If there’s one adjective I typically abhor when it comes to describing films, it’s “cute.” Cute, to my disgruntled ears, comes off as cheap, lazy, and non-descriptive. It’s a broad word that doesn’t really get to the meat of one’s feelings beyond the surface level. It’s a deflection term, often used to describe the exterior of a film while avoiding anything specific, intellectual, or meaningful. It’s an inoffensive word, certainly; there’s really no sense in getting mad about its overuse beyond my (admittedly) overbearingly high literary standards. But I still find it ceaselessly grating. What exactly does it mean to be “cute” anyway? It looks nice? A squeaky-clean disposition? Positive vibes? Good morals? It’s a placeholder word when others fail you.
But sometimes, there are certain words that fit just right. Despite what I might believe otherwise, there are times when a movie is simply cute. Even a pedantic and periodically over-analytical curmudgeon like myself has to recognize when this is the case, and my exacting grammatical hangups must be put aside. When it comes to Tim Burton’s latest blockbuster, a live-action remake of Disney’s beloved 1941 animated classic Dumbo, it might not amount to a whole hell of a lot, but I’ll be damned if it ain’t cute.
Engineered where Burton’s other films often feel more organic to the impressionable director’s distinguishable distinctions, and corporate in a way that the filmmaker’s movies often feel a little more personal, it isn’t exactly what you would expect from the beloved auteur. Yet, Disney’s latest live-action remake is a charming venture, a familiar fable told with fleeting moments of light-hearted sweetness and guided gracefully by its good-natured heart. Sure, it might be shallow. It certainly doesn’t have much to say, really. But it has just enough sincerity to make it worth the while. It may not stand the test of time the way the original Dumbo did, but it glides nicely into acceptability.
Do I need to describe the plot of Dumbo? A baby elephant with gigantic ears is mocked by his peers. This time around, by humans and animals alike, who cruelly decide to nickname him “Dumbo” as an insult to his real name, Jumbo Junior. But a pair of indistinct children — played by newcomers Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins — recognize the good in this picked-upon infant elephant. And it’s only a matter of time before these youngsters realize this elephant isn’t special merely for his larger-than-average ears. Indeed, those ears give this baby elephant flight, and he is soon flying high in the stands of his circus act. This instantly turns skeptical adults — ringmaster Max Medici (Danny DeVito) and one-armed war veteran Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell with an, er, unconvincing country accent) — into believers. And Dumbo’s flying act rapidly attracts the attention of the big league talents.
Specifically, the wealthy and well-known circus owner V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), who is a not-subtle stand-in for mid-to-late period P.T. Barnum. V.A. is quickly wowed by the reports of this flying elephant, and he proposes that Dumbo and the rest of Mr. Medici’s circus attractions join him in his big top act. Dumbo will work alongside his girlfriend, French acrobat Colette Marchant (Burton’s newest muse, Eva Green), and they’ll provide a show the likes of which have never been seen before. But of course, it’s only a matter of time before Dumbo and his human companions realize V.A. isn’t exactly their friend. Meanwhile, all Dumbo wants is to be reconnected with his mother, whom he was separated from shortly after his birth.
There’s no doubt that Disney producing a movie this intentionally and inherently anti-corporate is going to ring false. Many of us know Disney eschews closer to V.A. Vandevere than any of the hard-luck, small-time circus performers it claims to support in this new blockbuster, and there’s no denying how deeply ironic it is for Disney to release this movie in theaters so shortly after they finalized the paperwork on their Fox merger, effectively dismantling many of their small-film divisions.
It becomes apparent after the midway point that this version of Dumbo is meant to be a commentary on the nature of modern cinema (particularly the underdogs of indie cinema) and the hard-fought, hard-won desire to champion the spectacle of the theatergoing experience in the age of streaming. This makes the 20th Century Fox merger all the more tragic while watching this movie right now in 2019. While the kids will be sucked into the message, the truth of the matter is that its morals aren’t any stronger than The Greatest Showman, Fox’s commercial hit musical about P.T. Barnum from barely over a year ago.
The difference, however, is that Disney knows it’s selling a lie, and it doesn’t seem to care. For all its faults, I do think The Greatest Showman had plausible deniability on its side. Maybe not. But even though Dumbo has an ugliness hidden under its shiny surface, at least it doesn’t try to spread falsehoods about real-life people. It doesn’t have broader ambitions beyond providing a fun, easygoing retelling of one of Disney’s older classics, and I will take that over harmful mistruths about abusive people of power in a tight balancing act of evil worthy of a circus spectacle itself.
Now that I’ve muddied the waters a bit in my criticisms and mild celebrations of this new Disney film, I have a quick confession to make: I like Tim Burton. That feels weirdly taboo to say at this point, given how often people like to make fun of him for being repetitious and growingly predictable in his cinematic approach. Not to mention perhaps a bit too garish in his creative choices for some people’s tastes. But I’ve enjoyed a fine majority of his works, and I like his distinctive style and off-beat aesthetics.
He’s an easy filmmaker to parody based on his endlessly reoccurring themes and motifs, as well as his insistence on casting the same batch of actors in a constant rotation. But Burton offers a vibrant visual style where so many other movies often feel listless. So it’s often apparent — even during his misfires — when he is behind the wheel of a certain movie. With that said, Dumbo is the rare Tim Burton movie that doesn’t necessarily feel like a Tim Burton movie. Sure, you can tell it’s his movie. The cast of familiar actors mixed with sharp production designs and a focus on the outsiders and misfits working against the popular big wig conformists and capitalists lets you know instantly that Mr. Burton’s eye is on the lens.
Dumbo is competently-made, but it can feel a bit impersonal in its touch. Perhaps — similar to his last film, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children — the filmmaker is trying to move away from the brash moodiness of his earlier work, which has defined his public image for decades now. It’s possible even Tim Burton knows that making a dark, gothic Dumbo movie wouldn’t necessarily fall in line with anyone’s tastes, not even his diehard, Hot Topic-loving fan-base.
No matter the reason, Dumbo doesn’t capture the same feverish imagination of Burton’s other (and often better) works. Unlike the considerably worse Alice in Wonderland, which was very ugly and off-putting but nevertheless the work of an unhinged Tim Burton, Dumbo doesn’t have as many distinctions compared to Burton’s better or even weaker films. Some might consider that a crucial flaw, and I’ll admit that Dumbo, while not bad, is likely in the lower-tier of Burton’s expansive resume, mainly because it doesn’t have what would otherwise make it seem singular to its maker. It’s a common problem with these Disney live-action remakes that they can feel cold and cynical, and it’s truly a shame Burton couldn’t add more of his distinctive characteristics. Who cares if the Internet scoffs at this director’s idiosyncratic ideas? To hell with their cynicism! Let them choke on their irony.
Where so many recent Disney live-action remakes appear chillingly hollow by design, however, there is a great deal of warmth and affection to Tim Burton’s Dumbo that makes it, if not exceptionally better than the other generic and empty live-action remakes, then a little better and more emotionally endearing. Granted, Dumbo will likely evaporate from my headspace quicker and quieter than lightning; I doubt I will remember much about it in a day or two, let alone a week or two from now. But for the short span of time it’s nestled within you, Dumbo is a nice, comforting, and enjoyably tender movie, aimed to appease children and fill them with wonder, even if it’s not challenging them, inspiring them with boundless creativity, or even stimulating them for very long. It’s a short-lived high, to be sure, but it still knows how to sweep you up.
Now, to address the elephant in the room that isn’t the one with big ears who flies, Dumbo (1941) is considered a great film that can be hard to celebrate in full, especially in 2019, due to the unfortunate racism of its offensive caricatures regarding the crows. You can dismiss this as a product of its time or say the filmmakers didn’t know better in the ‘40s perhaps, but ultimately, one would be very hard pressed to say the original Dumbo is without flaws, and that’s putting it mildly. So progressing the story and removing these shameful issues is a great reason to remake the film in the first place.
Thankfully, there are no stereotypical crows to be found in this new film, but that sadly doesn’t make its depiction of race any better. Its two prominent characters of color are unfortunately stereotypical in their own ways, and they’re often relegated to the background of the story compared to the white main characters at the forefront. Tim Burton has often struggled with giving people of color lead roles in his films. There are exceptions, like Samuel L. Jackson in Miss Peregrine, but the director definitely has a sore spot when it comes to inclusion and diversity in his creative efforts. And unfortunately, Dumbo doesn’t improve upon this shortcoming. To be clear, the newest version of Dumbo is definitely nowhere near as harmful as the original in this regard, but it doesn’t prove itself better in any notable ways, and to me, that’s the biggest disappointment of the film.
Also, while it is stronger than a majority of his other works, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that this flawed and studio-centric blockbuster was written by screenwriter Ehren Kruger, a writer with more bad films than good ones on his resume. The script can often be transparent in its approach and bland in its execution, and it’s only thanks to Burton’s talents as a filmmaker that Dumbo is able to transcend the faults of its groundwork. Though it is a classic of animation, the original Dumbo wasn’t entirely renowned for its screenplay. It was barely an hour long, and it can often feel stitched together. Frankly, it’s impressive the original works as well as it does, and that’s in large part thanks to the gorgeous work of Disney’s legendary animators. So there’s no denying Kruger had to provide a lot to flesh this version of the film out in a satisfying way, and to his credit, the 2019 film doesn’t come off as a carbon copy. But a stronger script certainly wouldn’t have hurt, and the result is a flimsy narrative that just barely coasts on by.
Despite the flaws that weigh it down, you will believe an elephant can fly in Tim Burton’s Dumbo. But the length of its elevation might be relative. While Dumbo doesn’t reach new heights, it does provide a fanciful flight of whimsy with a pleasant demeanor. It doesn’t offend. It has a plucky spirit and will likely win over audiences who aren’t demanding greatness. Or maybe even goodness. Does that make the movie a success? Well, it doesn’t necessarily make it a failure. There isn’t a whole lot going on for Dumbo, but there’s only a little going against it comparatively.
To be honest, Dumbo would have had to have been pretty darn terrible to make me dislike a movie starring Michael Keaton, Eva Green, Danny DeVito, and a sad elephant in clown makeup. Particularly one directed by Tim Burton. Dumbo might not tower over its competition, and it doesn’t reach the same dazzling highs as Disney’s original classic. But when Dumbo takes to the air, it knows how to fly. Maybe that’s all it takes to qualify as a good “cute” movie. I can’t say for certain, but while such a blank term irritates me to no end, it happens to fit quite nicely for this particular elephant.