How many have seen Walt Disney‘s original 1941 Dumbo? I did when I was seven or eight, something like that. That endearing scene in which tearful little Dumbo longs for his mom’s embrace after she’s been locked up for being a “mad” elephant…right? Then came my second immersion when I saw Steven Spielberg‘s 1941, which opened (good God) almost 40 years ago. That scene, I mean, when Robert Stack’s General Stillwell weeps while watching the locked-up-mom scene in a Hollywood Blvd. theatre.
Disney’s almost 80-year-old animation may seem a little crude by present-day standards, and the film only runs 64 minutes, but the original Dumbo (overseen by Walt and “supervising director” Ben Sharpsteen) emotionally works.
Dumbo‘s basic theme (first articulated in Helen Aberson and Harold Pearl‘s Dumbo, the Flying Elephant, a 1938 children’s book) is that young oddballs — anyone or anything perceived as “different” — are doomed to suffer at the hands of selfish, short-sighted humans. But if the little fella has some kind of inner gift or aptitude (like flying, say) and can somehow express it, the ugliness can be stilled to some extent. Or he can at least snuggle up with mom.
Tim Burton‘s big, over-produced, annoyingly simple-minded remake sticks to the same basic idea — i.e., oddballs can find light at the end of the tunnel if they can show a little moxie.
Burton takes a small, mostly sad little story — a big-eared baby elephant that can fly is separated from his mom, and has to learn to fend for himself — and basically throws money at it while adding nearly 50 minutes to the running time — 112 minutes vs. the original’s 64.
Okay, money and a really nice compositional eye, at least during the first half. The first 55 or 60 minutes of Dumbo are largely about old-worldish production design (by Rick Heinrichs, who worked with Burton on Sleepy Hollow) and Ben Davis‘s cinematography, which is really quite handsome. Within the first hour every shot is an exquisite, carefully lighted painting.
We’re talking about a small-scaled, old-fashioned, Toby Tyler-ish realm, owned and operated by the hucksterish but good-hearted Max Medici (Danny DeVito). A big canvas circus tent, wooden bleachers, peanuts and popcorn, lions and lion tamers, strong men and fat ladies…the kind of operation celebrated in Cecil B. DeMille‘s The Greatest Show on Earth (’52) and in Samuel Bronston‘s Circus World (’64).
But the second half — or when poor Dumbo’s life is darkened by Michael Keaton‘s V. A. Vandevere, a P.T. Barnum-meets-Beetlejuice figure who represents all kinds of venality, corporate greed and the seven circles of hell — the second half is just awful. The scale of Keaton’s super-circus (a Dante-esque amusement park called Dreamland) is oppressive. Watching this portion is a combination of (a) “villainy! vulgarity! greed!”, (b) “turn off the stupid spigots,” (b) “who wrote this godawful dialogue?” (answer: Ehren Kruger) and (d) “please burn it all down.”
Keaton’s villainy is ridiculous — Vandevere is arguably the stupidest character he’s ever played. Beetlejuice was an Oxford scholar compared to this moron. Plus the metaphor of his gray-haired toupee feels like overkill. He’s a tasteless ogre — we get it.
Burton’s Dumbo is the original 1941 story blended with the 1949 Mighty Joe Young (i.e., little Dumbo singlehandedly saving a couple of kids from a circus-tent fire) plus E.T., the Extra-Terrestrial (let’s pool forces to rescue Dumbo from the clutches of greedy villains and put him and his mom on a ship back home).
HE to Burton and Kruger: India is not some Lion King-like natural paradise. The odds are that if Dumbo and his mom returned to India in the 1930s they’d be put to work lifting fallen trees and telephone poles with their trunks.
The cast has been told to play it broad and simple, and they all do that — Colin Farrell, Eva Green (Burton’s current girlfriend — he always make movies with romantic partners), Alan Arkin, Nico Parker (Thandie Newton’s daughter), Finley Hobbins, Joseph Gatt as a bald-headed bad guy, Roshan Seth, DeObia Oparei, etc.
IMDB comment: “Disney continues to reheat its classics, churning out barely warmed up leftovers that lack any of the charm of their originals. It’s a studio run mostly by charm-challenged accountants now. Don’t see this garbage. Try to stop this endless onslaught.”