There’s one major difference about the 1941 and 2019 versions of Dumbo. The former is a movie about elephants, the later is a movie that is sort of about elephants… ish. Whereas the beloved original charts the journey of a big-eared elephant who, alongside his mouse chum, discovers he can fly, the focus in the new addition shifts, majorly. The focus is human-centric for a start. Although the title remains Dumbo, he is essentially relegated to supporting cast.
Instead, at the forefront, we have a dysfunctional family. Dad (Colin Farrell) has returned from World War One, having lost an arm in the conflict. He’s arrived back to the travelling circus he calls home, his daughter and son are eagerly awaiting his arrival, although their reunion bittersweet as Mum died of influenza whilst dad was away. Dad can no longer undertake his cowboy act due to his injury, so he’s given the job of looking after the elephants. Things then occur.
But these things only ever occur because of human means. Humans teach Dumbo that he can fly. They later teach him that he can fly on his own. They help him do all manner of things. Is it so much to ask for Disney to retain in their live action movies the anthropomorphism I so dearly love?
I am being intentionally facetious here, although the exceptionally cute Dumbo being essentially a MacGuffin for the reestablishment of the American Dream and reconstruction of the quintessential family unit has seriously gotten under my skin. And not in a good way.
But, what makes this all the worse, is how boring it all is. Whilst the visuals are big, bold and bright – they’re also synthetic and bizarrely joyless. As are the characters. Motivations and personalities are thinly sketched out archetypes that are so lacking in development there’s no reason to invest in them emotionally. In fact, the only time I felt any emotion beyond disinterested detachment was when Dumbo nods in time to some music. I was overcome by what many would call a ‘cuteness overload’. This is diluted Burton, the bad Burton not the good stuff. ‘Quirky’ characters doing ‘quirky’ things for reasons that are not always divulged – but they’re probably ‘quirky’.
Interestingly enough, the film does pass the six laugh test. Just about. There’s a couple of cracking throwaway gags and reaction shots that had me emitting a laugh without realising, before experiencing a prolonged sense at the fact that had occurred. They act almost as hints at what might have been, an allusion to the charming film this could have been.
Instead we get a treaty on the perils of capitalism and corporate takeovers, arriving just a week after Disney themselves acquired 21st Century Fox – the timing of which possess more brilliance than this entire film.
Dumbo is released in the UK on 29th March.