasteful nod to the opening of “When I See an Elephant Fly”, it’s immediately followed up by the straight-faced announcement, “Let’s get ready for Dumboooo…!!!” And then they did that a second time. I still have a headache from facepalming so hard.

Dumbo (2019) is everything we ever feared the Disney live-action remake trend would be. It’s a lazy and half-assed picture crafted by people who had no idea what they wanted to make except money. It fails to make a coherent plot, it fails to make a coherent thematic point, and it fails to make a convincing argument for its own existence. The filmmakers took so much potential and turned it into a film that might actually be significantly worse than the film it’s remaking, outdated racism and all.

Of all three Disney live-action remakes that came out this year (Maleficent: Mistress of Evil is technically a sequel, so I’m not counting that), this was the only one that didn’t make anywhere near a billion dollars worldwide. I’m sure Disney will sweep this one under the rug as a direct result, and we should all be happy to keep it there.

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