Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Director Report Card: Tim Burton (2019)

19. Dumbo

Look, I'm a big fan of the Disney Animated Features and I'm obviously fond of big budget, special effects filled spectacle. But this wave of big budget remakes Disney has made of their various classic cartoons? At best, they are usually deeply unnecessary exercise. At worst, they range from nearly shot-for-shot remakes to films that actively betray the themes of the original story. Tim Burton can take some blame for starting this mess, as the billion dollar success of his “Alice in Wonderland” urged Disney on. They show no signs of slowing down, as 2019 alone sees them rolling out quote-unquote live action versions of “Aladdin,” “The Lion King,” “Lady and the Tramp,” a sequel to “Maleficent,” and Tim Burton's “Dumbo.” Considering my obvious lack of enthusiasm for his prior stab at this, it was hard to get excited for Burton remaking an old Disney cartoon again.

The original “Dumbo” runs barely over an hour and contains no major human characters. This means Burton's “Dumbo” has to expand upon the plot greatly. The basic are still the same: Mrs. Jumbo gifts the circus with a new baby elephant. The new baby, quickly named Dumbo, is born with giant ears that get him mocked. However, when he grasps a lucky feather, he can use his huge ears to fly, making him a star act of the circus. Soon, he uses his ability to rescue his mother. Added to this plot line is recently returned war veteran/amputee Holt Farrier and his recently motherless kids, Milly and Joe. The kids have a special bond with the little elephant. When news of the act reaches millionaire theme park owner V.A. Vandevere, he purchases the entire circus. Vandevere's intentions are less than benevolent though.

Many of these live action remakes Disney have rolled out are largely shot on green screens. This blurs the line between live action and animation, as Jon Favreau's “Jungle Book” was computer generated save for one actor while his upcoming “Lion King” is entirely CGI. Burton's “Alice in Wonderland” largely depended on real actors performing on sets made in a computer. Burton's “Dumbo” takes a similar approach. At first, this is hugely jarring. Seeing real people perform before clearly unreal surroundings, sometimes wearing clearly CGI outfits, makes everything look plastic-y and weightless. However, as “Dumbo” goes on and the story grows increasingly surreal, this starts to work in the film's favor. Maybe “Dumbo” is suppose to look artificial, to further facilitate a dream-like and fantastical atmosphere.

Burton's “Alice in Wonderland” was depressingly free of his stylistic trademarks. At first, his “Dumbo” looks much the same, as it joylessly marches through the original's story beats but stripped of their whimsy. However, once Vandevere enters the film and the story moves to his Dreamland park, things pick up. Dreamland includes a hall of horrors, inhabited by regular animals dressed up as fictional monsters. Shots of a “werewolf” howling in the fog or a crocodile outfitted with fake horns – a possible slurpasaur homage? – reminds us of Tim Burton's earlier films. A Robby-like robot appears rather randomly, as does a highly anachronistic mechanical hand. His take on the “Pink Elephants on Parade” sequence, performed entirely in bubbles and partially seen reflected in Dumbo's eyes, is a similarly dream-like sequence. It's good to know that Burton can occasionally grab some of the spark that made him interesting in the first place.

Even in the cartoon, Dumbo didn't talk. Creating a film where your title character is both silent and created in a computer presents some challenge. Amazingly, Dumbo in 2019's “Dumbo” works. First off, he's genuinely adorable. He doesn't look like a real elephant but he's an awfully cute approximation. More importantly, the film captures Dumbo's vulnerability and his connection to his mother, making the audience want to see him succeed. A flying elephant doesn't look real. That's where the film's surreal tone comes in handy. However, the scenes of Dumbo flying are still exciting and inspiring. As if to make the audience relate even more to Dumbo, Burton's film often assumes his point of view.

Danny DeVito supposedly signed onto “Dumbo” so he and Burton could complete their “Circus Trilogy.” It is true that Burton has shown a particular fondness for the circus before, in “Big Fish” and parts of “Batman Returns.” Large parts of “Dumbo” are devoted to the sense of family formed among circus performers. Everyone in the circus stands up for Dumbo and his mom. Yet Burton seems even more fond of what an extended confidence act the circus is. Ringmaster Medici has few people filling multiple roles at the circus, the strongman doubling as a orchestra leader for one example. He isn't great about paying people, extending promises he doesn't always keep. There's something sweet about how this big mess is held together by everyone loving it so much.

Burton has certainly expressed his love of ramshackle establishments running on pure sincerity before. Dumbo and the circus around him emerge as another set of Burtonian misfits, fighting against conformity. Weirdly, Burton chooses this material to bring a political context to his usual tropes. Medici's Circus is a small business. It gets scooped up by Vandevere's Dreamland, a bigger and glossier establishment worth millions. Yet Vandevere doesn't care about the little workers his company has absorbed, deciding to fire them shortly after hiring them. His establishment is soon exposed as flashy but hollow. The way a rich man commodifies unique and special things – by selling stuffed animals of Dumbo – is either Burton biting the corporate Disney hand that feeds him or the movie being especially blatant about its toy tie-ins.

These anti-big business themes are certainly more compelling, and unexpected, than some of the other ideas floating around inside “Dumbo.” This is a movie that purports to support animal rights while also trumpeting a love for the circus. A circus in 1919 even, a time and place that almost assuredly saw its share of casual animal abuse. Nevertheless, the ultimate goal of the story is to release Dumbo back into the wild. This is especially apparent during a closing scene where Medici talks directly to the viewer and mentions how free and comfortable their animals are. It's absolutely a good message but I don't think this story – which also plays an imperiled monkey for occasional laughs – was the best place to make it.

At times, “Dumbo” really does feel like three different movies shoved into one. You have a cutesy CGI remake of the original “Dumbo,” you have a story about a little circus being bought up by a big circus, and you have a story of a family recovering from their mother's death. Weirdly, that last story is the one that feels the most childish. The dead mom is just a prop, a clumsy way of connecting the children with Dumbo, who is missing his own mom. We never get a sense of who their mother was. We also never get the feeling that Holt is mourning his own wife very much, as he seems much more upset by Medici selling his horses and slightly annoyed by how clearly traumatized his kids are.

I hate to say this but a big reason why that particular subplot doesn't work, aside from it just being really underwritten, is that the child actors aren't very good. Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins are making their debuts here. Parker as Milly, who Burton makes up to look a lot like one of Margaret Keane's big eyed waifs, speaks most of her lines in a blank monotone. It doesn't help that she's given some truly tin-earred exposition to deliver too. Hobbins, as Jack, is among the film's most underdeveloped kids. He too seems deeply uncomfortable on camera. It's not right to blame kids for these sort of things but somebody somewhere made a mistake with these leads.

But maybe the kids give lackluster performances because they are just following the lead of the movie's biggest star. Colin Farrel, playing a part probably would've gone to Johnny Depp a few years ago, is cashing a paycheck so hard. There's a lot for an actor to dig into in the part of Holt Farrier. He's a veteran of the first World War who has recently lost an arm, a loss that comes atop his wife dying while he was overseas. Instead of digging into any of that, Farrell recites his dialogue and goes through the motions without a single flicker of genuine emotion crossing his eyes. I don't know, maybe he was trying to play it stoic...

Luckily, Burton has his collection of regulars along and they are more than capable of carrying the entire film. Danny DeVito, who is very close to being the film's main character, is truly delightful as Medici. He seems in very high spirits, as a man whose childhood enthusiasm is never quite crushed despite the sadness he clearly carries around inside him. Eva Green, now thoroughly established as Burton's latest muse, soars as Colette, the trapeze artist who is slowly won over by Dumbo. That ineffable grace and wit Green brings to every role is especially well utilized here, as a character who is more complex than she initially appears. Lastly, Michael Keaton has a ton of fun hamming it up as Vandevere. Halfway between Beetlejuice and Bruce Wayne, Keaton growls and pontificates as the unscrupulous businessman. As he grows more unhinged, Keaton only becomes more entertaining.

Maybe it's because my expectations were very low but I ended up liking “Dumbo” a little more than expected. After an extremely slow first act, it picks up a lot and starts to feel a lot more like a Tim Burton movie. Granted, it's a Tim Burton movie with not nearly enough heart in its story and way too much fucking CGI but at least it's recognizable as a Burton film. As uneven as it is, it ultimately proves more interesting than “Miss Peregrine” or “Dark Shadows,” the director's anti-corporate themes emerging in a big way. And, it turns out, an adorable baby elephant goes a long way. I still can't support Disney raiding their vault for easy, nostalgia-baiting box office. (Which didn't exactly work out as well planned this time.) However, this probably emerges as my favorite of their recent remakes. [Grade: B-]

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