Skip to main content

Make those ears disappear.

 
Dumbo
(2019)

(SPOILERS) Some would have you believe Dumbo’s less than astonishing opening weekend takings were down to an IP that held no cachet for today’s generation, the kind of argument trotted out when it’s convenient but is also used to contrasting effect when it suits (“They smartly managed to freshen the age-old brand up for a modern audience”). That, and a side order of “Sadness, animal cruelty, loss of parents. Who wants to line up for that?” Answer: plenty, it’s all in the telling. Rather than reaching such rash conclusions, I suspect the reason Dumbo has gone down like a lead elephant is that it managed to trample on everything that made the original so beloved. In retrospect, perhaps you could hardly have expected otherwise, given the collaboration of the successful writer of the Transformers franchise and a director who has (mostly) long since sold his soul into creative limbo. Dumbo’s a lame duck principally because it’s barely even about its title character.

Sure, the whimsical wee elephant’s central to everyone’s attentions or ambitions, but more in the manner of a monster movie, where the creature comes on periodically to make an impact (except Dumbo’s impact is negligible), and then withdraws. He isn’t central to his own movie. I’m guessing the half-measures anthropomorphising here is based on Dumbo not speaking in the original, so the assumption was that it wouldn’t make a marked difference if you dropped the mouse, the crows etc. Except that they’re the whole essence of our “in” to Dumbo and lifting him out of the state of being a sad baby elephant (they’re the fun quotient, basically). A couple of cute kids just don’t cut it, particularly when the plot shifts to focus on their protecting Dumbo rather than Dumbo’s quest itself. He becomes little more than a very cute CGI prop, to be pushed and prodded into place at the appropriate moment, rather than a protagonist to shed gallons of tears over. The pain of the loss of his mother and of the abuse (from his peers in the original, now from a mocking audience) is defused and rendered largely unaffecting (for fear of causing too much trauma?) The most imaginative sequence, meanwhile, is a direct lift from the original, minus alcohol (pink elephants) and thus entirely unmotivated (it’s like the CGI-action Jungle Book shoehorning in the animated version’s tunes).

Where the original story was almost entirely from Dumbo’s (and Timothy Mouse’s) perspective, here it’s largely from that of the humans. Yes, it’s preferable not to make slavish reproductions of the originals (j’accuse Beauty and the Beast) but to successfully evoke the original andbe original, you need to recognise its essence, which Ehren Kruger and Tim Burton singularly fail to do. Indeed, the shift in focus of the plot is far more likely to have been motivated by the conundrum of how to doubling the tale’s length than a desire to explore Dumbo’s world in greater depth.

Thus, the fate of Danny DeVito’s Medici Brothers’ Circus takes precedence, with Max (DeVito) doing a deal with Michael Keaton’s VA Vandevere, owner of Dreamland amusement park; it’s a rather worn and unengaging plotline that fails to engineer anything new, despite the reliable players at its centre (it has been suggested this is a commentary on Disney buying Fox, but that would make Murdoch the little guy, which would be ludicrous). Perhaps the only surprise is that Vandevere’s financier, played by Alan Arkin, is sympathetic, at least in comparison to Vandevere himself. It’s potentially an intriguing move to put “the villain” in turn under pressure, the success of his big enterprise in no way guaranteed, but nothing substantive is done with the idea.

As noted, instead of a mouse, Dumbo’s welfare is looked out for by one-armed Colin Farrell’s kids (Nico Parker – daughter of Thandie Newton, and on this evidence a chip off the old block who may even surpass her mum one day, just as long as she never gets it into her head to play Condoleezza Rice – and Finley Hobbins). This trio have their own traumas to deal with, but like everything else, there’s no relatable depth or drama infused into a family dealing with loss in the aftermath of war and disease; their situation is perfunctorily established, with no ensuing substance. The performances are all decent – Farrell the honourable, dependable dad, De Vito the lively small-timer, Keaton the Machiavellian toupeed monster, Burton’s current muse Eva Green the vivacious trapeze artist (maybe we should read Burton as Vandevere, the empty, plastic showman who has lost sight of Max’s rowdy, relatable entertainer impulse) – but to negligible end, because the movie itself is bereft.

Dumbo is a visually dour, sluggish (nearly two hours), humourless film (almost wholly absent of the wit and weirdness that were once Burton trademarks). If it occasionally soars, it’s only thanks to Danny Elfman’s trademark ethereal accompaniment (that Edward Scissorhands one, reduxed). One might have expected Burton to extract some amusement from the circus trappings, but his energy seems to have been irretrievably diluted by a reliance on CGI that has become ever more consuming post-Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. At the conclusion, CGI Dumbo is returned to his CGI mother, both bound for India with kindly snake charmer Roshan Seth (Gandhi, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom), to join up with all the other CGI elephants in the wild, although it’s debatable how much better off they’ll be there.

Tim Burton’s career lows have become increasingly common (however, to go against the throng, I wouldn’t include Planet of the Apes with them), notably his two biggest (unadjusted for inflation) hits Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Alice in Wonderland, but even they had a personality of sorts, off-putting as that was. Dumbo is simply plain and indifferent, simultaneously sumptuous and forgettable, and a chore to sit through. As for Disney’s live-action remakes, in the space of six months they seem to have gone from banging out no-brainer hits regardless of quality to very tentative efforts. First The Nutcracker and the Four Realms (perhaps not officiallyone of their number, but symbolically so) and now this. And if The Lion King is surely a slam dunk, Aladdin is looking rather iffy. Frankly, though, if their approach is to churn ‘em out with the reckless abandon of an ‘80s horror franchise milking the goods for all their worth before the well dries up, they’ve no one but themselves to blame when they make an unholy mess.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

You can’t climb a ladder, no. But you can skip like a goat into a bar.

Juno and the Paycock (1930)
(SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s second sound feature. Such was the lustre of this technological advance that a wordy play was picked. By Sean O’Casey, upon whom Hitchcock based the prophet of doom at the end of The Birds. Juno and the Paycock, set in 1922 during the Irish Civil War, begins as a broad comedy of domestic manners, but by the end has descended into full-blown Greek (or Catholic) tragedy. As such, it’s an uneven but still watchable affair, even if Hitch does nothing to disguise its stage origins.

You're not only wrong. You're wrong at the top of your voice.

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
I’ve seen comments suggesting that John Sturges’ thriller hasn’t aged well, which I find rather mystifying. Sure, some of the characterisations border on the cardboard, but the director imbues the story with a taut, economical backbone. 

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

So long, sky trash!

Star Wars The Saga Ranked
This is an update of my 2018 ranking, with the addition of highly-acclaimed The Rise of Skywalker along with revisits to the two preceding parts of the trilogy. If you want to be generous and call it that, since the term it makes it sound a whole lot more coherent than it plays.

To defeat the darkness out there, you must defeat the darkness inside yourself.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010)
Easily the best of the Narnia films, which is maybe damning it with faint praise. 

Michael Apted does a competent job directing (certainly compared to his Bond film - maybe he talked to his second unit this time), Dante Spinotti's cinematography is stunning and the CGI mostly well-integrated with the action. 

Performance-wise, Will Poulter is a stand-out as a tremendously obnoxious little toff, so charismatic you're almost rooting for him. Simon Pegg replaces Eddie Izzard as the voice of Reepicheep and delivers a touching performance.
***

When I barked, I was enormous.

Dean Spanley (2008)
(SPOILERS) There is such a profusion of average, respectable – but immaculately made – British period drama held up for instant adulation, it’s hardly surprising that, when something truly worthy of acclaim comes along, it should be singularly ignored. To be fair, Dean Spanleywas well liked by critics upon its release, but its subsequent impact has proved disappointingly slight. Based on Lord Dunsany’s 1939 novella, My Talks with Dean Spanley, our narrator relates how the titular Dean’s imbibification of a moderate quantity of Imperial Tokay (“too syrupy”, is the conclusion reached by both members of the Fisk family regarding this Hungarian wine) precludes his recollection of a past life as a dog. 

Inevitably, reviews pounced on the chance to reference Dean Spanley as a literal shaggy dog story, so I shall get that out of the way now. While the phrase is more than fitting, it serves to underrepresent how affecting the picture is when it has cause to be, as does any re…

It looks like we’ve got another schizoid embolism!

Total Recall (1990)
(SPOILERS) Paul Verhoeven offered his post-mortem on the failures of the remakes of Total Recall (2012) and Robocop (2013) when he suggested “They take these absurd stories and make them too serious”. There may be something in this, but I suspect the kernel of their issues is simply filmmakers without either the smarts or vision, or both, to make something distinctive from the material. No one would have suggested the problem with David Cronenberg’s prospective Total Recall was over-seriousness, yet his version would have been far from a quip-heavy Raiders of the Lost Ark Go to Mars (as he attributes screenwriter Ron Shusset’s take on the material). Indeed, I’d go as far as saying not only the star, but also the director of Total Recall (1990) were miscast, making it something of a miracle it works to the extent it does.

Play to them, then! Fickle, brainless idiots.

Waltzes from Vienna  aka Strauss’ Great Waltz (1934)
(SPOILERS) Hitchcock was dismissive of this adaptation of the stage musical of the same name, ironically minus the musical element. Waltzes from Vienna is a rather low-watt picture, with a rote romance/jealousy plotline running through it (Johann Strauss is offering his services to Countess Helga, much to the dismay of intended Resi). The film comes alive only intermittently with bits of comedy, Strauss’ rivalry with dad, and the central composition.