There’s an ironically gleeful moment in the third act of Tim Burton’s live-action remake of Dumbo that all but sums up the film as a whole. Alan Arkin, a wonderfully silly casting choice as the capitalist banker deciding whether to invest in a theme park named Dreamland, looks out at the park, engulfed in flames after a performance gone very awry, and says without a hint of self-awareness (or perhaps with all the self-awareness in the world), “Well, this is a disaster.”
Indeed, it is.
Burton’s been in a bit of a slump as of late, and his latest–for all its delectable on-screen eye-candy–is no exception. Devoid of any sentiment at all (except, perhaps, that corporate conglomerates are bad and family is good), this re-imagining of the 1941 animated classic certainly proves that CGI animation can send a big-eared baby elephant soaring around the big top. Unfortunately, there’s nothing else wonderful at all about the film overall, from the plot to the performances.
The plot itself has been reimagined for a human cast; written by Ehren Kruger, he’s best known for penning a few of the Transformers films (movies the world would likely be better off without, if you ask me). Here, Kruger’s attempts at wit and modernity (despite being set in 1919, just as World War I has ended) fall so flat they’re practically concave. Despite the adult cast’s best efforts, lines meant to galvanize or elicit a chuckle just…don’t. Danny DeVito stars as ringleader Max Medici, and he tries so hard to infuse the subpar dialogue with life you can practically see him break a sweat. Colin Farrell is Holt, a one-time trick rider and main attraction in the show; now, he’s a soldier recently returned from the war (sans one arm lost on the battlefield) and reunited with his two kids, daughter Milly (Nico Parker) and son Joe (Finley Hobbins).
I don’t relish the opportunity to critique a child actor’s performance, but I was so disappointed in Milly’s stodgy, stilted take on Milly that it left me aching for all the little girls (and boys!) who’ll see the film and be deprived of a peer they can look up to or engage with. She’s written as a kid interested in science, discovering baby Dumbo’s talent via experimentation. At least, that’s what we’re told; in reality, she just shoves a feather in front of his snout a few times and the thing takes flight. It’s great that Disney wants to present their young heroine as brainy, but does that have to mean stand off-ish and dull, too?
It all wouldn’t be so bad if somewhere in the mess of what Burton has cobbled together lived a sentiment worth clinging to; that, after all, is what makes the original so endearing (and devastating, sure). What’s best known as a story of the unbreakable bond between mother and child; of courage and bravery in the face of uncertainty; of sticking it to the greedy, immoral “man” is instead a hollow, uninspiring cacaphony that doesn’t quite have anything to say at all. Even the “woke” final scene (no spoilers) feels shoehorned in to a movie that doesn’t once seemed concerned along the way with the outcome it portrays.
Disney is in a bit of a live-action remake renaissance, with Aladdin and Lion King yet to come just this year. With two other filmmakers at the helm on those, each with their own well-recognized styles, let’s hope they manage to find the right balance between story, technology and performances to make rehashing these classic films worth it. Dumbo certainly was not.