Tim Burton’s live-action remake of the 1941 classic had lots of potential, but “instead, it’s a gloomy, unfocused jumbo jumble”, writes Nicholas Barber.

Some of us are counting the days until Disney stops churning out live-action / CGI remakes of its cartoons – Aladdin and The Lion King are next – but the live-action Dumbo promised to be something special. For one thing, the original 1941 cartoon was only an hour long, so there was plenty of scope for it to be expanded and developed. For another thing, the person in charge of expanding and developing it was Tim Burton, who loves classic animation almost as much as he loves magical tales of persecuted outsiders. With its retro circus setting and with a roll call of fine actors including Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito and Eva Green, Dumbo might well have been one of Disney’s best films – and one of Burton’s best films as well.

Disappointingly, it’s neither. Instead, it’s a gloomy, unfocused jumbo jumble which puts in numerous pointless references to the cartoon, but which takes out the songs, the energy and most of the fun. Burton’s idea of a joke is to cast Michael Buffer, the boxing and wrestling announcer, as a ringmaster who drawls, “Let’s get ready for Dumbo!” in place of his catchphrase, “Let’s get ready to rumble!” And for most of the running time, the director doesn’t bother with jokes at all. Presumably he decided that a film about a flying baby elephant was no laughing matter.

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Burton has also removed the talking animals who were in the cartoon and replaced them with a crowd of largely miserable humans. One of these is Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell), a Kentucky stunt rider who returns to a dilapidated travelling circus from the battlefields of World War One. While he was away, his left arm was amputated, and if that weren’t grim enough, his wife was killed in an influenza outbreak, leaving him to take care of his daughter (Nico Parker) and son (Finley Hobbins). Yes, like Mary Poppins Returns, Dumbo is one of those Disney children’s films which kill off a woman just so that viewers will sympathise with a man. Note to screenwriters: stop doing this.

Even the opportunity for gravity-defying frolics is wasted

On the other hand, Holt’s children never seem too upset about their mother’s recent death. And, anyway, the circus’s scruffy owner, Max (DeVito), has some cheering news. He has just bought a heavily pregnant elephant, and, he says, her baby will be a gold mine. But when the calf is born, its ears are bigger than the rest of it. You might assume that Max would be delighted to have such a rare and undeniably cute specimen on his hands, but instead he complains that nobody will pay to see a baby elephant with ears the size of bedsheets. This makes no sense. But it’s just one of many instances in which the ramshackle story keeps going only because the characters behave in the most stupid and implausible way they can.

Ehren Kruger’s screenplay does make one shrewd change, however. In the original cartoon, Dumbo doesn’t fly until the last few minutes. In the remake, he takes to the air after about half an hour. But even this opportunity for gravity-defying frolics is wasted. In the final scene, the young elephant’s aerobatics are as joyous as you might expect. Beforehand, the best that Burton and Kruger can come up with is not one, not two, but three sequences in which Dumbo perches on a high platform, plunges towards the ground, and then at the last second pulling up and zooming around the big top in triumph.

Each time, we’re meant to be relieved when he doesn’t hit terra firma with a splat. But each time, we’re reminded of how dull and repetitive the plotting is. The first half of the film has a circus owner who hopes that Dumbo will make him rich. The second half of the film has a different circus owner who hopes that Dumbo will make him rich. The first half of the film has a cruel hired hand who mistreats the elephants. The second half of the film has a different cruel hired hand who mistreats the elephants. And so it goes on.

What happens is that after Dumbo learns to fly, a PT Barnum-alike impresario (Keaton) invites Max and his troupe to live and work in Dreamland, a lavish, anachronistic New York theme park which – strangely for a Disney film – appears to be a nightmarish parody of Disneyland. The impresario believes that if Dumbo can be trained to carry a French trapeze artiste (Green) through the air, he will be able to prise some funds out of a banker (Alan Arkin) – because apparently nobody would invest in a flying elephant on its own. 

Dumbo drifts this way and that until it eventually mutates into a hectic Stephen King-ish steam-punk horror movie

But, really, who cares if the impresario gets some extra cash? His theme park seems to be a phenomenal money-spinner as it is. And who cares if Dumbo can carry the trapeze artiste on his back? Whether Dumbo himself cares is open to debate. As hard as they try, the actors fail to invest their characters with much personality, and the title character has no personality at all. Supposedly, he yearns to be reunited with his mother, but this desire, like the children’s sadness at the loss of their own mother, doesn’t occur to him very often. Maybe elephants do forget, after all.

If Burton ever knew what kind of film he wanted to make, that’s something else which was forgotten. Not quite a comedy, but not quite a drama, not quite naturalistic but not quite cartoonish, Dumbo drifts this way and that until it eventually mutates into a hectic Stephen King-ish steam-punk horror movie. It’s at this point that Arkin gazes at the chaos exploding around him, and remarks, in his deadpan way, “Wow. This is a disaster.” He’s not far wrong.

★★☆☆☆

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