I’ll allow as how the steady, sharp decline of Tim Burton from visionary weirdo genius to denatured artistic gelding locked away in Disney’s solid gold dungeon isn’t exactly the most pressing issue facing the world of today. However, the news that Burton had agreed to do a live action remake of Dumbo, of all the classic animated films, has been stuck in the folds of one’s esophagus like an unswallowable, indissoluble pill for a while now—long enough that it has begun to seem normal.
But they released the trailer today, and if you’re partial to the 1941 original, or are in any sense alive, it’s a bummer. The good news: At least Johnny Depp isn’t playing Dumbo. See below.
Actually, I don’t know. Maybe it’s fine.
Objecting to remakes and reboots increasingly seems to occupy the cultural space that “I don’t own a television” used to (back when people owned televisions and television was bad). And really, it’s a pretty arbitrary objection. They don’t actually replace the original, as the (excellent) all-female Ghostbusters proved.
A little closer to the mark for Dumbo, David Lowery’s 2016 reimagining of Pete’s Dragon vastly expanded the emotional terrain of the weird 1978 original (which I worshipped as a kid, PS).
After the marketing train rolls away, remakes don’t erase their sources. They enlarge them. They’re like expensive fan fiction, a bonus 12-inch remix, a commentary track, an essay.
Oh, what, you don’t like essays now?
And maybe the vaunted notion of posterity, or canons, or cultural memory (or, indeed, spelling) is just so much folly. Eleven years after the Beatles made Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the Bee Gees and Peter Frampton joined forces to make a movie and a soundtrack album by the same title that undoubtedly became the defining version of that music for people who hadn’t yet been born in 1967.
See also: Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” vs. Dolly Parton’s; M*A*S*H the TV show vs the Robert Altman film; Ocean’s 11; Cape Fear; The Fly; three of the four versions of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, 1956, 1978, 1993—all fantastic, all radically different.
Kids never like what grown-ups like. If they did, they wouldn’t be kids. It’s currently fashionable to consider it stuffy and conservative to believe they’re wrong, and to confer a kind of holiness on their ephemeral hormonal enthusiasms. That’s because of two things: The first is that when rock’n’roll came along, grown-ups all thought it was venal, dangerous garbage. And right they were, which was why it was important. But they couldn’t see that because their inner landscapes were insufficiently evolved.
(That must be the same reason why YOU DON’T GET BHAD BHABIE.)
The second is that no one wants to be accused of being too old to appreciate something.
The idea that kids’ tastes are inherently right simply because they’re kids never seemed true when I was a kid (when we would still argue about why the new Saturday Night Live cast would never be as good as the original while the whole schoolyard sang along in unison with Bon fucking Jovi), but maybe it is and always was.
Maybe all the worst things really are all the best things.
Maybe remembering cultural artifacts that were made before this very moment is sentimental at least, fatuous at best, tyrannical at worst.
Maybe CGI really is not merely comparable, but superior to old fashioned ink and paint. Maybe there’s no measurable difference between the hand drawn iterations of the elephants and the ones made with digital tools. A pencil is a tool. So is a paintbrush. So is a plastic cel. So is a camera. So is an imagination.
Maybe Tim Burton’s Dumbo is now the only Dumbo worthy of discussion.
And let’s be serious: It’s not as though the original Dumbo doesn’t have some things to answer for. I don’t defend the crows in any way, even as the plot contrivance that gives Dumbo the idea to fly.
And if the Burton remake were in some way posited as a form of reparation for the crass minstrelsy of the crow scene/song, this might be a different story. It’s not, like, out of the question that Disney was acutely aware of how powerfully the crow characters taint the original film. Maybe they assigned the accounting department to make a comparative cost/benefit analysis between producing a full-blown remake and swallowing the inevitable censorship outcry that would follow the decision to edit the crows down or out of the original, and the remake simply made more sense, and who better to create it than the visionary auteur behind Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Alice in Wonderland?
Or maybe Burton came crashing through the doors with a bold, innovative new take on themes of love, loss, resiliency, self-confidence, and not just tolerance but celebration of outsiderness that made the original one of thee defining explorations of those essential ideas for the past 77 years.
Maybe he conjured up a companion piece to Edward Scissorhands. Maybe, as Big Eyes suggested, Burton is still in there somewhere, still eager to make the kind of work that established him as a genuine original 30 years ago.
Or maybe everyone involved just wanted to squeeze a few more drops of money out of the washcloth of the last three generations of childhood, and to further obscure some of the beautiful art and craft that ennobled and maybe redeemed the 20th century.
If you need anything, I’ll just be over here in the corner sobbing.