Review: Dumbo

27 Mar 19

Dumbo disregards its titular character for human characters, and suffers for it

When Disney first announced they would be doing live-action reboots of their early animation features, I was incredibly sceptical. Especially when the first one would be the animal-heavy The Jungle Book, a film that was shot entirely in a studio. In the end, however, I was thoroughly impressed with that 2016 adaptation. I just wish I could say the same thing about this Dumbo remake.

While the CGI and visual effects are reasonably spectacular (albeit quite noticeable), the story is where the film really struggles. Surprisingly, for a film that goes on and on about instilling "wonder" in the audience, I left the theatre underwhelmed. Unlike the 1941 original which focused on the non-human characters, the 2019 edition inserts a number of additional human characters all with their own subplots, which actually takes the emphasis away from Dumbo.

The additional plot points would be expected considering the original film was just over an hour long, and this remake clocking in just short of two hours, but a complete shift in perspective from animal to human proves too much of a distraction and sucks a lot of the emotion from the film. You still get those big impactful moments recreated from the original, but they are pushed into the start of the film in order to service the new storyline.

As far as the casting goes, you can't help but feel like Tim Burton really wanted Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter to this film, but facing enough ridicule for constantly casting them, went ahead and got Michael Keaton and Eva Green involved with the distinct instructions to do their best Depp and Cart impersonations. Colin Farrell does okay, but his entire arc in the story plays out as rather unnecessary. Child actor Nico Farmer has a wooden performance with every line of dialogue spoken in the exact same tone. The only character to get a proper character arc comes from Danny DeVito's ringmaster character, and even that arc takes a while to build into anything.

Dumbo does look adorable. The tiny trunk and big glossy eyes do make you want to say "aww", but at the same time, the face and eyes lack emotional variety. Dumbo always looks on the verge of tears despite being very cute, and it makes it hard to really gauge the emotions of the little elephant (How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World remains the leader in expressing emotion in mute characters)

The entire film is for some reason shrouded in darkness and shadows, and after a while, you do get a bit sick of not being able to see things properly. The lack of a significant amount of lighter clear scenes means you lose the impact of the visual effects and choreography as everything looks the same. The pink elephant scene does still manage to grab your attention though, so kudos to whoever animated that. That piece was exquisitely done.

I'm really trying to figure out what I enjoyed about the film. A couple of the children in the theatre did exclaim "wow" during a flight scene, so perhaps it still has appeal if you are below a certain age range. That being said, there are a couple of scenes that might scare a younger child too, so I'm not really sure where the line is for their target audience.

Dumbo failed to meet expectations, let alone exceed them. With no spark or sense of wonder and no emotional connection to any of the characters, there is no reason to care about the outcome for anyone. I hope that the change in perspective to human-based wasn't a financial decision (Dumbo supposedly had less than a third of the budget of The Jungle Book), as that could spell disaster for future live-action remakes. There's nothing inherently bad about Dumbo. There just isn't much from the story angle that is worth writing home about.

As a side note, there is an interesting comparison between Michael Keaton's characters company and Disney themselves, which I did find quite funny that it mocks Disney's own business practices.