MOVIE REVIEW: Dumbo (2019)
I think Walt Disney's 1941 animated classic Dumbo is one of the best written Disney films in its history.
It's not one that I necessarily watch all the time, but, from beginning to end, there is a compactness and purity to that story that has really never been matched. I might be wrong, but I think it is Disney's shortest film clocking in at just barely over an hour. And, it didn't need to be more than that. It's a sweet movie about an elephant with big ears who learned to believe in himself.
Sadly, the 2019 live action remake forgot what the story was about and filled the time with over bloated narrative. Instead of really revolving around Dumbo, we follow this carnie family recently reunited when the father Holt (Colin Farrell) returns from World War I. His two children Milly (Thandie Newton's daughter Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins) have to deal with both their father coming back and with their mother's passing.
Circus owner Max Medici (Danny DeVito) puts Holt in charge of the elephants and it's here where we meet Dumbo. As in the original, Dumbo is the laughing stock of the circus until he exhibits the ability to fly. Where it diverges from the original entirely is a whole second act that involves a bigger showman V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton) buying up Medici's Circus so that he can take over Dumbo. Unfortunately, his motives are completely shady threatening to tear Medici's circus family apart.
I really wish they spent more time developing the main characters so we could root for them more. I am all for girl empowerment and I could get into a story where Milly grew up in a carnival, but, instead of following in the family tradition, wants to be a scientist. The only problem is that, aside from a mention here and there, we don't really feel like she wants to be a scientist. I would have rather they showed us the passion rather than told it to us. Joe just ended up being her sidekick with nothing really interesting about him either. I would have loved to have seen him trying to follow in his father's footsteps only to be rebuffed only to gain respect. And, sadly, Farell's Holt ends up being charmless. He seems grumpy and unlikable throughout the film.
The only human characters I seemed to derive any pleasure from watching were DeVito's Medici and Keaton's Vandevere. I don't know if part of that is feeling a level of glee seeing Batman and the Penguin on screen again, only in role reversals. I also liked some of the carnie characters, but I wish there were more moments with them.
Despite its story problems, the film actually does have a lot of good things going for it, still. If the second act of the film makes you restless, its because the movie ceases to be about Dumbo and I found every moment with the adorable flying pachyderm to be quite wonderful. Through a blend of animatronic puppetry and CGI, they really managed to capture what made the original Dumbo so special. It's not just cute movements and tiny trumpety toots they got right, but they captured his eyes to a tee. You feel like you are staring into his soul.
I loved the look of the first part of the film, harkening back to Tim Burton's 2003 Big FIsh which also took place at a circus. There was something very magical looking about it with its whimsical recreation of the Casey, Jr. train to the gorgeous cotton candy skies. I also love it because I love when Burton steps away from his grotesque Beetlejuician/Edward Scissorhandian looks which is something he reverts to in the second act. Although, in this case, I get why he wanted to go for the more jagged edges of that look to represent corporate America as opposed to the rounder more relatable angles of the family circus overtaken by greed.
I also loved the way they captured some of the more iconic moments of the original film from the "Baby Mine" sequence in which Dumbo visits his jailed mother to the clown circus fire department to the creative way they incorporated the "Pink Elephants" without making Dumbo drunk. It's those moments that made me smile from ear to ear.
So, in the end, I enjoyed Dumbo. I think people who enjoyed the original will like it enough to want to see the parts that are similar. If I buy the film when its released in home video, I will most likely just stick to the first act. That's really all you need.