Cinema Dispatch: Dumbo

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Dumbo and all the images you see in this review are owned by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Directed by Tim Burton

Dumbo wasn’t really one of my favorites in the Disney cannon growing up.  I was always more of an Aladdin guy myself, so the prospect of getting a Dumbo movie from Tim Burton of all people seemed like the perfect mix of baffling and uninteresting, BUT once the trailers started coming out and I realized Danny DeVito was gonna DeVito it up in there, it at least managed to get my attention even if not for all the right reasons.  Sure, I’ll go to bat for DeVito almost every time (except The Lorax.  Ugh…), but what exactly are they trying to do with this movie!?  Is this the kind of remake that’ll make people even more cynical of Disney than they already should be, or is there some bold unique vision to all of this that I’m just not seeing?  Let’s find out!!

Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) has just returned from the war to the circus he worked for prior, and finds things a bit worse for wear.  Granted he lost an arm, but the circus is losing profits, animals, and oh yeah his wife died as well.  His kids seem fine if nothing else (Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins) and the circus’s ringmaster Max Medici (Danny DeVito) has some work already lined up for him.  Okay he’s not gonna be riding horses and shooting guns like he used to, but being the elephant handler is almost as good, right?  It’s a particularly sweet deal since Medici’s new elephant is about to have a baby which will bring in the crowds from all over!  Unless of course the elephant is a freak with big ears or something, but what are the chances of THAT happening!?  Okay, so the baby happens to be a big eared freak (because elephants don’t have big ears already?) but Medici gives him a shot at the spotlight which ends up going pretty badly for all involved as the rowdy crowd starts jeering and calling him Dumbo which sets off his mother who then gets sold to another circus; leaving Dumbo all alone to be mocked and ridiculed by the masses.  Sounds a bit heavy, but fear not!  The children have found out that he has a USEFUL gift which is the ability to fly, so now instead of being a laughingstock to make money for his capitalist overlords, he can be an inspiration wonder for his capitalist overlords!  Speaking of capitalists, Dumbo’s ability to soar through the air with the greatest of ease gets the attention of VA Vandevere (Michael Keaton) who has a MUCH bigger circus in New York (you could call it some sort of park for the purposes of amusement) and convinces Medici to move his operation there with absolutely NO catch whatsoever!  PINKIE SWEAR!  He just wants Dumbo to perform with his trapeze artist Colette (Eva Green) because… I don’t know, I guess a flying elephant wasn’t enough to appease the masses?  With Dumbo’s new found fame and spectacular abilities, will he be able to one day reunite with his mother as the kids have promised him over and over again?  What is Vandevere REALLY up to, and is there any chance that a guy with that kind of hair ISN’T a bad guy?  Was anyone really asking for this?  Like… at ANY point did someone out there even suggest that Dumbo should be made into a live action movie?

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“ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED!?  IS THIS NOT WHAT YOU ASKED FOR IN A DUMBO REMAKE!?”

The Disney live action remakes have been a mixed bag to begin with, and this might be the most mixed up of them all.  I don’t think it’s TERRIBLE and frankly I enjoy Tim Burton’s ridiculous and garish style to the hollow aesthetic of Beauty and the Beast, but this is such a confused messy experiment of a movie that it ends up feeling like an incomplete experience; as if we’re seeing the seriously compromised end product of a barely held together production.  Unlike Suicide Squad though, I don’t find the overly earnest nature of this mess nearly as entertaining as the bold swagger of that misfire falling flat on its face; even with Tim Burton’s unique aesthetic.

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“More clowns!”     “But what about the script?”     “I SAID MORE CLOWNS!!”

The biggest knot to untangle here is why this movie exists in the first place.  Why did Disney want to remake THIS particular movie, and moreover why did they tap Tim Burton to direct it?  While I don’t really have an answer to that, those questions do encompass the bizarre tonal problems of this movie, from its dark and dismal aesthetic clashing with its story to the process of turning an animated film into a live action one.  Now since I haven’t seen Dumbo in over twenty years, I can’t really do a scene by scene comparison of how this movie differs from the original, but even taken on its own merits as an original story there’s not a whole lot of cohesion here as far as the elements that make it up.  Dumbo falls pretty deeply into the uncanny valley here and not because he’s a poorly executed effect (he looks pretty good for the most part), but because the level of anthropomorphism is not clear.  He’s got giant soulful eyes, yet he’s meant to be seen as a real elephant.  He SEEMS to grasp English, but not to the point where you can clearly say yay or nay with any certainty.  The movie is CALLED DUMBO, yet because they took out the talking mouse to give him some sort of voice, they had to focus on the humans instead to tell his story for him, and now you have the problem of the humans having to be the facilitators of his abuse (otherwise it’s not a Dumbo movie) while ALSO finding a way to exonerate them from it.  It’s just a confused mishmash of ideas and hotfixes for problems that they didn’t properly think through in the first place when trying to adapt this story into live action.  I don’t think there’s a better illustration of everything wrong with this movie than the Pink Elephants scene which comes out of nowhere, doesn’t make any sense within the world the film has built up, and is so far removed from the context it had for the original film that it comes off as utterly pointless.  I mean look, just bagging on a remake for BEING a remake is a pretty petty way of judging a film, but this feels like a darn good example of what people don’t like about them; a whole lot of time and effort for something that ultimately fails to even figure out what it wants to be, let alone overshadow what it’s basing itself off of.

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“WHY AM I EVEN HERE!?”     “Keep quiet and don’t stop dancing!”

Now to a certain extent I WILL give it credit for being wildly different from the original film (especially in the second half) and I’ll get to what works about that soon enough, but just like the tone of the movie the script fails to feel like a cohesive narrative.  The biggest problem is most everything with the human characters who are not particular well written or that interesting.  The kids in particular are just so awkwardly situated in the movie because they are the bridge between Dumbo and the rest of the movie which only highlights the disparate nature between the two worlds this movie exists in.  As I said, the humans are indeed facilitating Dumbo’s abuse, and yet the movie doesn’t want us to think of them that way outside of absurdly over the top villainous caricatures.  Danny DeVito is meant to be funny and authentic, but he’s also doing horrific things to Dumbo by putting him in dangerous situations and trying to sell off his mother.  By extension, Colin Farrell is ALSO pretty bad because despite trying to be as nice as possible as the caretaker of the elephants, he’s still pushing Dumbo into situations that he’s clearly not comfortable with, and then we get to the kids who are the closest to Dumbo yet aren’t really doing anything to stop the abuse; rather they placate him with unsubstantiated promises of trying to get his mom back. The only character the movie WANTS you to dislike is Michael Keaton as what I can only assume is a harsh take on Disney himself, but because they set the bar so low for acceptable evil he’s not allowed to have much in the way of nuance or even an intelligible course of action; taking pointlessly villainous turns on a whim just so there’s no mistaking that he’s the BAD ringmaster compared to… well everyone else who’s just as abusive yet without the capital to cause as much damage.  It’s a turducken of bad decisions all the way down and some of the most awkward writing I’ve seen in quite some time; particularly from Nico Parker who vocalizes every situation in the most blunt and practical way possible.  The only one who really gets away here (at least as far as the main cast) is Eva Green as another one of Michael Keaton’s attractions, so at least in THAT regard we have a human character that is in some ways in the same situation as Dumbo rather than having his destiny lie in those who probably COULD do something to help him but don’t.

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“Don’t worry Dumbo!  We’ll always be there for you.”     “Unless we get bored.”     “And as long as you can still perform three shows a day.  I mean you’ve got to meet us halfway here!”

Now the movie isn’t all bad and will give it the tepid praise of saying it’s slightly better than Beauty and the Beast.  Say what you will about Tim Burton’s style, it at least stands out and there are some great visuals in this; particularly once we get to Dreamland which should have been called Burton Land considering how much it ends up looking like the most faithful recreation of his id committed to screen yet.  There are also a few story beats that I think work pretty well and show why someone thought it was a good idea to give him this project; in particular the fire scene with the clowns which is very well executed and feels like a decent modernization of that sequence.  I’ll even go so far as to say that once we DO get to Dreamland and Michael Keaton is doing his devil shtick, it actually comes off pretty well with just how perfectly he seems to be able to tap into the wants and desires of each person he’s selling himself to which makes him compelling to watch even if we as the audience know exactly where it’s all going.  Sadly the part where we GET to where it’s all going is when his character falls apart (could he really not have been cool for just a little bit longer!?), but until then I thought that he nailed it and effectively stole the show from everyone else.  That’s sometimes a bad thing in movies, but for a film as confused and directionless as this one, it needed something to anchor it and that’s exactly what he does for a good half hour of the movie.  Other than that… I guess I liked Danny DeVito?  He’s always fun to watch.  And… Eva Green is very good as she always is!  Um… that’s about it.  I guess I’ll throw a bone to Colin Ferrell and to the rest of DeVito’s circus troupe, but honestly there aren’t that many positive things to say about the movie.

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“I don’t know, Mike.  This Batman Returns reunion isn’t going so well.”     “Oh nonsense!  Can’t you feel the majesty of it all!?  Where’s your sense of childhood wonder and unfettered capitalism!?”

It seems to me that Tim Burton just wanted to make a circus movie on Disney’s dime and tried to somehow squeeze a Dumbo movie around that which PROBABLY wasn’t the best idea, but then I’m not sure how you’d even begin to turn something like Dumbo into a live action movie so perhaps letting Tim Burton go off into his own little world and call it a Dumbo film was about as close as Disney was willing to invest in, and to its credit the Tim Burton stuff isn’t all THAT bad if you’re into his particular sense of style.  If you’re here for a DUMBO movie, well you’re kind of out of luck as the movie’s split in so many directions that the few parts they get right are seriously outweighed by everything else that’s pulling this thing apart at the seams.  I don’t recommend seeing it in theaters, but it may be worth seeing at some point as yet another example of Disney’s rather hit and miss approach to remaking its classic films.  I’m certain that there’s a really great video essay to be made out of this movie made by someone much more talented than I am, but for now it’s an really only worth watching if you yourself want to see just how badly a studio with THAT much talent and resources can still fail at the most fundamental level of adapting a story into a new medium.  Then again, I think we’ll get an even more hilarious example once that Will Smith Aladdin movie comes out which depending on how you look at it is either a good thing for this movie since at least it won’t be as awful as THAT film, or a bad thing as it’ll get lost in the shuffle that much quicker.  Kind of a glass is half empty half full situation, though hardly a sticking point for me since I’m gonna see them all anyway.  Just wait until someone gets the bright idea to remake Frozen in live action!

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