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Grim fairy tale
Let’s say you have a successful back catalogue and an odd but business driven aversion to total originality. So you throw technology at the old stories. The Jungle Book worked. Easy executive decision, right? Camus “be done seen ’bout everything…” But does DUMBO fly?
 
  "I tried to keep what I loved about it, the image of this character who doesn’t quite fit in being devoured by a large family multi- entertainment company. …The old Disney movies used to give you everything: joy, happiness, sadness, death, fear. The kids would run screaming out of Pinocchio. Nowadays people go, 'Oh, it’s still too scary.'"
  Director Tim Burton*

 

The relevant phrase in Burton's quote is of course 'used to'. I was one of those kids screaming out of Pinocchio, a film that is not only locked and loaded at the birth of my passion for movies but may even have been the movie that initiated the labour pains. This remake of Dumbo had me screaming but not quite in the same way. Dumbo feels like it's been made with the very best ingredients; (Suspicious? Already?!) great actors, a world-class fantasy director, cutting edge CG and a bulletproof if originally insubstantial tale of a baby elephant pining for his mother and whose gargantuan ears allow him to fly. The original 1941 animation feature was made largely to offset the financial failures of both Pinocchio and Fantasia as hard as that is to believe given their hallowed status in Disney's historical canon. Dumbo went on to out-gross both those films twice over. Its cut-price production shows. The background art is rendered by watercolour, not fully painted acetate cells and its running time would now no longer qualify as a feature… A mere 64 minutes and just over an hour on TV after a 4% speed up due to national TV broadcast systems.

As further proof of Disney's aversion to original screenplays, of the nineteen 2019 released films under their banner, not including those titles inherited from their recent acquisition of 20th Century Fox, every one except one of the remaining eleven are based on an existing work or are sequels or franchise movies. That lone outlier? Penguins, a well-reviewed, deeply anthropomorphic tale but also a certifiable non-starter as made under the Disney Nature banner. As I write The Lion King was released to fair to good reviews from the UK press and is having a very good opening weekend. In four days it brought in over half a billion dollars. Aladdin hauled in just shy of a theatrical billion dollars. Dumbo performed significantly less well and is seen as something of a disappointment. I sort of can imagine why the elephant is the elephant in the room or staying on the animal theme, the different hued sheep of the family. Not even sure if it's permissible to use that phrase anymore.

Dumbo

Ever since Pee Wee's Big Adventure, I have championed Dumbo's idiosyncratic director for his wit, visual style and outsider élan. Of course it was the caped crusader that launched Tim Burton into A-List orbit in 1989 but big budget Burton is not necessarily better Burton. It's clear that the budget has been well spent. Reportedly all shot in a studio (wow!), Dumbo features two meticulous fantasy circus environments with a profusion of detail. Not one aspect of production has been skimped and it is a marvel to look at. Star Colin Farrell was at some pains to let people know that real sets were built and this wasn't just playtime in the green screen room. Good to hear. So blasé are we all now, that we accept photorealistic CG animals with barely a 'whatever' but the craft gone into their animation is still jaw dropping. Do you get a sense that I'm leading to a reversal, a sour note? Well, yes, you do now. Farrell is the rugged amputee war veteran who returns to his children presumably adopted by a circus during the First World War. Once a horse wrangling star, he's now reduced to being the elephant keeper. Snake handler Roshan Seth has obviously a signed contract with the big bad ablaze below. He looks identical to his younger self from Gandhi and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom thirty-seven and thirty-five years ago respectively. He must have found an Easter Egg in Face.App. The child actors are terrific, both Nico Parker (the spit of her mother Thandie Newton) and Finley Hobbins. Danny De Vito is the ringmaster trying to make big top ends meet. Once it's revealed that with the help of an inhaled feather, little Dumbo can actually fly, the sharks start circling. Michael Keaton plays the ridiculously camp corporate villain who takes over De Vito's circus and offers his aerial performer to add some more gloss and glamour to a flying pachyderm. In the shape of Eva Green, said trapeze artist ironically employs a very broad French accent given how good her non-native English is. Banker Alan Arkin rounds off the A-List talent, the investor with a soul.

In between that last line and this one I re-watched the original. I felt it necessary. Made in 1941, it's stuffed with what sensitive souls may balk at today, stereotypes of the world and circus life that are desperately out of touch with today's attitudes. Try not to catch the lyrics of the Roustabout Song. They will upset those unforgiving of history’s casual, ubiquitous racism. At least in the 2019 remake, babies weren't delivered by actual storks. Generally, it's the performing animals that are frowned upon, a 2019 trope that the remake (set one hundred years ago, remember) adopts at its close – how PC and ridiculously anachronistic. The seventy-eight year old Dumbo is still emotionally engaging despite its simplicity (and yes, I'm as surprised as you are). Maybe my own history has prefigured my emotional reaction. So on to the live action re-imagining… You have shopped for all the best ingredients and have lined up a chef par excellence to work his/her magic. So what's the problem? It's the same problem every film has and one of the reasons that keeps the film business so vibrant and confounding. One person's passionate 'Yay!' is another's just as passionate 'Nay.' Place all these wonderful elements in service to a script so grim, so relentlessly downbeat and you have an honest to goodness feel-bad movie. I'm fairly sure its sinister, forbidding aspect is there to make the highs higher but there are so few actual highs, the whole film experience becomes one anti-depressant away from oblivion. I was shocked. One might even say dumbofounded. You have a story that lurches from one sad, dejected scene to another with barely a pause to go "Look, a flying elephant!" The younger elephant keeper is physically abusive, a character so stock you could cook in him. He's despatched early by a falling tent pole, the result of an aggrieved elephant mother defending her baby. The older, wet but nasty entrepreneur (sporting a wig that clearly wants to edge its way off its wearer's pate) has sent out an order for rice paper scenery so he can actually enjoy chewing it. I mean, it's Michael Keaton. I should be able to have some fun with Beetlejuice but no. His character is not even a cliché. When the limits to a character can be defined by the single sentence "I want to make millions from exploiting a flying elephant," then that one note characterisation grates every time he's on screen. Give him an obsession with trains, a fervent desire to climb a mountain, something, anything! Nope. He wants Dumbo and that is that.

I am particularly sensitive to the encaging and abuse of animals. Circuses, however you feel about them, have that behaviour in their DNA. Maybe Dumbo simply couldn't be updated without getting woke in its spokes. Having said all that, the remake's strengths are numerous and if you're not so obviously in the mood for a harmless, escapist fairy tale and can gleefully or otherwise handle the grimness, then seek out the film coming soon to a Blu-ray near you.

 


* https://www.indiewire.com/2019/03/disney-dumbo-tim-burton-weird-1202050975/

Dumbo poster
Dumbo

USA 2019
112 mins
directed by
Tim Burton
produced by
Katterli Frauenfelder
Derek Frey
Justin Springer
written by
Ehren Kruger
from the novel
Helen Aberson
Harold Pearl
cinematography
Ben Davis
editing
Chris Lebenzon
music
Danny Elfman
production design
Rick Heinrichs
starring
Colin Farrell
Michael Keaton
Danny DeVito
Eva Green
Alan Arkin
Nico Parker

distributor
Walt Disney
uk release date
29 March 2019
review posted
24 July 2019

See all of Camus' reviews