Way back on October 23, 1941, a very short animated feature was released by the name of Dumbo. The U.S. was close to entering World War II and Disney was recouping from its losses from the complex feature film Fantasia. So they created a cute, simple, 64 minute feature about an outcast baby elephant who has unnaturally large ears that he could use to fly!
The original animated feature was based on a book call “Dumbo, the Flying Elephant” by Helen Aberson Mayer. She wrote about a flying elephant who was befriended by a red robin. When Walt Disney adapted the story, he changed it to a small mouse. And when Tim Burton remade the film, that mouse became two young children.
That’s the first of many places where this updated, live action version of Dumbo goes wrong.
When I met a Pixar animator a few years ago, he said that to make an idea work for their studio, it has to be a story that can only be told through animation. The original Dumbo works as an animated story because we meet talking elephants, a mouse companion, singing crows, and baby-delivering storks. It takes the impossible and makes it possible through this make-believe world.
And for that reason, Disney should have animated the entire movie or simply left it alone. With this remake of Dumbo, we find humans playing a much larger, often unnecessary role. Danny DeVito is perfectly cast as the owner and ringmaster of the Medici Brothers Circus. But that’s about the only shining spot when it comes to the actors.
Holt Ferrier, played by Colin Ferrell, returns to the circus to rejoin his family act. The only problem is that he’s a World War I veteran returning as an amputee to his children who wore orphaned when his wife died of influenza. And the horses used in his act have been sold.
Sounds like a great way to start a kids’ movie, huh?
But there was potential. We could have seen the parallels between his children being separated from their mother and Dumbo being separated from his. We could have seen Holt try to bridge the gap and win over his children. Instead, we see wooden performances, cliched lines, and some pretty poor acting all the way around.
This quickly became a movie about humans and not about Dumbo. And with everything I mentioned above, I didn’t really care much about these humans.
That’s my biggest complaint about Tim Burton’s remake. I can handle the changing style of animation. I can support reimagining the story to make it relevant to younger generations. I can appreciate Burton’s desire to dazzle us visually (which he did). But when he did all of this, he forgot about heart.
I’m a super sap, especially when it comes to animals. I fully expected to cry during this movie. And I didn’t. I didn’t even tear up. There was emotion missing from the film that was replaced with a visual storyboard.
The original Dumbo was one of Disney’s shortest feature films coming in at 64 minutes. The 2019 Dumbo is considerably longer at 1 hour and 52 minutes. That was plenty of time to expand the story and provide a little more emotional depth to the characters while maintaining some truth to the original. Instead, we got a jumbled up mess of a movie that will be forgotten quicker than you can say 1941.