Many adults remember Disney's Dumbo (1941) mainly for its misery. Like Bambi, the story expertly channels childhood nightmares: First the baby circus elephant is publicly ridiculed, then separated from his protective mom, then forced to perform for jeering spectators. But Dumbo has a secret weapon: He can fly. The tale may not be subtle in its emotional manipulations, but it's effective.
By contrast, the new live-action reimagining of Dumbo, directed by Tim Burton, is more of a pretty, magic-light blur. Dumbo is no longer exactly the protagonist, his humiliation no longer the film's centerpiece. This Dumbo is less likely to induce existential despair in young viewers, yet it's unclear whose story it is now and why we should care.
Set in 1919, Dumbo opens with Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) returning from the war to the traveling Medici Bros. circus. His equestrian wife has died of the flu, and he's lost an arm in combat, so the hotheaded ringmaster (Danny DeVito) puts him in charge of the elephants.
When Baby Dumbo is born with mammoth ears and melting, humanlike blue eyes — he's a creepy-cute computer animation — Holt is tasked with hiding his abnormality. But Holt's kids, Milly and Joe (Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins), soon figure out Dumbo's secret superpower. News of a flying elephant draws haughty carnie impresario V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), who wants to make Dumbo a star at his Coney Island theme park.
Selling himself in high-toned language as a merchant of dreams, Vandevere is two parts P.T. Barnum and one part ... Walt Disney? Certainly, his steampunk/art deco paradise and its similarities to a certain other park chain are the movie's most intriguing and surprising aspects, given that any viewer older than 6 will see Vandevere's heel turn coming.
The question remains, though: Whose story is this? Holt doesn't have many characteristics beyond "grieving." DeVito, Keaton and Eva Green (as Vandevere's aerialist consort) are all fun to watch, but none has much inner life. The scenes where Dumbo's mother reaches to him through the bars of her cage are still by far the film's most powerful. Yet young Milly, also deprived of her mom, appears to have replaced the elephant at center stage.
In the original, Dumbo has a champion, Timothy Q. Mouse, who promotes him with a huckster's verve. Milly plays a parallel role here, but she and Dumbo lack the chemistry that makes kid-animal bonds so compelling in movies such as The Black Stallion and the first How to Train Your Dragon. Instead of actual interaction between them, we have Milly nattering to her brother about the scientific method, which feels like screenwriter Ehren Kruger's well-intentioned but dramatically leaden effort to promote STEM for girls. Meanwhile, Dumbo just ... is. As special effects go, he's sweet, and not too obnoxiously anthropomorphized. (In this version, none of the animals talk.) But he and the live actors never quite connect.
Dumbo has some beautiful bits that evoke the surreality and danger of life under Vandevere's big top. But it feels like a cobbled-together concoction of antiquated sentiments and modern talking points. The film's coda should soothe the hearts of critter-loving children — as long as they don't think too closely about the likely fallout of the climactic sequence that preceded it.
While the original film brings a whole menagerie to life, this one gives the cute, big-eyed animals special treatment. Folks in 1919 may consider Dumbo hideous, but we recognize him for what he is: a golden merchandising opportunity.