Film review: Dumbo

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Friday, March 29th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: A review of the updated children’s classic Dumbo.

Now, this one makes some necessary changes from the original.

But maybe the biggest challenge the producers have here is stretching not quite an hour of story into two hours of film.

Here’s our Megan Basham.

CLIP: Fly little one [Cheering, applause, music]

MEGAN BASHAM, FILM CRITIC: Dumbo was always likely to be the most difficult of Disney’s animated classics to adapt for live action. The original ugly duckling tale of a little elephant who discovers his big ears are actually his biggest asset was a perfectly contained, one-hour delight that even the youngest viewers could follow. Try to expand that same story to nearly two hours and the story starts to stretch rather thin.

Unlike Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, and the rest of the princess canon, Dumbo has no romance to orchestrate. It also boasts no villain obsessed by grand, murderous schemes. Sure, a few circus bullies crack wise about the ears. But that’s a far cry from one very specific monster plotting to, say, eat you, a la Shere Khan. Wisecracks don’t call for much of a final showdown.

CLIP: For the record, this was not my idea. Dumbo works alone. So do I. So I gotta teach you to fly? I know how to fly. Ever since I was a child. They taught Dumbo to fly, no? So I don’t need your expertise.

And yet Dumbo did have one trump card over many of the other Disney tales. It had larger-than-life animal characters like Timothy Q. Mouse, a pack of gossipy pachyderms, and a flock of singing crows.

It certainly made sense for the studio to excise the bird band, which traded on some bad racial stereotypes (one was literally named Jim Crow). But they inexplicably decided to forgo all of the beloved talking animals.

They also dropped the most recognizable, toe-tapping tune from the 1941 version—“When I See an Elephant Fly.”

MUSIC: [When I see an Elephant Fly]

It’s a bit like trying to do Jungle Book without Baloo and the “Bear Necessities.” Bring in all the dazzling Tim Burton visuals you want—and there are plenty—audiences are still going to leave a little disappointed.

That’s not to say this Dumbo doesn’t have its charms, but it flies much further afield of the source material than any of Disney’s modern updates so far. The original big finale of dive bombing the big tent is now just the end of the first act. And everything from there is much more realistic than the whimsical story that has been charming audiences for generations.

Some parents may be glad to hear that, along with the monologuing mammals, Dumbo’s champagne-induced hallucinations have gone by the wayside as well. But they’ve been replaced by PG-level language.

In the most creative sequence of the film, Tim Burton reimagines the pink elephants on parade as enormous bubbles that are simply part of a circus act.  Even when the story works after that, it isn’t particularly creative. Instead of a hilarious rodent manager with a Brooklyn accent to kill, for example, we get the same old child allies we see in most animal movies who compete with our little elephant as the true protagonists of the story.

That said, the youngsters are likeable. And Colin Farrell turns in an effectively emotional performance as their war hero father. And Michael Keaton as an ironically Walt-Disney-like villain and Danny DeVito as a small-time ringmaster help keep things entertaining.

CLIP: [Monkey sounds] Not now! Is that a monkey in your desk? Just for emergencies. Mr. Vandeveer, I probably should tell you. The elephant is not for sale. Dumbo will only fly for the Medici Circus. That’s assuming he is real. 

Still, it seems a shame to take such wildly imaginative and timeless story and tame it with contemporary concerns like facing down corporate greed and a PETA-style moral about not caging animals. It’s all fine but far too familiar. And it doesn’t hold a candle—or a feather—to the flights of fancy old Dumbo has been taking us on for years.

For WORLD Radio, I’m Megan Basham.

(Disney via AP) This image released by Disney shows Colin Farrell, Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins in a scene from “Dumbo.” 

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