'Dumbo' Review: Disney Stretches Nostalgia to Its Limits — But It Works

Tim Burton's "live-action" remake manages to tell an enjoyable story that’s true to original movie’s tone.

Disney is betting big on nostalgia in 2019. Meticulous “live-action” homages to two of its most popular animated movies ever, Aladdin and The Lion King, are coming later this year, but before that, the studio is treating fans to something a little more weird: a Tim Burton-directed remake of the often overlooked 1941 classic, Dumbo. This new live-action version (heavy on the CGI) stretches the bounds of how far nostalgia can take the mega-studio, but it still manages to tell an enjoyable story that’s true to original movie’s tone — even if it takes some elephant-sized leaps with the actual plot.

2019’s Dumbo isn’t really a live-action remake like the ones we’ve begrudgingly come to expect from Disney. It’s more like Burton watched the original and then let it seep into his dreams. The new version features occasional references to iconic Dumbo moments (Danny Devito’s circus master humming the tune to “Casey Junior” is an absolute gift), but for the most part this is a brand new story full of human characters — a big departure from the animal-focused original.

dumbo review
Why is Colin Farrell in this movie? I'm still not really sure.

The new Dumbo opens on Devito’s circus and quickly hones in on a pair young siblings and their father (Colin Farrell), who’s just returned from war after losing an arm. We don’t even meet Dumbo for several more scenes, but it’s hard to blame Burton for trying to stretch his 64-minute source material into a feature length movie by padding the story a bit. To that end, we also get a villain in Michael Keaton, who hams it up as an evil circus-owner (this is a slight spoiler, but the twist should come as a surprise to absolutely no one), alongside Eva Green as his trapeze artist. Alan Arkin also shows up as a banker financing the entire thing.

The plot is pretty simple: As soon as Dumbo’s flying elephant act begins to draw a crowd to Devito’s traveling show, Keaton swoops with an offer to join forces and relocate the entire troupe to his retro-futuristic amusement park. It quickly becomes clear that Keaton’s deal was too good to be true, leading to a climactic face-off between good and evil.

At the core of the story, of course, is Dumbo, but this CGI’d baby elephant is never given much motivation besides being cute and wanting to spend time with his mother. By the end of the movie, Dumbo faces his fears in heroic fashion, but he’s missing the personality that Disney breathed so effortlessly into its animated characters more than half a century earlier.

dumbo movie review
'Dumbo'

This remake tries to replace the original movie’s emotional core with human characters and their various relationships with Dumbo. The kids love him. The adults try to profit off him. Eventually, some of the adults realize he’s actually a very good elephant and try to help him. The stakes are high enough stakes here to keep you engaged, and there’s enough humor to keep you entertained, but it’s hard to care that much about the relationship between human actors and CGI trickery. In the moment you may feel something, but once the credits roll that quickly fades away.

More importantly, Dumbo seems to prove that Disney’s nostalgia bender may be reaching its limits. Sure, we’ve still got Aladdin and The Lion King right around the corner, both of which are likely to break box office records, but if Tim Burton’s bizarre remake proves anything, it’s that not every Disney movie is worth remaking in CGI and live action.

Of course, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t see Dumbo. If you loved the original you’ll find something to enjoy in this one, even if it’s just those sprinkled-in references to the 1941 classic. Burton also manages to capture the darker tone of the animated movie, meaning it might be a little too intense at times for younger children.

Go into Dumbo with no expectations and you’ll enjoy it, but if you’re hoping for a shot-by-shot remake or a genuinely great new Disney movie you’ll likely be disappointed. At best, this is just an appetizer in the studio’s swollen 2019 calendar. It’s definitely not the main course.

Dumbo flies into theaters on March 29.

Media via Disney