Disney's 'Dumbo' remake manages to maintain the story's cuteness while changing almost everything else

Walt Disney StudiosDisney’s ‘Dumbo’ remake includes a whole host of new characters.
  • “Dumbo” lands in theatres Friday, March 29, 2019.
  • Disney’s live-action remake bears very little resemblance to the beloved 1941 film, save for the plot’s barest bones.
  • But this was to be expected, and it isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
  • Tim Burton’s signature CGI extravagance is perfect for the circus setting. He also handles the film’s original themes with impressive empathy.
  • The animated baby elephant is the movie’s biggest triumph. He is extremely cute.

“Dumbo,” Disney’s newest live-action remake of an animated classic, will soon land in theatres with a revamped, CGI-driven sheen.

And, much like its titular outcast, the film has faced plenty of scepticism since it was first announced.

Many were (and are) curious to see how the simple, heartwarming tale of a big-eared elephant would translate onscreen today – especially when helmed by a director who is known for extravagance, Tim Burton, who was also behind the notoriously awful “Alice in Wonderland” remake.

Indeed, Burton and his team took a lot of liberties with the adaptation, namely by scrapping main characters and adding new ones, played by Colin Farrell, Eva Green, Finley Hobbins, and Nico Parker.

Why you should care: The story may not feel quite right for modern audiences, but Disney seems confident – and committed to this formula

Dumbo 4Walt Disney StudiosColin Farrell, Nico Parker, and Finley Hobbins play some of the brand new characters.

“Dumbo” is just one of many upcoming live-action remakes in Disney’s arsenal, and this one seemed like a bizarre choice right off the bat.

The original worked because of its simple and uneventful storyline. “Dumbo” isn’t plot-driven; it’s fuelled by pure emotion.

That’s not to mention its various elements that would undoubtedly be deemed inappropriate today: the infamous racist crows; the “Song of the Roustabouts,” which essentially celebrates slavery; and the unnerving hallucinations that Dumbo, a literal baby, sees when he gets drunk.

Dumbo pink elephant hallucinationsWalt Disney StudiosThe pink elephants still haunt me.

So when you’ve already got much-hyped remakes like “Aladdin” and “The Lion King” coming down the pipe, why even bother with this one? Disney must be confident in the film’s ability to resonate with audiences – or, at least, to make money.

What’s hot: Burton’s signature style actually pays off, and the CGI Dumbo is perfect

The modern “Dumbo” only preserves the barest bones of the original.

Jumbo Junior arrives to his mother’s delight, but, because of his laughably large ears, to everyone else’s chagrin. He is taunted, abused, and snobbishly renamed Dumbo – but he manages to find strength in friendship.

Dumbo is then recruited by the circus ringmaster Max Medici (Danny DeVito) to perform with the clowns because the audiences always laugh at him. But Burton’s “Dumbo” only really picks up when the original ended: With Dumbo’s realisation that he can fly.

Dumbo fliesWalt Disney StudiosWhere original Dumbo leaves off, modern Dumbo begins.

The big changes that follow were only to be expected. You can’t build a two-hour feature film entirely upon the merciless mocking of a cute baby elephant.

As the new movie ably navigates, truly singular talent often translates to fame – and, just as often, exploitation.

Enter V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), who purchases Dumbo to be a performer for the amusement park Dreamland, thrusting him into a world of opulence, surrealism, wonder, and awe. In other words, Dumbo ends up exactly where Burton thrives as a filmmaker.

Burton’s signature CGI extravagance is perfect for this setting. Sure, this is also where the plot gets needlessly complicated, but at least it’s aesthetically thrilling.

Dreamland dumboWalt Disney StudiosDreamland was a real place in Coney Island that burned down in 1911 and defined the golden age of the amusement park.

Burton is equally well known for empathizing with outcasts (see: “Edward Scissorhands”), and this skill serves him well here. Any mocking of Dumbo feels almost unbearable, and it’s viciously gratifying to see people rally around his happiness and safety.

Visually, Dumbo himself is a great help with this. If you’ve seen the trailer then you know this already, but it bears repeating: That elephant is extremely cute. The filmmakers nailed Dumbo’s animation, from his unabashed clumsiness to the adorable bewilderment on his little face any time someone is mean to him. He’s just a baby! He can’t help it! I’m getting worked up just thinking about it.

The urge to protect Dumbo is the emotional anchor throughout the film. Dumbo doesn’t speak, obviously, but he somehow manages to remain the most complex and interesting character.

Dumbo 1Walt Disney StudiosDumbo doesn’t speak, but he somehow manages to remain the most complex and interesting character.

What’s not: The non-elephant characters fall completely flat

It makes sense why Disney would want to add a human element to “Dumbo” instead of featuring cruel circus elephants and racist birds. But the added characters are painfully one-dimensional.

The remake replaces the inimitable Timothy Q. Mouse – the original film’s moral compass and Dumbo’s de facto caretaker – with two wholesome yet forgettable children, Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe Farrier (Finely Hobbins).

Read more:
Here’s the cast of Disney’s live-action ‘Dumbo’ and who they’re playing

Eva Green is visually enchanting as the aerial artist Colette Marchant, but even she can’t elevate an empty script. DeVito and Keaton give generous performances, delightful and deranged, respectively, but they have very little to work with.

Dumbo 3Walt Disney StudiosEva Green plays a mysterious aerial artist named Colette Marchant.

There are various attempts to assert a theme of empowerment: Milly has noble aspirations to become the next Marie Curie; her amputee father, Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell), struggles to overcome the taboo of his disability. But even these storylines fall completely flat.

Moments that are meant to be triumphant for the humans aren’t especially compelling. They’re only interesting so far as they’re useful to Dumbo, helping him to rise above the fray, both literally and figuratively.

The bottom line: It’s a visually satisfying remake with smart changes, especially for kids

Dumbo 9Walt Disney StudiosThe human characters fall flat, but Dumbo himself is irresistibly cute.

There are sweet moments and throughlines that make this movie worthwhile, even for cynical viewers.

Screenwriter Ehren Kruger’s new version adds a fair amount of unnecessary fluff and flair, but some essential changes make the new “Dumbo” worthy of a modern audience. Notably, it addresses the morality of animals held in captivity and grapples with the original film’s issues with exploitation.

All the while, it manages to maintain the heart of “Dumbo,” telling a story about the power of family, empathy, and uniqueness.

If you’re lucky, your kids will take some of that away. Worst case scenario, they will leave the theatre with the same takeaway as the young girl who was sitting next to me in the theatre: “I liked it when the cute elephant could fly.” Well said.

Grade: B+

“Dumbo” lands in theatres on Friday, March 29, 2019.Watch the trailer below.

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