Tim Burton’s new Dumbo lands in the multiplex big top with a dull thud. It is a flightless pachyderm of a film that saddles itself with 21st-century shame at the idea of circus animals, overcomplicating the first movie, losing the directness, abandoning the lethal pathos, mislaying the songs and finally getting marooned in some sort of steampunk Jurassic Park, jam-packed with retro-futurist boredom that had the kids at the performance I attended talking among themselves.
Screenwriter Ehren Kruger’s new version is taken from the 1941 Disney classic and the original 1939 illustrated tale by Helen Aberson and Harold Pearl, about a baby circus elephant named Jumbo Junior whose outsized ears cause him to be cruelly nicknamed “Dumbo” but which allow him to fly: the ugly duckling that becomes a swan in flight. But this film – live-action, with a CGI Dumbo – winds up burdening the whole thing with a dismayingly pointless, over-long, under-interesting third act about Dumbo getting sold on to a heartless, glitzy amusement centre. The performances from Colin Farrell, Eva Green and Michael Keaton are stuck on the autopilot factory setting of grinning, mugging, frowning and smirking.
This remake makes a mess of the most famous scene: the brutally, brilliantly, almost unwatchably sad moment when Dumbo’s mum furiously grabs some boys from the audience who had been bullying her child and spanks them with her trunk, for which she is shackled and imprisoned in a tiny cart with the placard “Danger Mad Elephant”. Poor Dumbo can visit her only in secret, at night, twining his little trunk around hers, stretched out from between the bars. It is the most heartrending moment in Disney history, sadder than the death of Bambi’s mother or Simba’s father, because Dumbo’s mum is still alive, enduring a waking nightmare of humiliation and slave-master cruelty.
Dumbo Reloaded loses its nerve on this. It is thrown away in a single, flat, almost embarrassed sequence after a muddled buildup, without the proper anguish and rage at injustice, because the film is really coy about imposing bad-guy status on human beings who are expected to partake in the happy ending – and, incidentally, it abolishes Dumbo’s best and only pal Timothy the mouse. Here, Dumbo’s friends are strictly homo sapiens.
The drama elaborately creates a number of bad humans whose purpose is to quarantine the good humans’ heroic status. There is a bad animal handler at the first circus (whose fate is to be the muddled pretext for the punishment of Dumbo’s mother), an equally cruel handler at the shiny new circus Dumbo is tricked into signing up for, and of course the smooth, wicked new entertainment entrepreneur VA Vandevere (Keaton). The nice humans are the original heart-of-gold circus impresario, played by Danny DeVito, the trapeze artist Colette (Green) and widowed trainer Holt Farrier (Farrell), whose two children fall in love with little Dumbo. Burton could have made much more in narrative terms of Dumbo being taken away from his poor mother. Yet this important factor is almost forgotten about in the swirl of exotic Burton visuals.
The first movie was set in 1941, the year of its release (a newspaper front page announcing Dumbo’s airborne triumph also had stories about Britain’s Spitfires); this version takes us back to just after the first world war. Holt comes home from the conflict a wounded veteran. But in a more important sense we are right in 2019. The film is embarrassed about the whole idea of making animals do demeaning tricks for us humans. This is a lesson it explicitly embraces at the end, but, even at the beginning, elephants are notably the only big animals in the circus: some mice and monkeys, but no lions, tigers or bears. And the film eventually imagines a quaintly human-less kind of Jungle Book destiny for its heroes, although it is unclear, to say the least, how this destiny is going to work within the economics of circus management.
I haven’t disliked all of Burton’s remakes. His Planet of the Apes was terrible and his Alice in Wonderland movies not much better, but his Sweeney Todd was interesting and his version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was very good, and in fact rather misunderstood. Even here, there are some reasonable moments at the beginning when Dumbo teeters on the verge of flight. But these moments are cancelled out by boredom, as the pointlessly complicated and drawn-out story grinds on to its tiresome conclusion. This has been painfully de-tusked.
This article first appeared on The Guardian.