In case you’ve forgotten – it did come out in 1941 – the animated Disney film Dumbo is deeply odd and wouldn’t be anyone’s first choice for a live action remake. There are barely any humans in it, for a start, then there’s Dumbo himself, a doe-eyed, speechless pachyderm who gets bullied for 70 per cent of the film. Conceived as a cheap, hour-long fairytale about an elephant that can fly, the original was created to recoup the losses of Disney’s more experimental Fantasia. Separated from his mother, Dumbo has to learn how to make it in the circus on his own with the help of trusty Timothy mouse.
Luckily for Disney’s CGI bill, director Tim Burton has chucked Timothy, opting instead to literally flesh out the story with humans. Elephant wrangler Colin Farrell and his two children set out to reunite Dumbo with his mum and break them both out of the circus, while Danny Devito also stars as a hapless ringmaster and Eva Green as a bejewelled trapeze artist. But it’s Michael Keaton’s VA Vandevere who lights up the big tent as the Walt-lite, Trump-blond owner of a theme park called Dreamland.
This is all well and good for modern cinema-goers, but the core message of the film just isn’t. The fairytale, stripped of its songs and whimsy, has been remade as an animal rights fable, campaigning on behalf of wild animals in circuses, which is, lest you’re not already aware, already considered Not Cool by most countries. It was bad enough watching Dumbo being mocked by other animals, but it’s downright intolerable having to sit through a film where he’s abused by humans.
There are glimmers of magic here, notably a troupe of mesmerising pink elephants floating around in bubbles, but the film can’t help drowning in its own guilt, which is no fun for anyone, let alone kids. If Disney was so twisted up about the ethical validity of Dumbo’s setting, perhaps it should have left it in the 1940s where it belonged, rather than try to reinvent it as a PETA campaign with flying elephants.