'Dumbo' and the Challenge of Remaking a Classic

Though 'The Jungle Book' and 'Beauty and the Beast' have been big hits at the box office, there’s always a hurdle or two to clear.
Courtesy of Disney Enterprises

From a creative standpoint, remaking one of the hand-drawn animated classics from Walt Disney Animation Studios is a challenge. Though recent films like The Jungle Book and Beauty and the Beast have been big hits at the box office, there’s always a hurdle or two to clear. Is it possible to make a remake that doesn’t besmirch the memory of the original? Can you remake a film for a big company like Disney and make it creatively exciting, as opposed to just making it so it’ll rake in boatloads of cash? Tim Burton, himself something of a modern auteurist icon, has been down this path before, with the 2010 film Alice in Wonderland. Though that film was a billion-dollar grosser worldwide, it’s not looked upon fondly by many audiences nearly a decade later. With his latest, a remake of Dumbo, Burton has at least skidded away from the embarrassment of his previous Disney remake, but he has also not improved upon the original, at least according to the critical response

Burton’s take on Alice in Wonderland, like the new Dumbo, boasted a major, A-list cast, including Anne Hathaway, Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter and more. But both retellings are predictably different than their animated inspirations. For Alice, the new story focuses on a slightly older version of the heroine (Mia Wasikowska) as she returns to Wonderland to eventually face off against the fearsome Jabberwock. In Dumbo, some of the story (written by Ehren Kruger) hits familiar beats from the 1941 animated classic. But that original film is barely an hour long and features few human characters, whereas this one features stars Colin Farrell, Eva Green, Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito and more, all playing characters in and around the culture of 1920s-era circuses.

What Dumbo does have that Alice in Wonderland didn’t is a slightly stronger sense of ownership behind the camera. Both movies indulge in CG effects — though the big-eared baby elephant nicknamed Dumbo may look adorable (though not as much as the hand-drawn version), it’s also clearly a CG creation, no more clearly than when humans ride atop him to adoring crowds. The fusion of live-action and computer-generated elements is far less garish and off-putting to look at than in the gloomy-looking Alice in Wonderland. That film’s CG was also more emphasized thanks to being released in 3D; one of the reasons why the film made so much money both domestically and overseas was due to it being released so soon after Avatar, which kicked off the 3D fad of the early 2010s. Dumbo can mercifully be seen in 2D, where its effects (few of which are truly seamless) aren’t quite as aggressive.

Dumbo also has some subtextual elements that Alice in Wonderland simply lacked, making for a more interesting (if not automatically satisfying) viewing experience. The beginning of the new Dumbo has enough passing similarities with the original: at a low-rent traveling circus in the American Midwest, a recently arrived Asian elephant gives birth to a baby pachyderm with bafflingly large ears. Soon enough, the humans at the circus realize that the baby can use its ears to fly and dazzle crowds. And yes, as in the original, Mrs. Jumbo gets separated from her son simply for trying to protect him from the cruelty of circus workers and audience members who make fun of him. But roughly 45 minutes into the new film, Dumbo makes a shift with the introduction of V.A. Vandevere (Keaton), a famous amusement park owner who purchases Dumbo in hopes of making him a marquee attraction.

Keaton’s presence in Dumbo is arguably its saving grace. He's having the time of his life as an exceptionally oily impresario who tries to fool the well-meaning but slightly innocent circus workers whose lives he’s bought so he can make even more money with a flying elephant.

But Keaton’s character, and the presence of his theme park Dreamland (inspired by a real amusement park in Coney Island from the early 1900s), seems to deliberately recall nothing less than Walt Disney and Walt Disney World itself. Dreamland as we see it is full of wonders that seem an awful lot like what you might find in Disneyland or Walt Disney World, from roller-coasters to animal-themed exhibits to depictions of future technology that recall the Audio-Animatronics of Walt Disney’s Carousel of Progress. Moreover, when Vandevere orders the ringmaster (Danny DeVito) of the low-rent circus to fire his own employees, it ends up feeling reminiscent of the recent layoffs at Fox after Disney bought the film studio.

The good news is that, while the concept of a live-action remake of Dumbo sounded bad to some fans of the original, the film itself isn’t as bad as it could have been, with audiences giving it an A- CinemaScore. What’s unfortunate is watching Tim Burton work with actors from his earlier career, such as the Batman Returns reunion here, but with less personality behind the camera. Parts of Dumbo are compelling or offbeat or unexpected, but the whole simply serves as a reminder that what’s happening at the periphery is more interesting than what’s center stage.