At one point in Dumbo—Disney’s ill-advised live-action remake of its own 1941 classic—a potential circus investor turns to a colleague and exclaims, “Wow, what a disaster!” As tempting as it is to end this review right there, I’ll soldier on.
Going into Dumbo, as you see Tim Burton’s name on the poster as director and executive producer, you might expect a fantastical retelling of a beloved story, or perhaps a somewhat twisted and visually inventive loose take on a well-known tale (as Burton himself accomplished with 2010’s Alice in Wonderland). No and no.
What we get is a god-awful and outright embarrassing film stuffed so full of bad acting, silly writing, and lazy direction that you will wonder if Burton conked his head repeatedly during production; there’s very little else that could possibly explain how this movie ever lived to see the light of day. Way too intense and depressing for kids and far too much of a total derailment for adults to enjoy, it’s hard to imagine anyone watching it and saying to themselves, “Yup, that was worth two hours of my time.”
It’s actually stunning that Dumbo could crash and burn so spectacularly, given the fact that there are so many ingredients for success in the mix. Along with Burton, we get a grade-A cast that includes Michael Keaton, Colin Farrell, Eva Green, and Danny DeVito. The cinematography comes courtesy of Ben Davis, who lent his wealth of talents to Doctor Strange and Captain Marvel, and the always-great Danny Elfman contributes the score. It’s only when we reach the screenwriting credit that we begin to understand how everything might have come crashing down. When you hire a writer whose best and most admirable credit is arguably Transformers: Dark of the Moon, well—there you have it.
While Ehren Kruger can get partial credit for holding on to at least some of the moments that made the original film so memorable (a character hums “Casey Junior” at one point, a stork shows up at another, and even the pink elephants on parade get their moment) far more was folded, spindled, and mutilated, to the point where the new Dumbo can be considered an offshoot of the original in name only.
Farrell stars as Holt Farrier, a circus horse-rider just home from World War I with an amputated arm; his two kids are the ones who take Dumbo under their wing. DeVito plays circus owner Max Medici, who sells out to the dastardly V.A. Vandevere (Keaton) once Dumbo becomes all the rage. Vandevere wants to add the elephant as the main attraction at his new super-park Dreamland.
While Farrell and DeVito do manage to turn in decent performances, Keaton is the one who surprisingly stinks up the show. His attempt to play the most cartoonishly written bad guy since Christopher Lloyd’s Judge Doom in Who Framed Roger Rabbitis enough to make even the most devout Keaton fans cringe.
As bad as Keaton is, however, he’s far from the film’s worst problem, which is a horribly misguided script that somehow made it past everyone in the Disney brain trust. The one consolation is that no matter what happens, the original, endearing 1941 classic film will always be with us. As for this version? Forget Dumbo, it’s just plain dumb.