March 28, 2019

Warm Up Act: Walt Disney’s 'Dumbo'

By Tim Hruszkewycz *
Disney's Dumbo. Courtesy photo.
Disney's Dumbo. Courtesy photo.

I just watched a corporation make a move in a grand cinematic strategy.
 
“Dumbo” is not a movie meant to stand on its own two feet. It is an effort to test the waters of what audiences will accept from Disney’s string of live action remakes.

I don’t think I’m the only one who has looked at Disney’s live action remakes of its animated classics with a bit of suspicion. So far, they have mostly been functional.

I didn’t care for “Beauty and the Beast,” because of its over-reliance on computer generated characters. “Cinderella” was a phenomenally pretty movie that really didn’t hold much heart for me. But I kind-of-sort-of liked “The Jungle Book.” I don’t gush over it because I have a precious cinematic street cred to hold onto.

But even though I actually kind of liked one of these movies, I understand the live-action Disney remakes will never hold the place that the original movies had. A lot of remakes have that problem. There are, actually, only a handful of remakes that can outshine their predecessors, and I wouldn’t recommend many of them to families.

Disney’s use of the live-action remake seems most like a surgical strike on an audience’s pocketbook. Disney is aware that the nostalgia for their characters is palpable. They hold the rights to these images and characters and want them to find new life. Audiences will pay to see these characters vibrant and alive again, because they just need to return to the feelings evoked by the original films once again. .

Still, I can’t really be angry at Disney for making the films. But what happens when the well runs dry?

This year sees the premiere of both “Aladdin” and “The Lion King.” Those are some heavy hitters. Those are the movies that defined the childhood of my generation. But can we have those kinds of summer remake releases forever? No, of course not.

Eventually, we will have watched every single element of our nostalgia. What will we have left? “The Rescuers.” “Oliver and Company.” “The Aristocats,” “Meet the Robinsons,” “Bolt.”

We will have “Dumbo.”

Now, imagine that I own these properties and I have to keep the nostalgia train rolling. Could I garner steam from that list? Absolutely not. Instead, the smartest choice Disney can make is to release a movie like “Dumbo” in the midst of a string of hits.

This makes Disney seem pretty soulless. Of course, I’m not going to defend the artistic reputation of one of the biggest corporations to grace this planet. But I can say that Disney is not dumb.

I think Disney knows exactly what kind of cultural impact “Dumbo” has. “Dumbo” is a recognizable character, but few people are beholden to his mythos. Few people are in love with “Dumbo.” That’s probably a good thing. I watched the animated “Dumbo” last week in preparation for the screening I just attended. I completely forgot about the overtly racist characters in the film. I forgot how “Dumbo,” the animated motion picture, barely has a story. I forgot that “Dumbo” was only 64 minutes long.

Because there is no cult following for the original “Dumbo,” Tim Burton and his team were free do something pretty smart with the material: they were allowed to do whatever they wanted.

Dumbo the character had to have big ears and he had to fly. There had to be a circus and there had to be a message about the importance of family. But everything else about the original film could kind of go out the window.

“Dumbo,” the new film, hits the few nostalgic moments hard and early, while offering practically a new movie. Settling the events of the first film in the first half-hour to forty minutes, the new plot is almost completely tonally different than the original film. I’m not surprised to see that “Dumbo” is now an adventure film. We’re too close to the summer for it not to be something that is supposed to wow audiences with the adventures of a flying elephant.

“Dumbo” is the best version of a movie that has a lot of cards stacked against it. Tim Burton tries to make us really care for Dumbo, this neglected child who is consistently extorted throughout the film.

But the template for “Dumbo” is remarkably bleak. If I was to strip away the circus façade, a now dated setting for a film, the basis for the movie is about treating poorly children who look different. It is a nuclear version of The Ugly Duckling narrative. But adaptations of “The Ugly Duckling,” are not dreadfully long. “Dumbo,” on the other hand clocks in at an hour and fifty-two minutes. That’s a lot of elephant abuse.

My wife often points out that film adaptations of children’s books rarely pan out the way we want them to. She cites the live action adaptation of “Where the Wild Things Are.” The movie is very pretty, but the book only lasts five minutes when read aloud. How does one find that much extra material when the source is so scant? “Dumbo” has the same problem. The lessons of “Dumbo” are learned early on and the rest of the movie coasts by escalating the problems to monumental levels.

I won’t be the only one making this comparison, but did Burton make the villain of his “Dumbo” an evil Walt Disney? Tim Burton made a live action version of “Frankenweenie” for Disney back in 1984. My dad loved this version of the movie and it was a mainstay in our house for years. But because the film was so dark, Disney fired Burton. I wonder if there is a revenge element to the villain of “Dumbo.” Perhaps a mirror universe version of Uncle Walt, Michael Keaton is an amusement park owner whose Dreamland is eerily similar to elements of Tomorrowland at the Magic Kingdom. Even Burton’s choice for his villain’s font and design were somewhat gutsy for someone being welcomed back to the House of Mouse.

My seven-year-old daughter, a comic book fan, somehow thought “Dumbo” was her fourth favorite movie. She adored it. Watching “Dumbo” fly and beat the bad guy was marvelous for her. Sure, she flopped all over my lap and became a ragdoll at times, but she seemed to really enjoy it.

But my son, who is now becoming infamous through these reviews for being extremely sensitive, called it the “worstest movie he ever sawed.” He was terrified throughout. I don’t know if it is the strictest definition of “terror” however. For kids who are empathic, this movie is straight torture. People are cruel to animals throughout the piece. The baby elephant is constantly in danger and the movie, with its live action take, has taken away the voice of Timothy Mouse to comfort us and assure us that Dumbo will be okay. Instead, we have a family who act as bystanders. These people don’t know that Dumbo is going to be okay, so they are a poor substitute for a talking mouse.  

(I just now realized that Tim Burton, who was fired from Disney in 1984, just took the talking mouse out of his Disney film.  How’s that for irony?)

Tim Burton made the best live action “Dumbo” film that could be made. It’s entertaining. It is often marvelous. But “Dumbo” has a few very big problems, the biggest being the fact that it ends up as a generic summer lead-in adventure movie.  

But at the end of the day, the live action “Dumbo” is still only an adaptation of the animated “Dumbo,” a film that the Disney corporation surely considers one of its lesser properties.

Just as I enjoyed “The Jungle Book,” I can say that I kind of liked “Dumbo.” But it won’t end up on my shelf as a beloved Disney classic. The folks in the war room at Disney have to attempt some new maneuvers before attempting more live-action remakes from the furthest back shelves of the vault.

Tim Hruszkewycz is a high school English and film teacher at Villa Madonna Academy in Villa Hills, KY. He also co-hosts the Literally Anything podcast at literallyanything.net and blogs about film

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.