In recent years Disney has been raiding its animated film vault in order to make live-action remakes of each and every single one of them. While some such as Pete’s Dragon and The Jungle Book have felt inspired, most have been more on the pointless side of things. Beauty and the Beast is arguably not just one of the best animated films of all time, but flat out one of the best movies ever made. How can you possibly hope to recapture that magic regardless of the talent involved? Unfortunately, the same might be said for Dumbo.
This reinvention of the Disney animated classic makes some pretty sweeping changes, including stripping all the animals of any speech. Instead, the focus is shifted to the human characters with stars such as Colin Farrell, Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Eva Green, and Alan Arkin chipping in. That’s a formidable lineup of talent, but unfortunately, they’re mostly limp here. Green probably has the most fun with her role. Two child actors are also along for the ride as Dumbo’s trainers and friends, but while fine neither exactly sparks real emotion on screen.
That’s the issue with the film in general—it never generates the emotion it should. Director Tim Burton casts most of the film in magic hour lighting with an amber glow washing over everything. It’s beautiful, but somehow lifeless. Reading some behind-the-scenes info I learned that the entire film, even the outdoor scenes, were film on a soundstage—which might explain some of the issue. Take the “Baby Mine” musical number. In the original film Timothy Mouse watches as Dumbo and his mother bond through her cage bars. That’s replicated here but left out are all the other circus animals interacting with their young. The song here is a wonderful cover, but the scene itself doesn’t carry the same emotional weight to raise it to the level of maternal anthem.
Still, this isn’t a bad film. There are some wonderful moments late in the film such as the circus performers staging a prison break and the whole Dreamland motif with Michael Keaton’s character is a not-so-sly sendup of Walt Disney himself. It works as a movie, but in the end it’s a bad photocopy of the original without the inherent warmth animation brings. Kids will enjoy it, but you might well ask yourself why you’d bother showing them this rather than the original?