I Think I Will Have Seen Everything When I See a “Live-Action” ‘Dumbo’

By  · Published on July 8th, 2014

I Think I Will Have Seen Everything When I See a “Live-Action” ‘Dumbo’

Dumbo Drunk

Walt Disney Productions

Cue the most appropriate tagline: You will believe an elephant can fly!

Minus a new version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which it forfeited, Disney seems to be planning a live-action remake of all of its animated classics. The good news is that eventually they’ll get to a proper redo of The Black Cauldron. The bad news is that, yes, it’s raping your childhood, your parents’ childhood and in some cases your grandparents’ childhood. I can only imagine what 80 year olds think of the news that now Dumbo is up on the board for another go, according to The Hollywood Reporter (and honoring the wish of Elle Fanning). I also can only imagine what my two-year-old son, who has already seen Dumbo maybe hundreds of times (thanks Netflix iPad app!), will think when he can comprehend what it’s like to hear that your favorite movie of all time is being remade.

Because my son has seen Dumbo over and over and over (at only 64 minutes, there’s room for those repeat viewings to occur immediately), I have seen Dumbo over and over and over, too. I know it inside and out. And here’s my reaction: how’s that going to work? The thing about Dumbo is it’s mostly about anthropomorphic animals. Not as much as Disney’s Robin Hood – unlike that movie, the animals here stick to semi-realistic roles within a human-run world, although they talk and sometimes wear clothes – but for the sake of a live-action movie I think this story and its characters are going to rely a whole hell of a lot on CGI. To the point that it might hardly be qualified as “live-action” in the way such remakes as Alice in Wonderland, Maleficent and the upcoming Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast movies are, compared to their originals.

Even the studio’s Jungle Book redo could at least seem to rely on real animals for much of its scenes. None of its characters do such fantastical things as the unnaturally big-eared Dumbo does when he flies. Something tells me this idea is about as good as having a bunch of elephants form a pyramid atop a bouncy ball.

The beauty of an animated film like Dumbo is that its story is necessarily told in that particular medium. Or was. Based on a scroll-format children’s picture book by Helen Aberson and illustrator Harold Pearl, the movie is all about things that couldn’t possibly be shot in live-action before the advent of computer effects. And now that we do depend on computers for everything from abnormal creatures to fire, it’s hard to find a frame in Dumbo that wouldn’t primarily consist of those effects. Some scenes couldn’t be topped, either, particularly the booze-infused pink elephant nightmare or the appropriately two-dimensional bit where the clowns undress in shadow behind the tent wall. Maybe Disney won’t try to better these moments. I expect they’ll be excising some parts from the original anyway, namely the controversial crows that are arguably racist stereotypes.

Another thing that I realize when thinking over the entirety of Dumbo is that in live-action a lot of it will be even scarier because of the “realism.” Consider Mama Jumbo’s stampede, for instance. However, like most of these remakes, that only means it’ll be rated PG rather than G. Why the studio wants to turn its toddler-friendly features into more mature works is unclear in an official manner, but Disney likely wants a version that older kids won’t feel too cool to watch (and Dumbo is especially basic). Eventually they’ll be able to properly cater to us all as we grow up, never mind that we used to be able to enjoy these animated classics throughout our lives. In decades to come, maybe they’ll remake them all again with PG-13 content.

The studio can’t take out too much, though, when the story is already so short. Although I wouldn’t mind seeing more of what happens after Dumbo’s initial circus flight – the animated version ends quite abruptly just as it’s getting good; it’s like the first act of a superhero movie without the rest – Disney appears to have another idea in mind for additional plot. Surprisingly, they’re sharing the idea already, too. Live-action Dumbo, which is being scripted by Ehren Kruger (Transformers: Age of Extinction), who will produce with Justin Springer (Tron: Legacy), will reportedly involve more human characters in a side story that parallels the one about the ridiculed-then-celebrated pachyderm. That sounds like a way for them to make the live-action movie actually feature some genuine live-action. But won’t it take away some from the main character and his unbelievable situation?

(I wonder if they might be going for a redemptive angle by having this “unique family story” subplot center around an African-American family living in the Jim Crow South.)

There’s no word on when the remake of Dumbo will arrive in theaters, but there’s not much chance of it being beaten to the punch by competitors the way Disney was with Snow White. Unlike with a lot of the fairy tales and other children’s stories they’ve adapted, the rights to the Aberson and Pearl book are owned exclusively by the studio. For now we can only wonder if there are any elephant experts out there who’d be up for the task of an authentic motion-capture performance and also watch this live-action sweded remake of the animated classic:

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.