“Dumbo,” along with “The Jungle Book,” “Cinderella,” and the upcoming “Aladdin,” is yet another live-action remake of a popular Disney film. Starring a cute CGI elephant and an array of circus performers, the film extends on the short, hour long children’s movie from 1941 to create a fantastical, almost two hour-long tale. However, no actual substance or complex characters are added to align with the longer running time. While visually outstanding, the film itself occupies an awkward middle ground between being too serious and bleak to be a kids’ movie while lacking the depth or action for mature audiences.
The plotline remains pretty faithful to the original, with the addition of the tragic, but eventually sweet, storyline of a family who help Dumbo and his mom, Jumbo, throughout the film. The choice to focus on the Farriers instead of developing Dumbo’s storyline doesn’t really pay off plot-wise. A significant portion of the film focuses on scenes in which the kids grapple with the loss of their mother; a plot point which, unfortunately, fails to convince viewers.
There’s no doubt that the CGI is generally well-executed. The titular character was completely computer-generated but didn’t look like a simulated reproduction. His expressions and movements were believable as Dumbo flew around the circus tent to looking mournfully after his mother. Although his generated appearance is excellent, sometimes the CGI missed the mark. Dreamland, the manufactured circus which the performers move to by the middle of the film, looked more like something from an animated movie than a real amusement park. Dumbo was close enough to a real elephant, but the rides of Dreamland were far too fantastical and obviously computer-generated to pass for real.
Dumbo’s character, despite its artificiality, was far more compelling than many of the live action actors. Even Danny Devito’s character, circus owner Max Medici, felt too unsympathetic in comparison to the other sugary-sweet characters. Devito managed to veer from his unlikeable persona through comedy and moments of compassion, but his characterization itself felt shallow, adding no complexity to the “greedy circus owner” trope until the very end. The majority of the other characters encountered the same issue — their roles boxed their characters in and lacked depth. Some actors breathed life into their roles, as in the case of Miss Atlantis, but these performances are scarce in “Dumbo.”
Sitting through these flaws leads to a great payoff; the film got exponentially better by the last act. Funny moments, emotional interactions and fast-paced action are all crammed together as Dumbo and the Medici circus performers band together against the deranged Dreamland owner, Vandemere (Michael Keaton). The film concludes on a relatively satisfying note, and minor changes from the original, while somewhat uninspired, don’t ruin the plot. But despite the general passability of this film, “Dumbo” falls short of the beloved classic it’s imitating.
Verdict: “Dumbo’”s childhood nostalgia may be enough to pique interest, but the constant flaws, unoriginal plot and long runtime all make for a disappointing watch. Those patient enough to sit through the bland characterizations will be pleasantly surprised by the dynamic last act, even if they aren’t by the predictable ending.