A Superfluous O
When I was a lad, especially prior to the home entertainment revolution, your actual classic Disney cartoons never turned up on TV: the corporation had hit upon a cunning wheeze to maximise its cashflow as far as these films were concerned. The trick was a simple one: rather than selling the films to TV networks, Disney just kept re-releasing them into cinemas on a seven-year cycle, meaning that every new generation got a chance to see them on the big screen. This continued until the dawn of the new modern age of Disney animation in the early 90s – I remember seeing The Jungle Book on its 1993 release. Things are different now, of course, with all of the corporation's back-catalogue available on DVD. They have to find a new way of maintaining interest in these movies.
And the solution they appear to have landed upon is to remake all those lovely old cartoons as modern CGI blockbusters: a trend which started with Jon Favreau's remake of The Jungle Book three years ago, and which is reaching full fruition this year – apart from the Mary Poppins sequel, which is not exactly the same kind of thing, we will see live action and CGI versions of Aladdin and The Lion King. First off the blocks, however, is Tim Burton's new version of Dumbo.
The original Dumbo, released in 1941, was something of a cheapie for Walt Disney, made economically and in a hurry after Fantasia proved to be something of a glorious folly for the film-maker. The new film is twice as long as the original and basks in a budget of over $170 million dollars. The story remains very roughly similar, and concerns a rather down-at-heel circus, in the new film run by Danny DeVito. The year is 1919 and animal trainer Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) returns from the First World War, in the course of which his arm has been CGI'd off, to be reunited with his (rather charmless) children. Their mother, along with many of the other circus folk, has died from the Spanish Flu, leaving everyone dispirited and emotionally scarred. (Good stuff for the tinies in the audience, this.)
Hopes are high that a new elephant recently purchased for the circus will turn the fortunes of the business around, as the animal is about to give birth. However, the mini-elephant, when it emerges, is an unprepossessing specimen, mainly on account of its freakishly large ears, and it is unkindly christened Dumbo. However, and you are almost certainly ahead of me on this one, Dumbo turns out to have an unusual talent – when properly motivated, those ears begin to flap and the pachyderm takes to the air!
So far, so very much like the 1941 version, you may be thinking. Well, yes and (very emphatically) no, for as you may have gathered, the more charmingly whimsical elements of the story have been almost wholly excised in favour of a bunch of largely one-dimensional new human characters. Think of an element of the original Dumbo that you remember with particular vividness and fondness, and I can almost guarantee that it is essentially absent from the new one. Oh, yes, there are plenty of call-backs and allusions, but only in the most superficial way – Timothy the mouse is gone, the extraordinary alcohol-induced hallucination sequence is gone, and the musical sequence with the singing crows has also gone (presumably it has been decreed that the crows could be construed as racially provocative). In their place are clangingly delivered messages about the treatment of circus animals and (for some reason) the evil of gender roles: in almost every scene, Farrell's daughter gets to deliver solemn dialogue about how she is going to be A Scientist and Discover Things and Do Research And Experiments Using The Scientific Method. Nothing wrong with the sentiment, naturally, but why the hell are they crowbarring it into Dumbo?
I should point out that the new film blows through virtually the entire plot of the 1941 version well within the first hour, leaving a lot of time to fill before the obligatory happy ending. It is at this point that the new Dumbo stops being just dismaying and becomes actively baffling: arriving on the scene is wealthy entertainment tycoon V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), who is opening a new theme park and needs a big attraction to lure in the punters. He initially comes across as a warm, avuncular figure, but (no real spoilers here, I think) eventually proves to be a ruthless, grasping, exploitative villain.
At which point one can only pause to wonder what on Earth the people at Disney think they are doing? Has no-one noticed the subtext of the new movie? This is a Disney film in which the bad guy is effectively a thinly-disguised version of Walt Disney himself, with 'Dreamland' presented as a thoroughly phoney and unpleasant place. It's the worst possible advertisement for the world's biggest entertainment brand. I can just about imagine someone like Tim Burton being amused by the idea of smuggling this kind of subversive idea into a film from the Mouse House, but this is barely subtle enough to qualify as smuggling – it's hardly some buried subtext, more the essential message of the film. I say it again: has everyone at Disney gone mad?
Normally I would be quite amused by the extravagant way that the world's biggest entertainment company is cheerfully shooting itself in the foot, but the execution of this part of the film isn't really any better than that of the opening act. The characterisation is still thin (the best part probably goes to Burton's girlfriend Eva Green, as a trapeze artist), the general tone of the film gloomy and grotesque. No-one seems to have figured out that a concept which is effortlessly charming when realised with cel animation and anthropomorphic talking animals just seems weird and slightly disturbing with photo-realistic CGI and human performers: we are clearly intended to find Dumbo irresistibly cute, but the glassy-eyed creature front and centre for much of the film comes direct from the Uncanny Valley.
I suppose one should even be slightly grateful for how comprehensively misconceived the new version of Dumbo is, for few films in recent memory are quite as worthy of this kind of self-sabotage. It's a film which trades heavily on the audience's fondness for the original film – fondness which is entirely warranted, I feel obliged to mention, for the 1941 film is packed with charm, imagination and pathos – but then attempts to lure them in to see something which barely qualifies as a remake, having a substantially different tone and story, and including none of the moments you remember. One can only assume the other films on the way will be better – it's hard to imagine how they could be much worse – but Dumbo is, well, mostly just dumb.
Also This Week...
...Being Frank: The Chris Sievey Story, a deeply affectionate retelling of the life of the Manchester-based musician and performance artist. Sievey remained an obscure figure throughout his life, but achieved cult stardom in the guise of his surreal creation Frank Sidebottom. Archive footage and interviews do full justice to Sievey's irrepressible creativity while acknowledging the darker patches of his life. Warm, engaging, and often very funny indeed, this is a worthy tribute to a unique and underappreciated talent.