If we must get these Disney remakes of their animated features done in unattractive, narratively slack live-action/CGI hybrids - and 2019 is making a particularly loud case that we must - I would say that you could honestly do a lot worse than picking up 1941's Dumbo as a target. The original film is pure bedtime story, 64 minutes of simple story beats, not so much telling a story as presenting a series of moods in watercolor; plus, most of the last 20 minutes includes racial caricatures that had absolutely no prayer in Hell of making it into 21st Century family film. Basically, Dumbo actively forestalls any possibility of doing the excruciatingly lazy thing and simply assembling a line-for-line, shot-for-shot remake, maybe with some bells and whistles jammed onto it to ruin the story structure, à la the dreadful 2017 Beauty and the Beast. Of all the films that might conceivably be a candidate for the remake machine, this is one of the few that flatly requires the people making it to do some actual creative work, and at this point in the cycle, actual creative work is something to be grateful for.

Where all this falls apart, of course, is that the 1941 Dumbo is an out-and-out masterpiece, gaining much of its rich power from that extreme brevity and fabulistic quality. It also boasts, in its title character, one of the highest triumphs of supervising animator Vladimir "Bill" Tytla, a strong candidate for the title of "best animator in the history of the medium". I do not know if this necessarily means that Dumbo is one of the single best examples of character animation that has ever existed; but he is, anyway. That sets the bar pretty unspeakably high, and the best we could hope for would be that the 2019 Dumbo would get far enough away from the original that it isn't constantly calling attention to how much weaker it is.

Well, at last it gets pretty far away from the original. The new film compresses the old film basically into one hectic, overlong first act, and gives a couple of specific events cameos, and then uses a brand new plotline not even vaguely hinted at in 1941 to fill out more than half of its 112 minutes. So far, so mediocre: screenwriter Ehren Kruger (at this point more than a decade and a half removed from his last film that was even tolerable, let alone "good") is at a complete loss to fix the gruesome drag on momentum that's almost necessarily going to come from this graft, and the film is an unbelievably tedious grind as it laboriously re-works the original chain of events. It picks up almost in the exact instant that wholly-new material enters the picture, but this is merely a rise from "borderline unwatchable" to "comfortably dull".

Anyway the new version of the old material makes a peculiar dodge towards flat realism; peculiar because in addition to being a children's quasi-fantasy, Dumbo '19 is directed by Tim Burton, a man you hire for the specific reason that realism is not a priority. And yet here we are, with photorealistic animals who don't talk, or suggest any kind of personality at all, until the machinations of the plot require that Dumbo stop being a plausible mutant baby elephant and become fully a cartoon character. So instead of the original's animal-focused view of a circus, we get a wide range of humans to meet. The most important of these is Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell, monotously morose), who lost his left arm in the recently-completed Great War (the film is explicitly set in 1919, while grabbing technology and design from anywhere between 1905 and 1940 that suits it), which will make it hard for him to return to his husband-and-wife act doing trick riding at the Medici Brothers' Circus. Also making it hard: owner Max Medici (Danny DeVito) has sold all the horses. Making it harder still: Holt's wife died of influenza while he was in France. This has also had a heavy impact on Holt's children, Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins), who receive no support or attention from their dad, and provide none in return. Children's cinema is such fun.

The birth of a baby elephant with giant ears provides the kids with something to keep their attention, at least, while Holt, Max, and the rest of the adults struggle to keep the circus solvent. Luckily, that same baby elephant, saddled with the cruel nickname "Dumbo" and separated from his mother, can fly. This puts Medici Brothers' on the national map, and brings them to the attention of V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), an ultra-rich entertainment impresario who owns a Coney Island theme park that is such a blatant piss-take of Disneyland that I'm a tiny bit surprised the corporation signed off on it, even as an act of cynical, shallow self-criticism. Here, he promotes the absolute hell out of Dumbo, clearly harboring wicked thoughts that Holt, the kids, and French acrobat Colette Marchant (Eva Green, giving easily the worst performance of her big-screen career) detect immediately, though Max manages to ignore how obviously shady all of this is.

Vandevere's entrance is a godsend on two fronts. One is that Keaton's arrival means that DeVito, the only lively and enthusiastic member of the cast, has anybody to play off of. The other is that we shift from the hugely banal American Southland At Golden Hour sets and lighting (the film's "exteriors" were all assembled in a soundstage, the better to minutely control the hectoring Rockwellian thickness of it all) to Vandevere's Dreamland, a tawdry hell of Art Deco excess that finds production designer Rick Heinrichs going all-out in creating an impossible collage of design elements that feel dazzling, overwhelming, and slightly grotesque all at once. It's the most Burtonesque element of a film that finds the director idling through so much warmly dour twaddle; Burton himself only seems to perk up twice, once in staging a frighteningly militaristic circus parade as our introduction to Dreamland, the other in putting together a foggy haunted house sequence that pushes Dumbo close enough to horror cinema that it raises the question of who on earth the movie is for (three times makes a trend - in Burton's last film, 2016's Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, the only time there was any detectable energy was in the most horror-adjacent scenes. His next film prior to that, 2014's Big Eyes, had no horror elements, and no energy either).

Those little flashes of nasty-minded perversity are not, after all, in any way on speaking terms with the suffocating, heavy tale of the Farrier family, none of whom emerge with even a single personality trait besides "misses Mom" despite dominating the running time of a film nominally about an adorable CGI elephant. Milly wants to do science, but this is expressed so vaguely, and demonstrated so bizarrely ("science" means in this case "shoving peanuts into an elephant's face in the hope that he'll fly again") that it seems quite wrong-headed to include it. It certainly doesn't help matters that the child actors are... sorry, I know it's mean to attack children, but they are fucking bad, Parker especially, lacquering her face into an immobile mask that perfectly matches her freaky neutral line deliveries.

After a while, the film tries to pretend that it was interested in Dumbo all along, and runs with it like he's our emotional anchor, even re-creating some of Tytla's facial expressions and gestures in CGI (it works much better than I would have ever believed without seeing it myself). The problem is that the film hasn't done any of the work needed to justify this shift, and has in fact done substantial work to close it off as a possibility. The result is a film that, at its best, manages to be cute and absolutely nothing more, while completely lacking any emotional center - Max is, ultimately the only genuinely sympathetic character, entirely thanks to DeVito, and he's not remotely positioned as a protagonist.

So it's all just so flat: visually soft and golden and flat, emotionally vacuous and flat, narratively misshapen and stripped of urgency and flat. Better all of this than the shrill, shrieking agony of Alice in Wonderland, the last time Burton made a live-action tie-in to a Disney animation. But still, that film at least had a personality; an abrasive, repulsive personality, but nevertheless. Dumbo is just an inert object, blandly unobjectionable and bereft of anything likable. It's not even craven enough to be a Disney product, it's just... there.