Dumbo (Burton, 2019)

These Disney live-action remakes are threatening to create more cynics than converts, as we haven’t yet seen one that can stand on its own and make a case for itself. Worse yet, 2019 is going to be inundated with them, and there’s no telling if any will succeed in having artistic merit. Tim Burton’s take on Dumbo is first out of the gate, and the end result doesn’t inspire much confidence for the rest. Granted, it’s not for lack of trying. The original is only an hour long and has a very simple story to justify its short length. As films these days are almost never 60-minute affairs, this remake had to stretch itself out in some way, which Burton and his team try to do. The frame of the original film’s story is covered in the first hour, while the last half introduces more characters, a new set, and a not-so-subtle dig at the Disney corporate machine through an exploitative entrepreneur played by Michael Keaton.

The introduction of Keaton’s storyline rewinds the plot, so to speak, as Dumbo has to relive his former indignities while trying to reunite with his mother. There is just greater spectacle involved, culminating in a rather clichéd sequence wherein Dumbo’s child caretakers soar through the air and over a city on his back like something out of The Neverending Story. There’s a breathtaking and triumphant quality to it in the moment, but when you look back, it feels like an inferior riff on bona fide, classic fantasies that know how to create a sense of wonderment for their audiences. In fact, this applies to most of the original material here. It’s trying to emulate a sense of showmanship that, in reality, it doesn’t have. It’s a proverbial hall of mirrors, only refracting a simulacrum of awe.

The other disappointing facet of this remake is its inability to recreate the emotional resonance of its source. “Baby Mine,” for instance, is one of the great musical numbers in the Disney canon, and one guaranteed to make grown men cry all these years later. Its iteration here is underwhelming to say the least, as it’s stuck in the early stages of the film (and thus lacks emotional buildup) and ends well before it ought to begin. It’s a deficit shared by the other live-action remakes that came before this, but the disappointment here is particularly galling since it’s the only song that makes the leap over from the original film. If you had only one song, why not choose to honour it in the way it deserves? Especially since the song was a prominent tool in the film’s marketing? The “Baby Mine” number feels more obligatory than sincere, which could also sum up Disney’s philosophy with regards to these films: obligatory cash-grabs rather than true and sincere efforts to reintroduce these films to a new generation of viewers. And that’s sad! With a little more care and sincerity, these films could have a shot at being standouts, and there was certainly promise of that when Burton was announced as the film’s helmer. Unfortunately, not even his vision could compensate for what amounts to a hollow and listless retread.

I will give it this, though: CGI Dumbo is very cute.