Gerry Conway on the Live Action ‘Dumbo’ – “Burton’s Revenge”

Live Action Dumbo Can Only Be Tim Burton’s Revenge
by Gerry Conway

After a miserable time at the movies last night, I’ve come to the conclusion that Tim Burton’s grim and joyless “Dumbo” is an auteur triumph.

SPOILERS AHEAD. (Though for this movie, “spoiler” is descriptive as well as a warning label.)

I don’t recommend “Dumbo,” but I admire it. Burton has accomplished something almost startling with this film: he’s made a movie that is about as unsubtle a “f**k you” to both his corporate sponsors and the audience as one could get without actually superimposing “F*CK YOU!” on every frame. Contempt for Disney and for the audience that gobble up the company’s live action remakes of classic animated films oozes from every shot, every scene, and in particular, from the entire second half of the movie. If some films are a love letter, this is hate mail. Tim Burton clearly hates how Disney is exploiting the animated films he cherished as a child, and “Dumbo” is his bitter revenge.

Why am I sure “Dumbo” is the angry vision of a furious auteur and not a well-meaning misfire? Because I respect Tim Burton as a filmmaker too much to believe this movie isn’t exactly what he wanted it to be.

Burton has been making films for thirty-five years, and though the films he’s made lately haven’t been quite as quirky and strange as his earlier movies, they still display the control of a man who knows what he wants to achieve, and how to achieve it. You might not like where he goes, but he knows how to get you there. So, “Dumbo,” with all of the issues I’ll mention below, is exactly the movie Burton wanted it to be.

The question is, why? Why would Burton want to make a movie so driven by rage against audience and corporate sponsors both?

And why “Dumbo”?

If you’ve seen Burton’s interview with Ray Harryhausen, available on some of the Blu-ray reissues of Harryhausen’s films, you’re reminded of how much of Burton’s vision of filmmaking is informed by his still-childlike appreciation for simple wonder. As he sits with Harryhausen and plays with the saucer models from “Earth vs the Flying Saucers,” Burton looks and sounds like a five year old kid gawping in awe at a shopping mall Santa Claus. He still loves the things he loved as a child, and he becomes a child again in their presence. His joy is sincere.

The man who felt joy and wonder in the presence of Ray Harryhausen could never have produced the grim, joyless, misery-soaked downer that is “Dumbo” unless he was trying to say something about the destruction of his own childhood sense of joy and wonder.

I think “Dumbo,” in its not-so-thinly veiled critique of the cruelty of corporate exploitation of children and nostalgia, is Burton’s attempt to tear down the structure he helped to build.

It was Burton’s own remake of “Alice in Wonderland” that set the current live-action remake frenzy in motion, remember. Whatever you may think of that movie (I like it for its weird and subversive charm), there’s no question it was enormously successful and clearly inspired the corporate minds at Disney to authorize a wholesale ransacking of Disney animated classics as fodder for subsequent live-action redos.

As a loving fan of those original classics, I think Burton must have been horrified by what he’d unleashed. He couldn’t have felt otherwise. Again, look at his interview with Harryhausen. The kid in him cherishes joy and wonder. Whatever virtues the Disney live-action remakes have, with the exception, I’d say, of Burton’s own “Alice,” joy and wonder aren’t an apparent high priority for the filmmakers involved. If anything, most of the remakes are drained of wonder by the translation from the imagined to the tangible.

Which brings us to “Dumbo.”

The original “Dumbo” is a slight, one-hour fairy tale, centered entirely on a baby elephant with big ears who can fly, and cast almost completely with talking and singing animals. With the exception of a thoughtless racist element, it is a film of charming childlike innocence with a simple message about the strength of mother and child love and the power we gain when we let go of emotional crutches. (“I need a feather to fly.”)

This is not a movie that demands a live-action remake, or even, in its story elements, supports the possibility of one.

And, in fact, Burton’s “Dumbo” isn’t a live-action remake– it’s an angry, passionate argument *against* such a remake. The baby flying elephant is a MacGuffin in Burton’s “Dumbo”–not the emotional core of the story. There are no talking or singing animals, no other fantasy elements, not even a hint of fairy tale atmosphere. From a character point of view, I’d argue, there is no emotional core: none of the “live” characters in Dumbo have any emotional resonance at all. They are all bleak and joyless and broken, emotionally dead, barely responsive to the world and the story supposedly taking place around them. One of them, a little boy, has no character existence at all– I’m not sure he’s even named, and he could be removed completely from the film without any discernable impact. For a filmmaker with Burton’s skill set such a failure to develop even marginally interesting characters with a vital stake in the story is inexplicable– unless it was intentional.

I think it was intentional.

I think “Dumbo” is an act of auteur subversion, one of the most breathtaking acts of creative defiance since “Citizen Kane,” though certainly far less successful as a piece of entertainment. In fact that may well be the movie’s most defining artistic characteristic– its complete unwillingness to entertain.

It really is a remarkable achievement. To trick Disney into financing and releasing a major motion picture which savages everything about the company’s approach to its classic films, and, in addition, to its entire corporate raison d’etre, is a stunning accomplishment. What a trick. I imagine the script reads very different from what Burton shot– it’s possible to describe something one way, shoot it another, and edit it all together to produce the opposite effect from what the screenplay suggests. Because there’s so much CGI involved, Disney executives probably never realized what Burton was doing until final cut. And that, in itself, is part of Burton’s savage attack on Disney’s corporate methodology. The further film executives get from true hands-on creative involvement in the films they make– through increasing dependency on CGI and post-production manipulation– the less they really know about the movies they’re making. The very power to ham-handedly rework a mediocre director’s work in post allows a master director to hide his intentions until it’s too late to reverse them. By the time Disney executives possibly realized what Burton was up to, if they ever did, they’d sunk too much money and time into his version of the film– and had no choice but to either scrap the movie entirely or release it as it is. Given the exigencies of corporate finance, and the apparent belief on the part of Disney executives that the appetite for live-action versions of beloved animated classics is insatiable, releasing Burton’s hate mail movie was ultimately the only logical thing to do.

In the end, “Dumbo” isn’t a good movie. It probably was not intended to be. It’s Tim Burton’s angry rant against making movies like itself. It’s a slap in the face to the people who financed it and the audience who shows up for it. As a work of protest it’s kind of admirable. As a film-going experience, as I stated above, it’s a miserable two hours.

You’ve been warned. At least now, if you see it, you can “enjoy” the movie for what it is– a scream of contempt, an artist setting fire to the gallery displaying his work. Personally, now that I’ve defined it… I think I like it.


Gerry Conway is one of the Kings of TV and film and comic book writing and also one of our Beloved Leader Larry Brody’s longest-lasting and closest friends. Everybody who comes to TVWriter™ should be reading his insightful blog, where this article first appeared. Learn more about Gerry HERE.