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

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

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.

They literally call themselves “Decepticons”. That doesn’t set off any red flags?

Bumblebee  (2018)
(SPOILERS) Bumblebee is by some distance the best Transformers movie, simply by dint of having a smattering of heart (one might argue the first Shia LaBeouf one also does, and it’s certainly significantly better than the others, but it’s still a soulless Michael Bay “machine”). Laika VP and director Travis Knight brings personality to a series that has traditionally consisted of shamelessly selling product, by way of a nostalgia piece that nods to the likes of Herbie (the original), The Iron Giant and even Robocop.

So you want me to be half-monk, half-hitman.

Casino Royale (2006)
(SPOILERS) Despite the doubts and trepidation from devotees (too blonde, uncouth etc.) that greeted Daniel Craig’s casting as Bond, and the highly cynical and low-inspiration route taken by Eon in looking to Jason Bourne's example to reboot a series that had reached a nadir with Die Another Day, Casino Royale ends up getting an enormous amount right. If anything, its failure is that it doesn’t push far enough, so successful is it in disarming itself of the overblown set pieces and perfunctory plotting that characterise the series (even at its best), elements that would resurge with unabated gusto in subsequent Craig excursions.

For the majority of its first two hours, Casino Royale is top-flight entertainment, with returning director Martin Campbell managing to exceed his excellent work reformatting Bond for the ‘90s. That the weakest sequence (still good, mind) prior to the finale is a traditional “big” (but not too big) action set piece involving an attempt to…

Welcome to the future. Life is good. But it can be better.

20 to See in 2020
Not all of these movies may find a release date in 2020, given Hollywood’s propensity for shunting around in the schedules along with the vagaries of post-production. Of my 21 to See in 2019, there’s still Fonzo, Benedetta, You Should Have Left, Boss Level and the scared-from-its-alloted-date The Hunt yet to see the light of day. I’ve re-included The French Dispatch here, however. I've yet to see Serenity and The Dead Don’t Die. Of the rest, none were wholly rewarding. Netflix gave us some disappointments, both low profile (Velvet Buzzsaw, In the Shadow of the Moon) and high (The Irishman), and a number of blockbusters underwhelmed to a greater or lesser extent (Captain Marvel, Spider-Man: Far From Home, Terminator: Dark Fate, Gemini Man, Star Wars: The Rise of the Skywalker). Others (Knives Out, Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood, John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum) were interesting but flawed. Even the more potentially out there (Joker, Us, Glass, Rocketman) couldn…

It’s like an angry white man’s basement in here.

Bad Boys for Life (2020)
(SPOILERS) The reviews for Bad Boys for Life have, perhaps surprisingly, skewed positive, given that it seemed exactly the kind of beleaguered sequel to get slaughtered by critics. Particularly so since, while it’s a pleasure to see Will Smith and Martin Lawrence back together as Mike and Marcus, the attempts to validate this third outing as a more mature, reflective take on their buddy cops is somewhat overstated. Indeed, those moments of reflection or taking stock arguably tend to make the movie as a whole that much glibber, swiftly succeeded as they are by lashings of gleeful ultra-violence or humorous shtick. Under Michael Bay, who didn’t know the definition of a lull, these pictures scorned any opportunity to pause long enough to assess the damage, and were healthier, so to speak, for that. Without him, Bad Boys for Life’s beats often skew closer to standard 90s action fare.

I'm reliable, I'm a very good listener, and I'm extremely funny.

Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)
(SPOILERS) When I wrote my 23 to see in 2019, I speculated that James Cameron might be purposefully giving his hand-me-downs to lesser talents because he hubristically didn’t want anyone making a movie that was within a spit of the proficiency we’ve come to expect from him. Certainly, Robert Rodriguez and Tim Miller are leagues beneath Kathryn Bigelow, Jimbo’s former spouse and director of his Strange Days screenplay. Miller’s no slouch when it comes to action – which is what these movies are all about, let’s face it – but neither is he a craftsman, so all those reviews attesting that Terminator: Dark Fate is the best in the franchise since Terminator 2: Judgment Day may be right, but there’s a considerable gulf between the first sequel (which I’m not that big a fan of) and this retcon sequel to that sequel.

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

They seem to be attracted to your increasing nudeness.

Pokémon Detective Pikachu (2019)
(SPOILERS) I was put in mind of Shazam! watching Pokémon Detective Pikachu, another 2019 tentpole that somewhat underperformed based on expectations. Not particularly due to any plot resemblance, but because both movies fall apart under the weight of an overblown and underwhelming finale. In the case of Shazam! that may be more damaging to its prospective sequels (if they keep the team of super-adult kids), whereas Detective Pikachu will simply have to struggle with a whole heap of unnecessary expositional baggage attempting to imbue the proceedings with emotional resonance.

This is one act in a vast cosmic drama. That’s all.

Audrey Rose (1977)
(SPOILERS) Robert Wise was no stranger to high-minded horror fare when he came to Audrey Rose. He was no stranger to adding a distinctly classy flavour to any genre he tackled, in fact, particularly in the tricky terrain of the musical (West Side Story, The Sound of Music) and science fiction (The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Andromeda Strain). He hadn’t had much luck since the latter, however, with neither Two People nor The Hindenburg garnering good notices or box office. In addition to which, Audrey Rose saw him returning to a genre that had been fundamentally impacted by The Exorcist four years before. One might have expected the realist principals he observed with The Andromeda Strain to be applied to this tale of reincarnation, and to an extent they are, certainly in terms of the performances of the adults, but Wise can never quite get past a hacky screenplay that wants to impart all the educational content of a serious study of continued existence in tandem w…