IN CINEMAS NOW
RUNNING TIME: 112 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
In 1919, World War I amputee Holt Farrier returns to his old job at a traveling circus run by Max Medici. Medici hires him to take care of Dumbo, a newborn elephant. His oversized ears make him the laughing stock of the struggling circus troupe and also the public, causing his mother to rampage into the ring, causing extensive damage and even accidentally killing an abusive handler. Medici decides to sell Mrs. Jumbo, but Holt’s son Joe and daughter Milly have noticed that Dumbo can fly by flapping his ears. Could this make the little elephant a star.…
One of the most depressing things about this year in movies to me is that we have no less than three live-action [well, the term live-action is actually pushing it seeing as more than half of what you will see is probably CGI] Disney remakes. I’ve moaned about the studio’s lack of creativity and pissing on its legacy too many times so I’m going to try to limit my vitriol here, even though I personally think that any fan of the animated Disney’s [among whom |I consider myself] should absolute hate what the company is doing. Anyway, so so far we’ve had, in order of quality rather than chronology: Cinderella, 101 Dalmations, The Jungle Book, Maleficent [Sleeping Beauty], Alice In Wonderland and Beauty And The Beast. Certainly not all of these films have been bad, and I sometimes forget Tim Burton’s Lewis Carroll adaptation seeing as there have been so many other versions. But Beauty And The Beast, despite being a hit, was artistically the low point so far, being an astoundingly lazy carbon copy of the cartoon, though its popularity does raise interesting questions over what people want from remakes. How much should a remake lean on nostalgia and the familiar, and how much should it go down new pathways? I tend to prefer a 50/50 mixture of both. One thing I was convinced of though as I entered into the [nearly empty] cinema screen showing this new Dumbo – it would be quite different from the 1940 film, though I had my doubts as to its overall quality. I mean come on now – his Alice In Wonderland was disappointingly bland, even though one would have thought that he would have really connected with the material.
Well, he doesn’t really seem to connect with the material of Dumbo either, and one wonders why he likes to take on projects that seem to require him to do little more than be a parody of himself, especially when Big Eyes suggested interesting directions that he could have gone down, though of course when you have Ehren Kruger, last responsible for the ghastly dumbing down of Ghost In The Shell, writing your script it’s probably hard to be inspired. Kruger has commendably resisted the temptation to just copy the original, but still manages to fill his screenplay with as many predictable cliches as you can imagine [as soon as Michael Keaton’s character shows up you will probably be able to predict almost exactly how things would go from there on], while Burton seems trapped by having to create a nice feature for the whole family and attempting to satisfy his own interests which include [aside from the circus scenes] a muted colour palette which surely shouldn’t exist in a remake of a Disney cartoon and certainly won’t be appreciated by the little ones even if they are able to sit through a rather downbeat, joyless tale [and to be fair some are]? Why does he like to go for projects like this these days when something like Sweeney Todd was a far better vehicle for him because he didn’t need to be restricted? This Dumbo isn’t totally terrible but it seems lacking in much personality and emotional investment, the latter such a shame considering how totally involving the original was. But that’s not to say that there aren’t some interesting oddities. What, for example, are we to make of a film that appears to criticise Uncle Walt and the horribly out of control company that he created which seems to want to own everything?
I’ve mentioned my dislike for 3D many times before, but I do occasionally try the experience again just to see if my views have changed. I’ll say one thing – Burton utilises the format pretty well in this film, especially in the opening sequence where he really makes the most of a train traveling and arriving at a station while images showing the circus performers and its owner Max Medici appear on sides of the screen in a neat visual device. Despite his age Danny DeVito remains a force of nature who’s so enjoyable to watch even though his presence may just want you want to watch Big Fish again rather than Dumbo considering his role. But Colin Farrell seems ill at ease as Holt Farrier, and we soon get one of the crassest examples of the Disney obsession with beginning a film with somebody dying. We very soon learn that Holt’s wife died while he was away, but this is hardly ever referred to again, and I’d even forgotten it when I wrote my synopsis of the first third and only remembered it now, because it hardly has any bearing on the rest of the film. Also pointless is the device of Dumbo, who’s born only a few scenes in and who indeed flies very early on too, needing to swallow a feather to fly. It’s treated almost like a drug addiction, and its presence is obviously something else that Kruger felt that he had to add to bulk out the story [the original is only 64 minutes long] but which doesn’t really work. I guess that adding lots of human characters was also thought necessary, but this means that Dumbo is often a supporting player in his own film!
Dumbo’s mother is shipped away after going wild after seeing her son being mistreated, but he soon becomes a star when Max actually decides to listen to his kids for once and finds out what Dumbo can do. Then along comes V. D. Vandevere, the owner of Dreamland, a huge amusement park, and boy is Michael Keaton hammy in the part, though as a lover of the greatest Batman film ever [sorry but I’ll argue this till the day I die] I couldn’t help but feel joyful at seeing Keaton and DeVito together again. Now then – is it subversive that a very Disney-like organisation [it even sells Dumbo toys] is being depicted as being so soulless and greedy [Burton’s had a very long relationship with the studio that hasn’t always been harmonious], or is it total hypocrisy of a kind we’ve seen before time and time again? It’s difficult to know what to think. At least the Art Deco-meets-Steampunk production design of Rich Heinrich for Dreamland is quite striking, and we soon meet Eva Green as Colette Marchant, a trapeze artist ‘owned’ by Vandevere, though I was surprised when I found out that she was supposed to be French as her accent often sounds more Eastern European. Medici and his troupe finds himself working for Vandevere, but of course it’s not going to last and you know that the multi-cultural group are going to end up going up against the evil, all-white Dreamland lot. The action climax has a feeling of desperation about it, and – well – you learn some new things, like that Indian elephants actually do have tusks despite what you may have thought and even seen, and that a person with only one arm can easily hoist himself up the metal supports of the curved, metal side of a huge building. And why does Dumbo sometimes appear to understand what the humans are saying, and sometimes not.
The CGI is often pretty obvious, including a monkey which given its limited amount of screen time could have easily been played by a real one – but no, these days it’s obviously better to create a digital one, no matter how iffy it looks. Dumbo doesn’t look too bad most of the time, but close-ups of him and his mother really suffer because elephants possess really soulful, sad eyes and they haven’t even bothered to try to replicate that here. His flying scenes do have a certain sense of elevation, and you may be on tender hooks during a couple of moments where Dumbo seems in danger, but the times where the original is referred to just can’t help but show this remake in a poor light by comparison. The old ‘Baby Mine’ scene is such a brilliant example of how the classic Disney’s were able to tug at the heartstrings. Here, we just see someone singing and playing the song on a guitar before finally seeing Dumbo with his mother for a couple of seconds, while the ‘Pink Elephant’ sequence is just partly replicated by bubbles, and sticks out like a sore thumb, being included just because of the original scene’s iconic status. On the other hand we’ve all probably come to except heavy messaging from not just Disney but modern Hollywood. It’s hard not to argue against animals being in circuses, and Burton continues his love for outsider characters [though the circus denizens are barely characterised at all] and lack of conformity, but isn’t the latter ironic when the film tries all it can to conform to expectations and has a story line that seems constructed by committee?
Danny Elfman’s very present score sometimes soars, and there are a few reasonable themes, but it’s been clear for some time that his heart these days lies more with smaller indie projects and that he takes films like this mainly for the money. It’s been a while since he’s done really great work for Burton, but then Burton seems a bit stuck too. This Dumbo certainly isn’t totally uninteresting, another strange quirk being that it seems to be a circus-set film that doesn’t actually like circuses [most seem to celebrate them on some level], and I have the feeling that I’ll respect it a little more than the next two remakes which look like they will do little more than rehash the originals, but it’s terribly unfocused and rather overstuffed, in the process losing the purity and beauty of the story as told in 1940 which didn’t need elaborating nor retelling in the first place – but try telling that to Disney. Oh dear, I’ve moaned about what they’re doing again, though I feel that I’ve done well not doing it for four paragraphs. Please give me some credit.