A live-action Beauty and the Beast? Theaters were mobbed. Live-action versions of Aladdin and The Lion King? Every new trailer is an event. A live-action Dumbo? Wait, you mean the movie with the sad elephants, racist caricatures, and scary clowns? Hmm.
The infamous crows are gone from Tim Burton’s new Dumbo, and though the elephants and the clowns are hard to avoid in any rendition of this story, it’s less a remake than a re-envisioning. It feels less like a Disney animated classic than one of the studio’s live-action adventures about a pair of spunky kids and a trusty pet — in this case, a cross between Lassie and E.T.
It’s amply apparent why this material appealed to Burton. Dumbo joins Edward Scissorhands and the citizens of Halloween Town in the filmmaker’s parade of unfairly caged grotesqueries with extraordinary gifts.
This Dumbo is indeed grotesque, less because of his ears than because he’s a minimally anthropomorpized elephant. A display of plush toys created in the image of Disney’s original 1941 Dumbo reminds you just how damned cute that little guy was. You watch these kids embrace Dumbo the way you watch your friends cuddle with their hairless cats. You get it, but also you kind of don’t.
Written by Transformers veteran Ehren Kruger, the new film is set in 1919. The operator (Danny DeVito) of a small-time traveling circus buys a new elephant who’s pregnant, and when she gives birth to a baby with giant ears, he’s given the full red-nosed reindeer treatment: first the circus tries to hide Dumbo’s ears, then turns him into a clown.
Fortunately, the elephant-wrangler (Colin Farrell) has a pair of kids (Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins) who befriend the tot, who is inevitably separated from his mother, prompting the first of three different versions of “Baby Mine,” the only one of the original film’s songs to make it to this version.
Eventually, the elephant’s soaring fame gets the traveling circus mixed up with an East Coast impresario (Michael Keaton) and his star acrobat (Eva Green). Burton and his production team glory in the creation of their seaside amusement park, a sort of steampunk Disneyland sprung up on Coney Island. This is the future of circuses, declares Keaton: you don’t go to them, you make them come to you.
In that irreverent yet self-mythologizing spirit, Dumbo is a more successful live-action adaptation than Beauty and the Beast, which took one of the most perfect animated features ever made and stuffed it with charmless filler. Less closely wedded to his source material, Burton is able to make this flying elephant his own. It makes for a lot of old-fashioned fun, with a satisfying spectacle to wrap it up.
Even so, the fact that it’s derived from a feature by the Disney studio in its early prime points up a continuing challenge these adaptations are going to have as Disney delves deeper into its animated catalog.
Relying as heavily as they do on CGI, these remakes are actually hybrids of live action and animation, and while computer animators (sometimes helped by motion-capture performances) have made incredible strides, in revisiting Disney’s classic characters they’re going up against some of the most appealing animation ever created.
Films like the original Dumbo were the special-effects spectaculars of their day, employing new and closely-guarded technology to show audiences things they’d never seen before. The jump to photorealism is a marvel, but it’s hard not to feel the kind of loss movie lovers once felt when talkies debuted, or when color was introduced.
Watching a film like Dumbo — or Fantasia, or Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, or Pinocchio — you see the animators’ hands conjuring a magical world in front of you. Compared to that, even a flying elephant feels a little mundane.