One of the most magical films in the Walt Disney animated feature canon is Dumbo, written about at length on this very site mere weeks ago. This isn’t to suggest that Dumbo is a perfect piece of animation; arguably, flaws like its expedited and forcibly inexpensive production process contribute to its charms. (As ever, the inclusion of a crow named Jim, voiced by a white actor, does not.) But Dumbo is widely considered to be one of the crown jewels of Disney animation, with its title character having become something of an icon in the intervening decades. In some respects, because it was one of the first five Disney animated features, Dumbo has been fairly untouchable for a long time. Like Pinocchio, Fantasia, and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, there has never been a direct-to-DVD sequel of Dumbo, though there were rumors that such a film would be willed into existence had John Lasseter and Ed Catmull not taken charge of Disney’s animation department in the mid-2000s. (Bambi, sadly, was not so lucky.)
Dumbo, however, is no longer untouchable, per this story from The Hollywood Reporter from last week. It’s not just that Dumbo is getting the remake treatment; no, the film is getting a live-action/CGI remake treatment. And it’s not just that Dumbo is getting a live-action/CGI remake treatment, it’s that Ehren Kruger, who’s written a host of terrible films including the last three Transformers films, will be taking a crack at the script. But let’s be clear: the notion of remaking a movie is not inherently offensive. Sometimes, the remake improves on the original, either because the original wasn’t very good or simply because the remake found a more intriguing avenue to pursue creatively. (Ocean’s Eleven is far superior to the Rat Pack original, as an example.) Often, that’s not the case, and the remake falters as both a piece of art and as a piece of commerce. (Some examples include Alfie, The Bad News Bears, and Flubber.)
This site has already covered the unsurprising truth that Disney is now cannibalizing its own product to make new movies, just as it used to look to myriad fairy tales and children’s books in the past. (Let’s be specific: this writer covered that specific trend in his last column.) Once, Cinderella was an animated adaptation of a French fairy tale. This March, it will be a live-action remake of an animated adaptation of a French fairy tale. Sleeping Beauty was once an animated adaptation of a French fairy tale, and now we have Maleficent, a Wicked-style live-action take on the same. There’s also Jon Favreau’s take on The Jungle Book and Bill Condon’s upcoming version of Beauty and the Beast. (Amazingly, these will not be villain-centric pieces, though come on. Wouldn’t you want to watch a version of Beauty and the Beast from the perspective of the misunderstood villain Gaston, as played by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson?) Now that Dumbo is on the live-action remake slate, this much is clear: nothing in Disney’s animated canon is safe.
It’s worth stating the obvious: no matter how good or bad a remake is, it can’t take away from your enjoyment of the original. If you didn’t like Maleficent, you can still love Sleeping Beauty, and so on. The problem with a remake of Dumbo is not that it will ruin the 1941 classic, but that it is both patently unnecessary and further tarnishes the forward-thinking legacy left behind by Walt Disney and his animators. As mentioned here in the past, the Walt Disney Company is now defiantly looking backwards, refusing to engage with new ideas instead of rehashing old ones. From a financial standpoint, it’s not difficult to see why they’re making this decision. Alice in Wonderland, Patient Zero of the live-action Disney remake, made a billion dollars worldwide, and Maleficent is likely on its way to making $750 million globally. Why not keep making live-action versions of animated classics if these ones have made so much money?
And so we’ll get Cinderella and The Jungle Book and Beauty and the Beast and Dumbo all over again, the same stories from our youth gussied up with subplots to expand the running time and special effects to distract people from the fact that, story-wise, there’s not much there there. Movies like Alice in Wonderland or Oz the Great and Powerful (not based on a Disney property per se, but very much produced in the vein of Tim Burton’s 2010 film) exist less as stories that must be told as opposed to products that must be sold. No doubt, some people desperately want to see these movies, sold on their event status. But many people see movies like Alice in Wonderland less because they’re interested or because they’ve heard solid word-of-mouth, and more because they go to the movies every week and feel obligated to see whatever’s new. The experience of going to the movies has become less something to look forward to; instead, it’s something we do to fill time, because we all have to get out of the house sometime.
So, although Disney and other studios shove epic-seeming, event-like blockbusters down the collective throats of audiences worldwide, the experience is now diluted. To paraphrase a line from The Incredibles, when every movie is an event, none of them are. Dumbo, should it come to fruition, will likely be one such event. (At this point, it’s not hard to imagine that Disney might go back on the prospect of a live-action Dumbo; perhaps Kruger’s script will be so bad they won’t want to bankroll it, or maybe they’ll acknowledge the negative response on social media and nix the project, or maybe movies like Cinderella will do so badly at the box office that they’ll try to cut and run.) Maybe, if we’re lucky, Dumbo will no longer be mute in this live-action version. Perhaps he’ll speak, or we’ll hear his inner monologue. Will Disney cast someone young to play Dumbo, or get an international star involved? Get Johnny Depp on the phone! Who will play Timothy Q. Mouse? Or the stork? Or Mrs. Jumbo? (Maybe Depp can play all of these parts.) Will we get a version of “Baby Mine” from Katy Perry? Or, failing that, whoever’s more in vogue when the film is released.
The Hollywood Reporter story includes the following tidbit about the live-action take: “The new take involves the adaptation of the original movie while adding a unique family story that parallels Dumbo’s story.” It’s no surprise, of course, that a live-action remake of Dumbo would have to add a subplot, seeing as the animated film is barely over an hour long. Also, its main character never speaks, which is why we’ll get a parallel—possibly a kid in the circus who’s having mommy issues. The story continues: “…the studio believes that because of the current state of CG technology, live-action movies featuring a soaring pachyderm (or any animal for that matter) are viable.” First, take a moment to extend your sympathies to the person who had to write that sentence with a straight face. whois tld . The suggestion here is that audiences would believe, once more, that an elephant could fly with the aid of computer-generated effects; it’s no doubt true that CG technology can create such an effect, but not likely to a believable extent. We’re still in an age of cinema where movies can’t convincingly make audiences believe two people are riding in a car together; there’s often a pitiful amount of greenscreen involved in even the most simple-seeming effects.
So, sure, any number of effects houses can create a CGI elephant with big ears and the ability to fly around a circus. But do you want to see that? Do any of us really want to see a CGI version of Dumbo, likely lacking in the same personality and vivacity that the original Dumbo had? Leave aside, for a second, that this film is being written by the guy credited with creating scripts for three Transformers movies (though the idea that those movies have honest-to-goodness scripts is highly suspect). Even if this was written and directed by your favorite filmmaker, even if it was from someone as crowd-pleasing and widely liked as Steven Spielberg, would a live-action/CGI hybrid remake of Dumbo sound appealing? Remakes are not an automatically awful notion, but there are some films where one can barely imagine, or fathom, how they could possibly be improved upon. What’s more, while the original Dumbo has painful moments or characters like Jim the crow (who would almost certainly be excised from a live-action take, which is maybe the sole benefit), so much of its charm and wonder is courtesy of sequences that would be nearly impossible to replicate in live-action. What would the Pink Elephants on Parade scene look like? Would it even exist? The lead character in a family movie getting drunk and hallucinating psychedelic imagery may not appeal to the money-hungry and controversy-averse Disney executives.
We are thankfully a long way from Dumbo being made into a live-action film. In the meantime, we have those other live-action redos of animated classics to prepare for. It’s not wrong to hope that any of them might end up being better than expected, if not better than the original. (In this writer’s opinion, neither Cinderella nor The Jungle Book are perfect animated films, though again, much of their charm comes from the form and medium of presentation. Beauty and the Beast, on the other hand, is a truly excellent animated film, so Bill Condon’s got a long road ahead of him.) And no amount of live-action remakes can wrest away the enjoyment we may have at Disney’s original classics, the films made when the man himself was still living and breathing. But keep this in mind: if you read stories about Disney mining its animated films to make live-action remakes and groan or roll your eyes or get mad, remember that you do not have an obligation to pay to see these movies. Disney is remaking its classics because it presumes that there’s money in the proposition. So if we do get a Dumbo remake, and if that prospect does fill you with dread, keep your money in your pocket and yourself away from the multiplex.