It is no secret that I am not a fan of the recent slew of Disney live-action remakes that no one asked for. It’s also very true that I’m not a fan of remakes in general. So I fully admit that I had some inherent bias going in to see the new version of Dumbo, a film that in its original animated form was a mere 64 minutes long and has definitely not aged well due to a plethora of moments that are at best tone deaf and at worst outright racist. As such, I can understand the desire for something of a thematic clean slate when it comes to our favorite long-eared elephant, and director Tim Burton has a long, storied career of imaginative world-building, both for the House of Mouse and other companies (most of which are now all owned by Disney, coincidentally). Really, I truly get it, and I did my best to like this film despite my ingrained misgivings. But this movie, this horrible, jaw-droppingly bad exercise in overcompensation represents Disney’s self-imposed subgenre at its nadir, and we still have three more of these turds coming out this year alone (really two, because no matter what marketing bullshit they choose to deploy, a CGI Lion King remake with no human characters or live animals IS NOT LIVE-ACTION!).
The film opens with some fan service references to the original animated classic that quickly dispense with any notion you might have that we’re going to watch anything resembling it. A circus train leaves Sarasota, FL in 1919, making its way to Joplin, MO. Along the way, we see a flock of storks flying in the background (a nod to Dumbo’s original delivery to his mother), the train bears the number 41 on the front of its engine (referencing the 1941 release of the original film). Danny DeVito as Max Medici, lazy and unscrupulous manager of the circus (we are thankfully spared the image of him undressing via silhouette) hums a bit of “Casey Junior.” A mouse in a cage wearing a ring leader outfit is meant to evoke memories of Timothy Q. Mouse.
Apart from these brief opening moments and the titular pachyderm himself, that’s about all the indication you get that this is the Dumbo you remember. Normally this would be a good thing, because if you’re going to remake a movie, it’s best to at least come up with an original story line or thematic idea. Here, however, is what could be the textbook counterargument to that line of thinking, with Burton swinging so far the other direction as to be almost as infuriating and offensive as the more cringe-worthy moments of the original.
When the circus train arrives in Missouri for their block of shows, two young children rush through the assembling attraction to go to a different train platform and meet their father, Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell), newly returned from World War I. He lost his left arm in battle, but is eager to rejoin the circus, as he and his late wife used to wrangle horses and perform rodeo tricks on the show.
Less than five minutes in, and I’m already calling bullshit. First off, as much as I love Farrell, his Kentucky accent is about as nightmarish as the literal “Nightmare Island” that Burton constructs in the film’s third act. Second, how did they coordinate it so that Holt returned from war to Missouri when the circus began in Florida? Third, once again we can’t have a Disney movie without a dead parent (or turned into a bear – seriously Brave, WTF?). It’s like they think it’s not possible for children to become well-adjusted people or make heroic decisions if they have two loving parents around to help. Fourth, the two newcomer child actors have starkly different skin tones, to the point that it beggars believability. Milly (Nico Parker) is the daughter of Thandie Newton, and thus has light cocoa skin, while Joe (Finley Hobbins) is whiter than snow. Normally I wouldn’t even point this out but for the fact that they’re just that far apart. Never mind the unlikelihood that an interracial couple would exist in Kentucky in the 1910s, and that both would be circus-minded, but the genetic odds of having two children of two different races (which sometimes happens with twins, but I know of no situations where it happened with separate pregnancies) within that already nigh-impossible pairing (within context) are astronomical.
It also doesn’t help that both of these kids are a constant annoying presence throughout the movie. Milly has grown up with the circus, but wants no part of it. She hates even the idea of putting animals on display and wants to grow up to be a scientist. “Never let anyone tell you what you can’t do,” says cartoonish villain V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), patronizing her late in the film. I was going to say she can’t act, but you do you, Vandevere. Literally the entire film all she does is have a deadpan face, delivers her lines in such a wooden manner as to be mistaken for kindling, and occasionally tries to guilt trip her father for not listening to her enough when it comes to Dumbo (because we should always believe our children when they say an elephant can fly) and not being as “good” (read: permissive) of a parent as the saintly dead mom. As for Joe, he’s basically just a prop to help his sister propel the narrative forward. He really has no defining characteristics at all other than general enthusiasm.
Anyway, in lieu of the stork delivery that brought our beloved Dumbo into the previous film, this time he comes about because Medici bought the already pregnant Mrs. Jumbo off of a shady dealer. His plan is to be the only circus with a baby elephant to exploit, which is among the more quaint of his horrible tendencies, and he’s supposed to be one of the GOOD guys! He also constantly chases a monkey, sells off anything and everything he can of Holt’s while he’s away at war, and then when he comes back, puts him in charge of the elephants (having sold his horses). On top of that, he uses the one black guy in his circus, strongman Rongo (DeObia Operai), as his personal assistant, general manager, and yes, jazz musician. Literally the one black guy does all the work, including stereotypical music performance. Gotta get the racism in somehow, right? At least the crows could sing…
Once Dumbo is born (the shoehorned origin of his name is an eye-roller for the ages), everyone treats him like a freak, except for those darling children with their innocence and such, who discover his flight abilities whenever he accidentally inhales and sneezes out a feather. After Mrs. Jumbo stampedes a show to protect her baby, killing a minor redneck dickbag abusive wrangler in the process, Medici sells her back to the dealer at a loss. Before she leaves, we get this film’s take on “Baby Mine,” which is a ukulele rendition by one of the performers at a campfire, and everyone suddenly loves Dumbo for no reason. The CGI on Dumbo and Mrs. Jumbo “hugging” with their trunks is so shoddily done that it looks more like a constricting snake than the actual CGI snake that constricts around Holt when he first arrives. At least this version of the song is better than the wholly unnecessary Arcade Fire cover over the credits.
Once Dumbo’s talent becomes known, Medici is bought out by Vandevere, with the entire troupe moving to his centralized location, “Dreamland,” which is both circus and amusement park (and oddly uses the same font for the word, “Dreamland” as the TV show, Archer, used during its “Dreamland” season two years ago). There Holt meets Vandevere’s fake girlfriend, a French acrobat named Collette (Eva Green, the latest of Tim Burton’s eye candy after Helena Bonham-Carter, Mia Wasikowska, and Winona Ryder among others), who’s just aloof, caring, and pretty enough to befriend Dumbo and the kids, making a case to be new mommy. Meanwhile, Medici gets buyer’s remorse after his workers are shunted to the side by Vandevere in favor of Dumbo only, so that he can impress an investment banker played by Alan Arkin.
It is this final act that presents the only real potential to enjoy this film, and even then, it misses the mark and only works on an ironic level if you think Burton is intentionally jabbing at the Disney corporate machine via his camera. Vandevere is clearly a slimy stand-in for Walt himself, or at least his more dubious qualities. His quest to snatch up everything that people enjoy is as blatant an indictment of Disney’s business acquisitions (most recently Fox) as one can imagine. Dreamland is so obviously Disneyland that I’m surprised I wasn’t charged $100 to get into the theatre. And of course, at Dumbo’s high-spectacle shows, there’s a vendor literally selling plush Dumbo dolls.
I’d almost be giddy about this if I had any faith whatsoever that Burton had gotten away with something here. But let’s be realistic. Every single Disney executive involved in this movie (and surely some who weren’t) saw it long before it was released, and gave him copious notes on how they wanted the film crafted. Movies like this are engineered by the corporate suits at basically every level of production. Even if they were pissed off at the not-so-subtle digs, they signed off on every single one, because they know that this movie is going to make money no matter how terrible it is (it won the weekend box office with $46 million domestically).
That’s why we keep getting these increasingly insulting remakes, despite the fact that only The Jungle Book was even marginally good. Disney can print money off these movies, so their attitude is, “Sure, Tim, go ahead and make your jokes. Go ahead and turn Disneyland into an art deco nightmare despite the fact that the art deco style came along well after 1919. We don’t care. Go ahead and make fun of our merchandising. We’ll send your kid a free Dumbo doll.” So while it might look like Tim Burton is trying to bite the hand that feeds, he’s at best talking out of both sides of his mouth and comes off more like a hypocrite, cashing the checks while impotently trying to be seen as making an statement of creative independence. Meanwhile, Disney laughs all the way to the bank, Michael Buffer stands in the center ring and bellows, “Let’s get ready for DUMBOOOOOOOO,” and I want to lobotomize myself with a flathead screwdriver.
“Well that was a disaster,” says Arkin after an aborted performance from the flying baby elephant. I couldn’t agree more. I think I’ve mentioned this before, but if you want a basic breakdown of my grading system, here it is in a nutshell. Grades A through B are for movies that are good enough to fork over your money and see in the theatre. Getting a B- through a C means there are some things to recommend, but don’t feel the need to rush. It can easily wait for home video or on demand. If I give a film a C- to a D-, I’m flat out saying don’t even bother. The movie is bad.
However, I reserve the F grade for a select few. There are a lot of bad films out there, but an F for me represents the absolute bottom of the barrel. It’s not enough to simply be bad. To get an F, a movie has to be so bad that its mere existence is offensive to me. That’s why I don’t give it out lightly. Last year only two movies hit that rock bottom: Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom and Slender Man.
Tonight a third movie enters this dubious club, because this version of Dumbo represents corporate arrogance at its most pernicious, mostly because Disney knows you’re going to see this no matter what I say. They know you’re going to put down your hard-earned money for an absolute trainwreck from beginning to end, where an amputee war hero is dismissed as an inferior parent, a young girl gets to be a progressive hero because they feel the need to shoehorn in encouragement for girls in STEM fields in a film that contains none (literally, Milly does NO science in the entire movie, just feels things for Dumbo and the other animals), makes fun of its own corporate agenda while profiting off of it, and reduces one of its most beloved characters to a couple of water spray jokes while his world literally burns around him. Tim Burton either got supremely played, or he’s in on the game, and we all suffer for it. While the original film had some offensive elements, and there was plenty of room to improve and expand the story, this movie all but literally ran Casey Junior off the tracks and Disney shit out a product even more offensive and insulting to our intelligence than before. And yet, they’re just waiting for you to hand over your money because they don’t believe you’re smart enough to know better.
I hope you prove them wrong.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What ideas do you have for Disney to ruin one of their classics? Is there a worse celebrity cameo than Michael Buffer in this movie? Let me know!
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