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Tim Burton’s Dumbo remake displays little of his trademark gothic whimsy

Disney holds in its studio archives the original prints of and rights to some of the world’s most beloved films: peerless movies that entire generations of kids have grown up with. It’s a treasure trove of cinematic memories but for the entertainment conglomerate, it’s also intellectual property to exploit. So, one classic Disney cartoon after another is getting a live-action remake.

There have been two Jungle Books (1994 and 2016); a 101 Dalmatians and a 102 sequel; an Alice in Wonderland and a sequel, too. In recent years we’ve had fairy tales Maleficent, Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast. This year will deliver remakes of The Lion King and Aladdin, to be swiftly followed by Mulan, Lady and the Tramp, Cruella (another Dalmatians spin-off) and The Little Mermaid.

In modern remakes, the careful art of animation has given way to computer trickery. Real-world concerns assail fantasy lands. Stories are bent around the gravitational pull of starry casts.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

Dumbo is but the latest, an update of the 1941 classic about a charming airborne pachyderm. Some of the original’s quaintness and naivety has been fitted into this new version: the baby-bearing storks, the floating pink elephants, nods to Timothy Q Mouse and the magic feather. This time, however, Dumbo himself (a cute lump of hoots and trumpets with watery blue eyes) must share the (heavily green-screened) stage with humans.

Danny DeVito (welcome in pretty much anything) plays the exasperated ringmaster of the travelling circus into which Dumbo is born. That’s until Coney Island mogul VA Vandevere (a happily deranged Michael Keaton) sweeps in to buy them out of their newest attraction, separating Dumbo from his mother in the process.

The director here is Tim Burton, whose leanings might have suited the dark dazzle of the aforementioned Alice in Wonderland but whose work here is about as staid and generic as it has ever been. He hits the prescribed story beats and imparts the moral messages (grieving for lost parents, self-belief, animal rights) but there’s little of his trademark gothic whimsy.

What really mars Dumbo, though, is the encounters between actors and animals. The emotional pull of the film is supposed to be in these interactions, yet when placed side-by-side, the creatures look visibly – and awkwardly – fake. The absurd image of Eva Green (who plays a trapeze artist) riding Dumbo around a big top looks like something from the Stone Age of visual effects. Astoundingly, Dumbo 2.0 is almost twice the length of its cartoon predecessor, and yet for all that extra girth, it still lacks the warmth, charm and innocence of the original. The first Dumbo just flew by. But you risk coming out of the new one feeling grey and wrinkled.

IN CINEMAS NOW

★★1/2

Video: Walt Disney Studios

This article was first published in the April 6, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.