All the charm and heartbreak of Disney’s classic animation is missing in this retro-futurist, live-action clunker

Tim Burton’s new Dumbo lands in the multiplex big top with a dull thud. It is a flightless pachyderm of a film that saddles itself with 21st-century shame at the idea of circus animals, overcomplicating the first movie, losing the directness, abandoning the lethal pathos, mislaying the songs and finally getting marooned in some sort of steampunk Jurassic Park, jam-packed with retro-futurist boredom that had the kids at the performance I attended talking among themselves.

Screenwriter Ehren Kruger’s new version is taken from the 1941 Disney classic and the original 1939 illustrated tale by Helen Aberson and Harold Pearl, about a baby circus elephant named Jumbo Junior whose outsized ears cause him to be cruelly nicknamed “Dumbo” but which allow him to fly: the ugly duckling that becomes a swan in flight. But this film – live-action, with a CGI Dumbo – winds up burdening the whole thing with a dismayingly pointless, over-long, under-interesting third act about Dumbo getting sold on to a heartless, glitzy amusement centre. The performances from Colin Farrell, Eva Green and Michael Keaton are stuck on the autopilot factory setting of grinning, mugging, frowning and smirking.

This remake makes a mess of the most famous scene: the brutally, brilliantly, almost unwatchably sad moment when Dumbo’s mum furiously grabs some boys from the audience who had been bullying her child and spanks them with her trunk, for which she is shackled and imprisoned in a tiny cart with the placard “Danger Mad Elephant”. Poor Dumbo can visit her only in secret, at night, twining his little trunk around hers, stretched out from between the bars. It is the most heartrending moment in Disney history, sadder than the death of Bambi’s mother or Simba’s father, because Dumbo’s mum is still alive, enduring a waking nightmare of humiliation and slave-master cruelty.

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