Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Movie Review: Dumbo

Dumbo ** ½ / *****
Directed by: Tim Burton.
Written by: Ehren Kruger based on the novel by Helen Aberson and Harold Pearl.
Starring: Colin Farrell (Holt Farrier), Michael Keaton (V. A. Vandevere), Danny DeVito (Max Medici), Eva Green (Colette Marchant), Nico Parker (Milly Farrier), Finley Hobbins (Joe Farrier), Alan Arkin (J. Griffin Remington), Joseph Gatt (Neils Skellig), Deobia Oparei (Rongo), Sandy Martin (Verna The Secretary), Sharon Rooney (Miss Atlantis), Lars Eidinger (Hans Brugelbecker), Roshan Seth (Pramesh Singh), Michael Buffer (Baritone Bates), Sarah Bennani (Lindsay), Douglas Reith (Sotheby).
The most interesting thing about Tim Burton’s Dumbo is that the director has seemingly made a Disney film about how evil Disney is. That’s a choice to be sure, and just about the only thing in Dumbo that is really of interest. This film is almost exactly twice as long as the 1941 animated original from Disney, and makes the strange choice to essentially shunt the animal characters to the background in favor of an expanded human story that never really clicks. There is, as is always the case with Burton, some great Production Design and Costume Design, but little else that really brings the film to life. You can still tell its Burton there directing this – but like most of what he’s done in recent years, it feels hollow compared to his best work.
The story is set just after WWI, when Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell, doing an interesting accent) returns from the war, minus an arm, and returns to the circus where he is a stunt horse rider. His two kids – Milly and Joe (Nico Parker, quite good, although given not much to do and Finley Hobbins, who I have already forgotten) are there to greet to him, but his wife died while he was away. The ringleader, Max Medici (Danny DeVito – the best performance in the film) sold off his horses while he was away to try and stay solvent, so now Holt is put in charge of the elephants – including Mrs. Jumbo, who is very, very pregnant. Soon little Dumbo will come out, with his huge ears, that get him mocked and laughed at by everyone. That is, until Milly and Joe figure out that Dumbo can fly using those ears. The tragedy of the film is when Dumbo and his mother are separated (we all remember the hug through the bars in the original – redone here, with nowhere near the impact) – and his desire to be with her again. But before we get there, we have to go to Coney Island – where conman V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton) shows up – to buy Medici’s circus, to get his hands on that famous flying elephant and bring him to Dreamland – which is essentially Disneyland – to be his latest attraction. This excursion to Dreamland at least allows the Production Designer to have a field day, and gives us Eva Green – who once again is one of the best things about a not very good Tim Burton movie (I want Burton to make a great film again for a few reasons – one of them is to give Green a role her talent actually deserves).
The special effects in Dumbo are pretty good – without ever quite being great. Dumbo, the character, looks best when he is doing the least. They have clearly styled him to look like many a Burton outcast before him (I was shocked to discover the performance of Dumbo was not done by Johnny Depp doing motion capture) – and he is adorable, and you immediately like him. Yet, I’m not sure they ever quite nail the flying elephant thing – he doesn’t quite soar the way he should, and the flying scenes are more awkward than anything else.
Also, while I get why Burton and company decided to tell a human story here – and not have the animals speak – it kind of overcomplicates the story in a way that it doesn’t need to be overcomplicated. Afterall, at its heart, Dumbo is the story of a kid who misses his mom – and if done right, that story will work every time. Here, there are so many characters you don’t care about – some many talented actor, doing not such great work – the biggest disappointment being Keaton, reuniting with Burton for the first time in decades, and just kind of phoning it in – that the simple story that has continued to make children and their parents cry for nearly 80 years now gets lost somewhere in the mix.

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