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The following contains SPOILERS for the new live action Dumbo.
Dumbo won the box office this past weekend, but it did so with less than impressive numbers. The movie performed similarly with critics. The film has received slightly more negative reviews than positive ones, but critics are split almost in half. Either way, most positive reviews aren't glowing and most negative ones aren't too damning. As one of those who had a slightly positive view of Dumbo, I liked so many aspects of it that I wish it was better, and I think it could have been if it had followed its true calling and just been a straight sequel rather than a remake.
If you've seen Dumbo, then you know that most of the movie is essentially a sequel already. The events that cover the story of the original animated Dumbo get dispensed with in less than 30 minutes. Considering that the original movie did it in only slightly more than double that time, it makes sense not to waste too much time with it. Once Dumbo is discovered to be a flying elephant, the animated film ends, but that's just the end of Act I for the new movie.
The stuff that's worthy of praise in Dumbo almost exclusively comes from the latter two-thirds of the movie. You get the utterly insane "Evil Walt Disney" villain played by Michael Keaton. You get Eva Green, who is awesome because she's Eva Green. You get Tim Burton's take on "Pink Elephants on Parade," which is a thing I didn't even know I cared about. You get Colin Farrell being "adorable dad," which is his perfect position in Disney movies.
The biggest problem that Dumbo has is that it has trouble letting all of these ideas breathe because it has to dedicate a significant portion of its run time to the original story of Dumbo.
This is pretty much unnecessary and could have been overcome quite easily. The fact is that while Dumbo is certainly a story we all know, unless you've seen the film recently, odds are all you really remember about it is, "There's an elephant that can fly." That's actually all you need to know. If you do remember more, you certainly don't need to see it again.
Imagine if the new Dumbo opened exactly as it did, with Colin Farrell's Holt Farrier coming back from war, only this time, instead of Danny DeVito's Max Medici putting him in charge of the elephants before Dumbo is born, Medici tells Farrier that he's really happy Farrier is back, because the circus has a new star that needs to be taken care of, and Farrier is just the man to trust with the job. Dumbo flew for the crowd for the first time last night and word has already begun to spread. That's all we really need to know. Any additional info can be conveyed through dialogue with the other circus performers.
We didn't need to see anything of the original plot in this movie. I have no particular love for the original Dumbo, but there isn't anything I think the new version did better. The "Baby Mine" sequence is an emotional moment in the animated film, but it felt like it was being included in the remake simply because it was the sort of things fan expected. It was tacked on.
Now the movie can jump straight into the new material. The 20 minutes we just saved can be used to dig a little deeper into the rest of the story. We could get to know some of these characters a little better, as that was one of the big things missing from this new version of the story. Farrier's kids are important parts of Dumbo's life, but beyond, "Milly likes science," what do we really know about them?
I had a similar problem back when I first saw Disney's Maleficent. The film surprised the hell out of me by turning the story of the mistress of all evil into a rape revenge story. Needless to say, I did not see that coming. I found both the beginning and end of the movie to be quite good, but in the middle the story of Maleficent took a back seat because we had to tell the story of Sleeping Beauty, because clearly the feeling was it needed to happen. This slowed the movie to a crawl.
The idea behind these remakes is that people love these classic Disney stories, and the live-action versions allow fans to experience them in new ways that honestly weren't possible until recently. While that may be true, what if we looked at it from another angle? Because these stories are so well loved, we don't need to see them again since we know them incredibly well. However, that doesn't mean we don't need to want to see the characters again.
Because we don't need to see these movies again, but we love the characters all the same, sequels are the way to go. Take the animated original as a given, and then come up with a live action sequel that will give us something fresh and new. It won't work with every Disney property, of course. A live-action sequel to Aladdin rather than the remake we're getting would have to include somebody trying to recreate Robin Williams version of that character, and nobody wants that. But if even just a few of these movies went the sequel route, it would at least change things up a bit and let the remakes feel a bit fresher when they did happen.
Of all the live-action fairy tale movies that Disney is releasing this year, I'm actually looking forward to Maleficent: Mistress of Evil above them all. Because the film is a sequel to a movie that never had a Disney animated sequel, the story will almost certainly be entirely original. It's not going to feel like it owes anybody anything and won't need to include scenes that fans want to see new versions of, but will instead just get to tell its own story. i can only hope it's willing to take some of the same risks the previous film did.
Dumbo would have benefited greatly by simply committing to being the sequel it largely was anyway. Trying to be both things in order to make fans happy only prevented the film from being its own thing and flying on its own.