Review: ‘Dumbo’ is an aimless live-action remake of a classic

by Sebastian Wurzrainer | 4/16/19 2:10am

In his essay “What is Digital Cinema?” media theorist Lev Manovich notes that cinema ultimately began with animation. Magic lanterns, phenakistoscopes, zootropes. They all relied, in a sense, on a form of hand-drawn animation. Whereas many of his fellow theorists posit that cinema is the “art of the index,” defined by its ability to record reality, Manovich contends that its very origins position cinema as “the art of motion.” Thus, for Manovich, the dominance of computer-generated imagery animation in “live-action” films in recent years is not some existential threat to the very essence of film but rather the medium returning to its roots. 

Indeed, what I’ve always appreciated about Manovich’s thesis is that it uses a historical argument to simultaneously engage with and circumvent the age-old film theory debate about “What is cinema?” As I mentioned in my previous article about “Game of Thrones,” I’ve always found this to be a decidedly banal point to get hung up on. While Manovich proposes a decidedly non-indexical answer to this classic theoretical query, his essay — perhaps unintentionally — implies that audiences don’t really care about this question. It’s not that a casual moviegoer can’t tell the difference between the use of practical “indexical” effects in the original Star Wars films versus the largely “animated” effects in recent Marvel films, for example. Rather, if the story is well told, if the characters are compelling and if the filmmaking is solid, then it just doesn’t matter. After all, cinema is the “art of motion,” and in regards to the classical Hollywood style, one might modify Manovich’s original maxim to assert that it is the “art of storytelling through motion.”   I mention Manovich’s essay because it illuminates an almost paradoxical quality in the recent spate of Disney live-action remakes of animated classics. These remakes tend to vary dramatically in the degree to which they are advertised around nostalgia for the iconic imagery of the original film. The marketing for the upcoming remake of “The Lion King,” for instance, has focused far more on the film’s near shot-for-shot recreation of beloved scenes than the marketing for the new remake of “Dumbo” ever did. Nevertheless, even a film like “Dumbo,” which is most certainly not a particularly faithful remake, tries to harken back to the most famous moments from its 1941 predecessor. Whether it be through a variant on the hallucinatory “Pink Elephants on Parade” sequence or the inclusion of the band Arcade Fire’s cover of the lullaby “Baby Mine,” the appeal of this film still rests in part on the chance to see the ethos of animation visualized in live-action. Thus, as Hollywood cinema increasingly blurs the boundaries between live-action and animation — thereby approaching the ultimate “art of storytelling through motion”  — these Disney live-action remakes seem desperate to keep those boundaries firm and defined. After all, what would be the point of seeing a live-action visualization of previously animated imagery if the distinction between live-action and animation were irrelevant? Indeed, there is a degree of irony to the fact that Disney could not create these live-action remakes without extensive reliance on animation. After all, the eerie lions in “The Lion King” trailer aren’t real lions (and it shows!), just as Dumbo in “Dumbo” is not a real baby elephant (and it also shows!). In a sense, Disney masquerades animated models as live-action, begging us to notice an appreciable difference between the two methods of filmmaking. 

All of this speaks to why Tim Burton’s “Dumbo,” the most recent offering in this bizarre trend, is such a confused, muddled mess of a film. It is, put simply, utterly uncertain about what it wants to be, torn ceaselessly between polarities. Live-action? Animation? A faithful remake? Or a macabre and unique Tim Burton film — all of these ambitions are fighting for dominance in the film, ultimately tearing the final result to pieces and exposing it for the uninspired cash-grab that it is. “Dumbo” is not a terrible film, but it lacks a coherent vision and thus gets drowned by its own cultural moment. Just as live-action and animation are collapsing into one another, altering the very nature of cinema, we are also in the process of reveling in our nostalgia while simultaneously addressing the many sins of the past. Rather than navigate these issues with grace and delicacy, the film either ignores them or opts for blunt, easy answers. 

The story has largely been invented from scratch, introducing new characters, conflicts and settings. Yet screenwriter Ehren Kruger was still clearly instructed to shoehorn the more memorable moments from the original film into his adaptation, which is precisely how you get random scenes that do nothing to further the plot and themes, though they are given an immense amount of weight in terms of visual language. Likewise, most of the actors appear to be entirely lost, unclear about what kind of performance would be appropriate for this particular film. Colin Farrell and child actors Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins all try to play the material straight as the protagonists, while Michael Keaton overacts the villain with a “go-broke-or-go-home” attitude. Each approach seems appropriate in different moments, but never together. Only Eva Green as an enigmatic trapeze artist seems suited for walking the film’s utterly inconsistent tonal tight-rope walk.

Even the direction and screenplay seem uncommitted to any consistent thematic or narrative drive. Kruger’s screenplay tries to shine a spotlight on cruelty toward animals, women in STEM and not selling-out to a large, capitalist corporation. All of these topics are worthy and deserving of examination, but they are incorporated in the most lazy, obvious manner possible. Rather than growing organically from the story, they feel like boxes that Kruger felt begrudgingly obligated to check. The result is neither thoughtful, progressive nor enlightened but, instead, intensely insincere — none of which is helped by a director who appears to be largely on autopilot. Tim Burton has made some genuinely spectacular films (“Ed Wood”) and some truly lackluster ones (“Mars Attacks!”). But only recently has his work started to feel stale and uninspired. Even at his worst, Tim Burton’s work used to always feel like it was personal. While he became famous for his film’s gothic atmospheres and eccentric designs, his best work was always grounded by a uniquely human touch. I suppose the curse of fame is that now studios only appear to want him for his skills as a “visionary.” Yet even the imagery in “Dumbo” is decidedly tame; even settings or set pieces that should have appealed to Burton’s sensibilities on paper have been shot in the most generic manner imaginable. 

Watching “Dumbo” is like getting sucked into a vacuum of nothingness and then spat out the other side 12 hours later having changed not one iota. As a film, it is not just lost amidst a sea of theoretical, historical, thematic and narrative tensions, but it is also decidedly apathetic toward those tensions. “Dumbo” is not about the “art of storytelling through motion” — it is about the art of lazy, sluggish and barely motivated corporate greed.