Past the Popcorn provides South King Media with exclusive reviews of Theatrical and Home Video entertainment. We aim to dig just a little deeper than the surface of what we watch.
Disney is digging into their vault big time in 2019 with live-action remakes of The Lion King and Aladdin hitting theatres in the coming months, but they are starting things off with a remake of one of their very first animated films, 1941’s Dumbo. At sixty-four minutes, the original Dumbo is also one of the shortest features in Disney’s animated library, so director Tim Burton and screenwriter Ehren Kruger have their work cut out for them. They must both add a good hour or so of new story, but do so without straying too far from the classic tale that their target audience—parents who grew up with the animated film and now want to introduce that story to their kids—have come to know and love.
For the most part, they have succeeded. The new Dumbo is full of entertaining set pieces and features an incredibly adorable central character… but there are a few missteps along the way which keep Dumbo from becoming an instant Disney classic the second time around.
The remake covers the entire plot of the animated Dumbo film in its first forty minutes. In fact, the plot of the original movie is over before top-billed star Michael Keaton even shows up. The struggling Medici Brothers Circus’ primary elephant attraction, Mrs. Jumbo, gives birth to an infant with unusually large ears for a pachyderm. It is soon discovered that the young elephant, nicknamed Dumbo by a horrible heckler, can use these extra large ears to soar around the circus tent. He immediately becomes a smash act for the circus, turning its fortunes around, and attracting the attention of Keaton’s promoter V.A. Vandevere.
Vandevere uses the promise of fame and riches to convince Max Medici that his entire circus troupe would be better off as part of his Dreamland show, where Dumbo will be the star attraction. Dreamland, an amusement park that could only have come from the imagination of Tim Burton, is all shine and gloss on the outside, but hides something much darker underneath. It quickly becomes apparent to Max and his company what was obvious to us in the audience from the very start, that V.A. Vandevere is a horrible person who only wants to exploit Dumbo for his own benefit. Fortunately, they are a group of people with unique skill sets that could come in handy when executing an escape.
In remaking the 1941 film in today’s more politically correct climate, certain elements had to be excised from the old version. Gone are the crows, seen in retrospect as horrible cultural stereotypes, and that excision is certainly for the best. Gone also is Dumbo getting drunk on champagne. A joke is made about it and the movie does still find a creative way to feature the pink elephants, but this was also an omission that the filmmakers simply had to make.
Not all excisions were for the better, though. Poor Timothy Q. Mouse, a lead character in the original film, is reduced to little more than a brief cameo here. They introduce him as a potential friend for Dumbo early in the movie, but then he disappears until showing up briefly again in the finale. It is understandable that the filmmakers did not want to have talking animals in this version, but after they introduced him, it is unclear why they couldn’t simply have him hanging out with Dumbo for the rest of the movie instead of ignoring him.
Like its title character, the new Dumbo is at its best when it is soaring around the circus tent. Whether it be when Dumbo is helping the clowns put out a fire in a scene taken straight out of the original or when he is transporting his human friends to safety in the movie’s dramatic conclusion, the action scenes are gripping and entertaining. And the computer animated Dumbo this movie created is awfully adorable. In fact, he is so adorable, that it almost works against the movie, making it difficult to believe that an audience could be so mean to such an adorable creature, simply because his ears are a few sizes too large.
Where Dumbo doesn’t work, ironically, is when the movie gets too cartoonish. It is unclear why Disney would want to make live-action versions of their animated movies, only to have their human characters act like cartoons. The worst examples of this are the movie’s primary villains: Phil Zimmerman as an abusive elephant wrangler and, I’m sorry to say, Michael Keaton as V.A. Vandevere. Evil, over-the-top, and charming is a character I am certain that Keaton can pull off, but unfortunately, Vandevere lacks that crucial charm element.
There were also a few gags in the film that felt incredibly out of place in a movie set around the time of The Great Depression. Chief among them is the decision to have boxing announcer Michael Buffer show up to riff on his famous “let’s get ready to rumble” announcement. It was a lame addition when it happens the first time, but was especially annoying when the movie doubled down and brought him back for a second time.
It is far from perfect, but when it comes to the Disney live-action remakes, Dumbo actually fares pretty well. It feels much more original than the shot-for-shot remake style of Beauty and the Beast, while feeling more assured in its plot direction than the rambling The Jungle Book. It introduces new characters and ideas, while still providing enough portions of elements from the original like Casey Jr. and “Baby Mine” to satisfy anyone looking to rediscover their childhood in a new way. How Aladdin and The Lion King will measure up remains to be seen, but at least Dumbo feels like a remake that was worth making.
Dumbo opens today at the AMC Southcenter 16, the AMC Kent Station 14, the Century Federal Way, and Regal’s Stadium Landing 14 in Renton.