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Dumbo was always likely to be the most difficult of Disney’s classic animated films to adapt for live action. The original ugly duckling tale of a little elephant who discovers that his big ears are his biggest asset was a perfectly contained, one-hour delight that even the youngest viewers could follow. Try to expand that to nearly two hours, however, and the story (not to mention little attention spans) starts to stretch thin.
Unlike Disney’s princess stories, Dumbo has no romance to orchestrate. It also boasts no villain obsessed by grand, murderous schemes. Sure, a few circus bullies crack wise about the ears, but that’s a far cry from one very specific monster plotting to, say, eat you, à la Shere Khan, and thus doesn’t call for much of a final showdown.
The one trump card Dumbo had over the others was its larger-than-life animal characters like Timothy Q. Mouse, a pack of gossipy pachyderms, and a flock of singing crows. While it certainly made sense to excise the bird band, which traded on some uncomfortable racial stereotypes (one was literally named Jim Crow), the studio inexplicably decided to forgo any of the talking animals long beloved by kids of all ages.
It also dropped the most recognizable, toe-tapping tune from the 1941 version—“When I See an Elephant Fly.” It’s a bit like trying to do The Jungle Book without Baloo and “The Bare Necessities.” Bring in all the dazzling Tim Burton visuals you want—and there are plenty—audiences are still going to be a little disappointed.
That’s not to say this Dumbo isn’t entertaining, but it flies far afield of its source material. To start with, the PG rating comes with some minor language and a PETA-style moral about not caging animals. And instead of a hilariously imaginative rodent manager with a Brooklyn accent to kill, we get the same old undistinguished child allies facing down corrupt corporate greed. It’s fine but far too familiar and doesn’t hold a candle (or a feather) to the original little elephant that could.