Live action remake of beloved 1941 film trades off of nostalgia for the original

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For a movie about a flying elephant, "Dumbo" never gets off the ground. 

This flat remake of Disney's 1941 animated classic is pure product: it exists only because there's money to be made off of the re-purposing of past Disney content for new audiences.

Disney is currently in the midst of remaking animated hits from its archives as live action fare, and with 2015's "Cinderella," 2016's "The Jungle Book" and 2017's "Beauty and the Beast" pulling in more than $2.7 billion between them at the worldwide box office, there's no wonder why "Dumbo" is here, and "Aladdin" and "The Lion King" are on deck.   

Tim Burton, once a champion of misfits and outsiders with a dark side to match his warped sensibilities, has seen his vision compromised through decades of subpar, sanitized work. So in a way, he's perfect for this scrubbed-clean story whose biggest risk is the play off "Dumb" in the movie's title. (Can we still use the word "dumb?" There's no doubt the topic was breached among top Disney execs.)

We open with the Medici Bros. Circus, a slapdash traveling sideshow making its way across the Southern United States in 1919. Danny DeVito is Max Medici, the ringmaster who's doing his best to make fraying ends meet; his strongman (DeObia Oparei) is doubling as his accountant, and his top trick rider, Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell doing a wholly unconvincing Southern accent), just returned from World War I minus a left arm. 

Medici gets a good deal on a pregnant elephant, knowing that baby elephant will be a moneymaker for his show. There's only one problem: when the baby pachyderm makes his debut in front of a live crowd, his oversize ears get him laughed out of the big top. 

This is the first instance where "Dumbo" rings false. Sure, crowds in 1919 were hardened from war, the impending Chicago Black Sox scandal and the fact that TV wouldn't be invented for another eight years, but are we to really believe they were such a salty bunch that they would laugh at and taunt an adorable baby elephant whose flappy ears make him only more adorable? 

Problem No. 2: when Holt's precarious kids Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins) first see baby Dumbo fly, their expressions are blank, as opposed to the expressions of two children who just saw an elephant fly. Their giddiness should have gotten them off the ground, too, let alone the audience.  

It's those sorts of lazy disconnects from reality that make "Dumbo" such an underwhelming experience from top to bottom. Michael Keaton shows up midway through the film as V.A. Vandevere, a wealthy eccentric who plans to exploit Dumbo in his gaudy theme park, but his character is such a thinly written villain that Keaton can't even sink his teeth in and have a little fun with the role. (Keaton and Burton teamed in the past on "Beetlejuice" and two "Batman" films; "Dumbo" does not make their greatest hits reel.) 

Screenwriter Ehren Kruger, whose credits include three "Transformers" films, consistently tries to milk emotions he doesn't earn apart from nostalgic feelings for the beloved original film (which, at 64 minutes, ran roughly half as long as this version).

"Dumbo" builds to a caper ending and a "Greatest Showman"-style celebration of the various personalities that make up the circus cast, as well as a woke message about animal cruelty that plays off as deeply anachronistic.

Lost in all of this is Dumbo himself, a CGI creation with big ocean blue eyes and those lovably floppy ears. He's every bit as cute as he needs to be in order to sell toys to modern children. But the spirit and heart of the original "Dumbo" is still locked away in the Disney vault. 

'Dumbo'

GRADE: C-

Rated PG: for peril/action, some thematic elements, and brief mild language

Running time: 112 minutes

agraham@detroitnews.com

@grahamorama

     

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