REVIEW: Live action ‘Dumbo’ never lifts off

Aside from “The Jungle Book,” Disney’s effort to remake its classic animated library into live action pictures has been only average at best. “Dumbo” certainly doesn’t help that trend.

Like its animated counterpart, “Dumbo” features a performance elephant at a circus who has a newborn son. Breaking away from the original, though, is who discovers the situation. Early on the film introduces the audience to an animal caretaker named Holt (Colin Farrell) and his two children Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins). They’re the ones who discover the new elephant at the circus, run by Max Medici (Danny DeVito). Upon seeing Dumbo for the first time, they of course notice his rather large ears. This seems like a problem at first, but the two kids are able to “unlock” a talent in the elephant: the ability to fly.

Similar to the animated picture, there’s an incident where Dumbo’s mother is taken away. However, because of his flying, Dumbo is able to find some success and a little hope is restored. Because of Dumbo’s success, a rich amusement park owner, V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), comes to make Max a partner and obtain his whole show, including Dumbo. An agreement is made, but it becomes apparent that Vandevere is a shady person.

One of the biggest issues with “Dumbo” is that it’s not even about Dumbo. The young elephant character is more like a means to an end for the human characters. This is mostly displayed by how Dumbo learns to fly and make the most out of his ears in the first act. The movie isn’t about him learning to fly and accepting himself, it’s about these two kids’ relationship with their father, and an evil rich businessman who’s in their way.

This is a two pronged problem, first because the title character is largely sidelined, so this cute elephant is just a basically a secondary player. Second, the human characters who have a full story are rather dull.

These issues are similar to those I’ve had with other live action adaptations, most notable is “101 Dalmations.” The animated “Dalmations” movie may not be Disney’s best, but the dogs could talk, and because of that, they had a lot of character. However, in the live action adaptation, the dogs don’t speak so, those character elements are lacking and all we have are the human roles.

It’s the same case with “Dumbo,” so gone are the talking animals, meaning that the human characters have to be good and interesting. Unfortunately, it’s not the case here.
All the characters feel completely generic and there story has little in terms of an arc.

The most mishandled character, though, is the trapeze artist Colette (Eva Green). She’s introduced late into the picture, so her background is already rushed and playing catch-up. What really sinks the character, though, is she’s supposed to become Dumbo’s partner in showbiz, yet the film doesn’t include enough screentime of them training together.

This could have made a real standout human character and the relationship could be like other great ones where there are two co-protagonists, like in “How to Train Your Dragon.” Even an extended montage could have helped.

Maybe instead, the Colette character should have been introduced right from the start, working at Max’s circus, which could have given more time for the character to develop. Hell, it could be taken a step further and had the Colette character be a legitimate stand-in for Timothy Mouse, who was Dumbo’s friend and manager in the animated picture.

While we’re on the subject of characters, how about a look at the movie’s villain, the classic evil businessman. On top of being a one-note antagonist, there’s another issue with Vandevere, his plan makes no damn sense.

Courtesy Walt Disney.

In the film it’s revealed that Dumbo’s mom was bought by Vandevere, and it causes Dumbo to not complete one of his acts. Because of this Vandevere decides to remove Dumbo’s mom from his park. Umm, what? You’d think the logical thing to do would be to treat Dumbo and his mom real well, so Dumbo would be happier, and as a result, would probably be willing to perform and put on a great show. But apparently, logic doesn’t exist with this villain.

It also doesn’t help that the movie completely botches two of the most memorable moments from the animated feature. I get adaptations have to change, but if you’re going to include this stuff, it has to be done right.

First and foremost, there’s the “Baby Be Mine” scene, before Dumbo’s mom is taken away. To this day the sequence in the animated movie, showing various animals with their mother and then displaying the contrast by how Dumbo’s mom is in a containment cart and Dumbo is on the outside, is one of Disney’s most powerful.

It’s incredibly emotional and touching. Well, the filmmakers must not have thought so, because half the sequence in the live action version features a woman singing the song, and the other half has Dumbo and his mom touch trunks for just a short moment before it’s over. There are no other animals shown and it feels all too brief.

Another sequence this adaptation gets wrong is the pink elephant moment. In the animated picture, the sequence was spurred because Dumbo had accidentally sipped some alcohol he thought was water and started having a nightmare. This time around, the scene involves Dumbo watching a musical performance where artists are creating giant bubbles that look like elephants.

This is all well and good for an homage, but the whole scene is undercut by including music from the animated movie. In the original, the ominous music made sense because Dumbo had some alcohol and was having a bad dream. Here, he’s bobbing his head in enjoyment of the music and it’s not a nightmare, so it makes no sense to have such ominous music!

Even the acting from a cast that does have talent doesn’t save “Dumbo.” The characters are just so shallow, giving the actors little breathing room, and Tim Burton’s direction didn’t seem to help the situation.

A great example of this is in the first act when Dumbo is in danger of falling from a burning building and potentially injuring himself. It’s an intense moment, but all the little girl character Milly says is “fly Dumbo, fly” in the most monotone voice. Was that the best take?

Some credit can be given to animating Dumbo, he does look cute here and his flying is well done. The costume and set design were also pretty good here, recreating the circus era and the look of characters during the time period. However, overall, this is Disney’s worst attempt at a live action adaptation. 1 out of 5.

Author: Matthew Liedke

Journalist and film critic in Minnesota. Graduate of Rainy River College and Minnesota State University in Moorhead. Outside of movies I also enjoy sports, craft beers and the occasional video game.

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