Big Ups, Side-Eyes and L’s: DUMBO Movie Review
Full transparency, I was not looking forward to screening this film. No, I am all on board with Disney digging in the crates and pulling out their classic animated films to turn into live action remakes –especially after the amazing success they had with The Jungle Book— but Dumbo, ehhhh, it was not a film I had to see. Thankfully I was wrong. Although Dumbo shares several key beats with the 1941 animated flick, it is a more sophisticated and grown up re-imagining. This is not your parents’, nor grandparents’, Disney movie and that’s a good thing. It might not be able to bring the pure joy of its predecessor, but let me breakdown the Big Ups, Side-Eyes and L’s for Dumbo.
The Cast. We open with the Medici Bros. Circus, an underachieving traveling circus making its way across the Southern US in 1919. Max Medici (a very game Danny DeVito; he hasn’t been this great in years), the ringmaster who’s doing his best and worst to keep the business afloat; welcomes Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell), who just returned from World War I. Medici gets a good deal on a pregnant elephant, banking on the future baby elephant to be a moneymaker for his show. Of course, his plans do not go off smoothly as the baby pachyderm makes his debut in front of a live crowd, his oversize ears get him laughed out of the big top and his mama.
The CGI. Despite the advancement in computer generated technology, it is still hard to pull off convincing animated graphics. This is something Dumbo does not suffer from. Not only do you believe the that the performers of the circus are interacting with flesh and blood animals, Dumbo is unquestionably cute with photo-realism being tweaked to increase the animal’s adorability factor. He acts more like the family dog than an elephant, which when allows the audience to really take to him leading to…
Heart. I’ve been one of the biggest detractors of Tim Burton’s recent output of film (literally walking out of Alice in Wonderland halfway through). But when I saw his name flash across the screen as “directed by” I was flabbergasted by how a film with such heart in 2019 was made by him. Dumbo finds its emotional core by building a friendship between Dumbo and Holt’s kids. There is also a strong theme about parent/child bonding that has Holt learning how to relate to Joe (Finley Hobbins) and daughter Milly (played by an excellent Nico Parker); this has a parallel with Dumbo yearning to be reunited with his mother. Not to mention a subtle message about the treatment of performance animals where one cruel trainer gets his comeuppance. It’s pretty harsh for a Disney kids’ film but you’re so invested in animals that you’ll actually cheer.
Dark Themes. Of course, with Burton directing we should expect nothing less from him. However, it appears either Disney reined him in or screenwriter Ehren Kruger handicapped him from being too gloomy before letting the joyous film emerge. It’s not like he didn’t try. The opening of the film is very somber as Holt returns from World War I to greet his eager to see him children which leads to them being horrified to see that their papa is missing an arm. We also learn that their mother (who was a circus performer) passed away from an illness, most of their belongings were sold to keep the circus going and their tent was downsized, and the armless Holt is now tasked with handling the elephants (read: shoveling their crap.) Further they do not sugarcoat circus life for the animals in the least bit. Through the eyes of Dumbo, we are filled with great sadness of his tortured life as a performance animal and how he is first isolated from his mother, separated altogether and later faced with the prospect of her being killed for news boots. Yes, this is a kid’s film.
A. Vandevere! Michael Keaton shows up midway through the film to play the films villain, a wealthy eccentric who plans to exploit Dumbo in his extravagant theme park ‘Dreamland.’ His character is such a sparsely written villain that I was half expecting the camera to pan over to him periodically and see Keaton twirling an imaginary mustache. There is no nuance to his character nor any easily identifiable allegory to really make you root for his failure. To be honest, I believed him to be a dig at Walt Disney but in no way would could I see Burton being bold enough to go that route.
Not Enough Dumbo. Almost lost in the human drama of this film is Dumbo himself. He’s every bit as cute as he needs to be in order to sell toys to modern children. However, at times he feels like a prop to move the story along and advance the relationships of his human co-stars. Most notably with Colette Marchant’s (Eva Green) storyline. She comes into the film as Vandevere’s top act and (we think) girlfriend, played as a cold and callous number 2. It’s through her training with Dumbo for his Dreamland premiere that we see the seeds of a burgeoning relationship with Holt and her heart warming to Dumbo, so much so that she helps in the film’s caper climax. All that makes for a great heist film but a Dumbo starring film, not so much.
FINAL SCORE: 8.0
Watch the trailer below:
Where’s the mouse? If you were looking for a true adaptation this is where Burton and the film will fail you. ***SPOILERS AHEAD***
if you were expecting Timothy Q. Mouse to be Dumbo’s pal and guide through his newfound life as a circus star, well don’t get your hopes up as the best we got in the film is a short appearance of three caged white mice. SMH~!