Disney’s latest live action update to the 1941 animated motion-picture leaves me with the question: why bother? The original was a beautiful piece of work, containing some of Disney’s best visual poetry. Multiple parables and lessons can be gleaned from the classic, which should be considered “essential viewing” for everyone. In an era where Disney executives greenlighted a policy of “sequels and live action remakes,” I somewhat question why this movie was chosen versus a large number of other properties. Aladdin and The Lion King clearly work, based on the movie trailers promoting these up-coming releases. But Dumbo turned out to be a choice that looked good on paper – not on the big screen.
The entire first half was slow, dreadful and for a moment I asked myself why director Tim Burton even accepted this assignment. “This is not Tim Burton material,” I thought to myself. Such a story does not work with a gothic/idyllic dichotomy rendition… or so I thought.
Half way through the movie, having explored most of the key scenes from the animated original, the movie goes a different direction. Dumbo is taken out of the circus and purchased by a multi-millionaire with his 1919 rendition of Disneyland, known as Dreamland. Steampunk influenced rides and visions of the future (ala Futureland) fill the screen, as does the cast of characters who try their best to ensure Dumbo lands safely on all fours. When the crooked agenda of Michael Keaton’s Vandemere is exposed, the circus performers race to the rescue. The second half of the movie is thrilling, exciting and very entertaining.
The movie avoids talking animals, focusing on a human take of the classic story. But with three uses of “hell” in the first half hour, and a man getting killed, you knew soon after the opening credits finished that this was going to be a darker take. Have no fear, however, the death scene was downplayed and the nightmare attractions in Dreamland are less scary than Pleasure Island in Disney’s 1940 Pinocchio. The talents of Michael Keaton and Eva Green were wasted in this film and Will Smith was justified turning down this movie and instead routing for the genie in the up-coming Aladdin.
The difference between the first half and the second half is night and day. Never have I been able to describe a film in that manner, putting me on the fence as to whether this film is good or bad. Maybe later this year executives at Disney will authorize Quentin Tarantino to do a live action remake of Bambi.