Boy, oh, boy, is Disney just absolutely going ham with these live-action remakes. If 2010’s Alice in Wonderland told us anything, it’s that a $1 billion worth of people will flock to the theaters for such a thing. Some of these animated classics seem ripe for live action remakes, such as Aladdin and The Jungle Book, but I don’t think anybody was clamoring for a live-action Dumbo. It’s a 64-minute movie that has talking animals as its main characters, so it seems like it would be the most difficult film to turn into a more modern film. To quote a friend of mine when the remake was announced, “It’s an elephant and three racist birds. That’s the whole movie!” Well, that certainly isn’t gonna stop Disney from trying to rake in cash wherever they can, though. 
In 1919, Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) is a World War I veteran who performs in a traveling circus as a rodeo cowboy. Unfortunately, due to a recent injury that results in the loss of his arm, Holt’s act is dropped and he and his children are tasked to take care of the elephants. One of the elephants gives birth to a calf with enormous ears, but they’re not just any large ears. They give him the ability to fly and this elephant they name Dumbo quickly becomes a sensation at the circus. However, success invites greed, as businessman and theme park owner V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton) comes to take control of the successful circus, and Dumbo himself. 
So, yeah, as these live-action remakes tend to go, you’re basically watching a realistic version of the cartoon, but thankfully this isn’t a beat for beat remake, a la The Jungle Book or Beauty and the Beast. Like I mentioned before, the original Dumbo is incredibly simple and there’s not much to be done with it, but director Tim Burton and screenwriter Ehren Kruger sure tried their best. The story here is just as thin and doesn’t have a whole lot of depth, but the themes and characters (aside from the crows, who are unsurprisingly absent) get a bit more room to breathe. It’s an incredibly simple narrative about a flying big-eared elephant who wants to be reunited with his mother, but that main story is well handled enough to be engaging. It was a bit manipulative at times with pulling of the heart strings, but most of the story felt earned. The rest of the film centers around the rising popularity of Dumbo and while it is fun to watch, it does get a little bit repetitive. The first time you see Dumbo fly is a rousing, powerful moment, but when it gets repeated over and over again, it loses its luster. 
The thing is, absolutely none of these characters are worth caring about. Each one is a simple archetype that exists to further the story in some way, without any real arcs or dramatic thrust in their stories. Colin Farrell and Danny DeVito are both fantastic, but they’re cast in their usual types of rules and kind of feel like they’re just going through the motions. In contrast, Michael Keaton (with his constant sneer) and Eva Green got to chew some scenery with more flamboyant like characters. Still, there’s nothing to these characters beyond their appearances. Holt is a veteran. Medici is a ringmaster. Vandevere is the sniveling businessman. Been there, done that. Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins who play Holt’s children don’t do much to improve their characters either. They’re basically the stand-ins for Timothy Q. Mouse from the original film, being the main sources of inspiration and guidance for Dumbo, but their flatline performances dragged down the more emotional scenes. They don’t really get much to work with anyway, but they’re both so lifeless, they may have well as been pieces of wood. Hey, maybe that’ll get them some work for the live-action Pinnochio remake. 
But who cares about all of those lame human characters when your actual lead character and protagonist is so damn adorable? Just like the circus, Dumbo is the star of the show here, thanks to some terrific visual effects courtesy of various CGI teams. He’s obviously not photorealistic, but what makes it is his attitude and personality, which was loads of fun. Elephants are expressive animals enough already, but the filmmakers still did an excellent job at creating an engaging, fully fleshed out character from an elephant. The original Dumbo was one of those movies I watched over and over as a child, and it was all because I found the concept of a flying elephant so endearing and fascinating. Perhaps it’s a small pair of nostalgia goggles I was wearing, but Dumbo here is just so damn adorable that I couldn’t help but smile and internally say, “Awwwwww,” every time he was on screen. He’s a fun character with such a large personality that he absolutely carries it the whole way through, which is impressive from a CGI character who can’t speak. 
This also feels like the most sincere film Burton has made in over a decade. Many of his recent films have felt so lifeless and bland, so I was happy that there was a bit more energy and whimsy here. It’s not all dark and gloomy production design with garish costumes and makeup, but it’s still very theatrical and a little over the top. That makes sense with the circus setting, although I felt the colors could have popped a bit more, with it being a circus and all. However, the contrast between the dull Medici Brothers Circus and Vandevere’s bright and colorful Dreamland made it make sense. I also loved Danny Elfman’s beautifully emotional score, that really did a great job in elevating all of the dramatic scenes hampered by mediocre writing. Aside from the modern effects, this feels like a film Burton would have made back in the 90’s when he was a bit more restrained and careful with his filmmaking.

Like every other live-action Disney remake, Dumbo doesn’t break any new ground, nor is it filled with surprises. However, I appreciated that this vehicle was less of a beat for beat remake of the original, but more of its own thing. The characters and story aren’t anything to write home about, but it was all very sweet because of the great central character Dumbo. While not a terrific film on its own merits, it’s a terrific film for the whole family that can entertain young and old alike. It’s also the best film Tim Burton has made in years, and it made me a little hopeful that he can reignite that spirit that he lost in the 2000’s with future projects. He’s broken free from the shackles of Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham-Carter, so maybe he can do it. Dumbo could, so why can’t he?

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