I’ve never been a huge fan of Disney’s commercially inspired penchant for remaking their animated classics as live-action movies. Not one has bested or even come close to equalling the animated original, and that includes “The Jungle Book,” “Cinderella,” “Alice in Wonderland,” and “Beauty and the Beast.”
The latest entry in this dubious enterprise is “Dumbo,” a perfectly lovely 1941 animated movie that has been transformed by director Tim Burton into a cloddish fantasia that never soars. Neither, alas, does Dumbo, the baby pachyderm with the large floppy ears that propel him aloft.
The central misconception in turning animation into live-action with, of course, some CGI effects is that any good story will survive the transformation unscathed. But story by itself is rarely the reason we appreciate animation. What holds us are the artistic flights of fancy, the imaginative reach that only animation can provide.
In Burton’s “Dumbo,” written by Ehren Kruger, we don’t even get much of Burton’s trademark scurviness – which is probably a good thing, but still. Colin Farrell plays Holt Farrier, a World War I veteran who returns home to the struggling circus where he was a trick rider only to discover that the horses have been sold by the yowly but sympathetic circus owner, Max Medici (Danny DeVito). Holt lost an arm in the war and a wife to influenza, leaving him with two young children (played by Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins) and a job tending the elephants, one of which is pregnant. When Baby Dumbo arrives on the scene, I was expecting a surplus of cute close-ups, but Burton does surprisingly little to win us over. He’s never been big on treacle, but a bit more warmth in this chilly movie, which barely follows the outline of the 1941 original, would have gone a long way.
Despite a cast that also includes Michael Keaton as the tycoon who buys the Medici circus in order to exploit Dumbo, Eva Green as his aerialist girlfriend, and Alan Arkin as a fat-cat banker, Burton seems to have lost interest in directing actors. Or non-actors, for that matter. The two child performers seem especially adrift.
Upcoming in Disney’s animation-to-live-action hit parade are “Aladdin” and “The Lion King,” both due out this year. Yes, I know, never say never, and hope springs eternal, but I will be very surprised if they equal the originals. Here’s a better idea: How about turning some live-action movies into animation? Anybody for an animated “Old Yeller”? Grade: C (Rated PG for peril/action, some thematic elements, and brief mild language.)