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Dumbo (2019)
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Oh, The Shame Of It!"
1 stars

When Walt Disney launched “Dumbo” into production in 1940, it was not with the intention of creating a ground-breaking work along the lines of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves,” “Pinocchio,” “Fantasia” and the then-developing “Bambi.” Those films were great, to be certain, but they took so long to make, involved so many creative fits and starts as ideas were tossed about and oftentimes abandoned and cost so much money that Disney found himself in the position where he needed to create a film that would not take too long or cost too much to make and which would bring some much-needed revenue to the studio coffers. In a short story written by Helen Aberson and Harold Pearl that was originally written to accompany a storytelling toy prototype, Disney found the ideal property to use as the basis for such a venture. Although the narrative was quite brief, the story that it told—about a baby circus elephant born with enormous ears that first mark him as a freak and then become his salvation when he learns how to fly with them—was so simple and direct that it didn’t require the exquisite technological gloss that Disney had applied to his other films in order to help put it across. It was perhaps the first of his films that viewers of all ages could feel a direct and deeply personal emotional connection to while watching it—anyone who has ever felt awkward or like an outside can instantly respond both to Dumbo’s initial plight and his eventual triumph. (With the possible exception of “Carrie,” it is arguably the greatest and most crowd-pleasing revenge-of-the-nerd narrative in American popular culture.)

Although “Dumbo” proved to be both an expected commercial success and an unexpected critical favorite (even reviewers who didn’t especially care for Disney’s previous efforts found themselves falling in love with it), there is a sense that it has never quite received its much-deserved due, especially in regards to its place in the studio pantheon. Part of this is due to an unfortunate bit of timing involving America’s entry into World War II—a few weeks after its release, it was scheduled for a Time Magazine cover story that would have solidified it as a hit, only to be bumped that week by the bombing of Pearl Harbor. (In tribute to this, one of the most memorable sequences in Steven Spielberg’s underrated “1941” involves General Joseph Stillwell taking time out from the war jitters engulfing Los Angeles a week after the attack by ducking into a movie theater to watch and eventually weep over a screening of the film.) At the same time, the fact that the film succeeded without Disney’s overriding touch seems to have created a sense of resentment towards it that has continued on long after his passing. For example, whenever some new technological marvel comes along that the studio is contemplating dipping into—television, cable, home video, streaming—it is almost always “Dumbo,” and not one of the more overtly venerated titles, that is sent out ahead as a sort of celluloid canary to see if it is safe for the more prestigious works to enter.

However, in terms of showing sheer and unadulterated disrespect to a title that has served the studio well for so many years, nothing comes close to their new live-action remake of “Dumbo” Considering that the studio now seems hell-bent on doing seemingly superfluous retreads of their animated classics as a way of using the familiar titles to hopefully rake in additional billions of dollars, the notion of “Dumbo” getting such treatment is not a surprise by any means. What is a surprise is just how completely wrong Tim Burton’s take on the material is in virtually every imaginable way. One of the most genteel and delicate of all animated films, this version of “Dumbo” is a garish and wildly overproduced monstrosity that little kids will probably find terrifying, older viewers will dismiss as overly cloying and which not only fails to demonstrate even a shred of the charm of the original film but which appears to have been made by people who have never even seen it, let alone have even the slightest inkling of what it was about it that caused it to resonate so strongly to so many for so long.

Set in 1919, the film opens with the struggling Medici Brothers circus, under the aegis of amiable sleaze ball Max Medici (Danny DeVito), arriving for another round of performances for increasingly dwindling crowds. Meeting up with the circus is Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell), the one-time trick riding star of the show who went off to war, lost his left arm in combat and has returned to reunite with his two young children, future scientist Milly (Nico Parker) and little brother Joe (Finley Hobbins), now that their mother, another performer in the show, has succumbed to the influenza epidemic that recently spread across the country. Unable to perform his usual act—his horses were sold long ago—Holt is now reduced to helping to tend for the circus’s latest acquisition, a female elephant who is about to give birth. When she does, the resulting baby turns out to have freakishly large ears that make him look like the cutest thing ever. Inexplicably, these ears horrify nearly everyone but not only do Milly and Joe take to him, they discover that he can fly. Unfortunately, during the baby’s debut performance, the sudden appearance of those ears cause him to be reviled by the crowd and when his mother stomps out to protect him, a riot develops that also causes the death of her brutally abusive trainer, leading her to be locked away and sold and her baby, now rechristened Dumbo, to be relegated to the clown act. Figuring that enough people will pay to see Dumbo’s abilities to earn the money to buy his mother back, the kids and Dumbo secretly work on their own and during the act’s debut, Dumbo not only demonstrates his startling abilities but manages to save the day when things go sideways, thereby earning him the love and admiration of everyone.

For those of you who remember the original film, what I have recounted above, save for the human element, more or less conforms to the parameters of its entirety but here, all of this happens by about 40 minutes in. From this point, the story lurches in a different direction that feels the patently unnecessary sequel to a remake that has so far failed to justify its own existence. Now a success thanks to Dumbo, Max is approached by V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), an East Coast showman who comes across like an unholy blend of Colonel Tom Parker and Donald Trump (especially in the hair department), with an offer that he almost certainly should refuse. Vandevere has created Dreamland, a lavish permanent amusement park/circus structure in New York but is in need of a big act to serve as its main attraction and he is so eager to have Dumbo serve as that attraction that he is willing to bring the entire Medici outfit along to perform as well. Max agrees, the circus shifts each and while everything seems dazzling and fabulous for a while, Vandevere’s initially kindly nature begins to fade away into something more malevolent, especially in his insistence that Dumbo’s act include him flying around with the park’s key human attraction, coquettish French aerialist Colette Marchant (Eva Green) on his back.

There is more—surprising developments involving Dumbo’s missing mother, an evil henchmen who apparently has a side gig in whacking recalcitrant pachyderms, a budding romance between Holt and Colette and a hard-to-please money man (Alan Arkin) who controls the purse strings financing Vandevere’s empire—but with the possible exception of the stuff involving Dumbo’s mom, there is precious little of it that will hold the interest of most viewers or that even has anything to do with Dumbo himself. Bizarrely, Burton and screenwriter Ehren Krueger (whose IMDb listing is essentially a perfect encapsulation of the devolution of American cinema over the last couple of decades) have contrived to create a “Dumbo” remake in which Dumbo himself is too often kept to the sides in order to concentrate on the comparatively uninteresting stories of the human characters. By adding patently unnecessary elements to a perfectly streamlined structured, a narrative that once soared beautifully now struggles throughout to achieve takeoff velocity and on the very rare occasions when it does get off the ground, it isn’t for very long.

To be fair, the idea of Tim Burton putting his spin on “Dumbo” sounds interesting in theory (in the way that him doing his version of “Planet of the Apes” sounded like a good idea at the time), but as the film lumbered on, I began to suspect that he had no real interest in doing such a thing. Instead, I got the distinct impression that he wanted to do a movie involving a old-time traveling circus, a milieu he explored far more successfully in “Big Fish,” and how the freakish charms they promised were bought up, smoothed out and eventually eradicated in the name of homogenized mass entertainment. That sounds like a fairly appealing premise for a film as well but there are two massive problems with including it here. For one thing, the basic narrative structure of “Dumbo” is so delicate in its construction that it cannot possibly support the additional weight of the extraneous material that Burton and Krueger have tacked on and it pretty much gets buried under it all. For another, while the visuals that are conjured up here are often impressive as spectacle (the first glimpses of Dreamland are appropriately jaw-dropping), the storyline devised to include them is infinitely less interesting and ends up feeling more like a rehash of “The Greatest Showman” than anything else. Even the big climax, in which the dream of Dreamland falls apart, lacks the kind of impact that one might have expected—it is all empty spectacle without any of the glee that one might logically expect from the site of Burton metaphorically bringing down those who would marginalize outsider talents in the pursuit of big bucks. The only real sparks in the film come from Green, who heroically throws herself into what is essentially a nothing part, and Arkin, who contributes some genuine laughs during his brief appearance.

Another problem with the film, at least for some people, is that a lot of the material on display here will probably be way too intense and disturbing for younger viewers. Granted, the original film had its oddball moments (especially in the justly famous and wildly hallucinatory “Pink Elephants on Parade” segment) and highly emotional bits (show me someone who claims that they have never shed a tear during the scene where Dumbo’s incarcerated mother comforts him through the cage bars separating them while “Baby Mine” is sung in the background and I will deem them a heartless and presumably sociopathic monster right to their face.) However, Burton has been compelled to push things in a much darker direction that may better fit his brand but which will leave little kids sobbing in fright. We get to see the abusive elephant trainer, who appears to have wandered into frame while indulging in “Deliverance” cosplay, brutally mistreat Dumbo and his mother and then get killed himself a few minutes later. In the second half of the film, a good deal of the action is set around a Dreamland attraction called Nightmare Island that is also filled with ghoulish creatures. Even when the film isn’t being overtly bleak and despairing, it has been shot in a strangely dour and lifeless manner that lacks the kind of snap that one might expect to find considering the setting. You many think that I am being a little too sensitive and perhaps you are right. That said, there may be many things that one might expect to find in a “Dumbo” remake and I am thinking that the appearance of a coroner’s truck in the first 20 minutes is one that probably could have been left out without doing too much damage.

After reading all of this, some of you may be thinking that I am being just a tad harsh towards “Dumbo” in a way that I wasn’t with other recent Disney animated remakes like “Cinderella,” “The Jungle Book” and “Beauty and the Beast.” You know what—you are right. Those other movies were not very good by any means but since the films that inspired them were not ones that I had particularly taken to heart in their original forms (not to say that they aren’t great) when I first saw them. “Dumbo,” however, is a different and much more personal case. Not only was the original the very first movie that I ever saw, at the wee age of three in the auditorium of the high school that I would eventually attend, the experience of seeing it was both my earliest conscious memory and the catalyst for what would quickly develop into a lifelong love of film. As a result, that film holds a special place in my heart and to see its gentle charms perverted in such a tonally off-base manner that reduces one of animation’s most quietly charming character’s into just another special effect was an unspeakably depressing experience. Happily, the original will no doubt continue to be loved and appreciated for generations to come and its place in the annals of screen history is assured and if there is any justice, this repellent redo will take the opposite path and quickly fade from view. They say an elephant never forgets but in the case of this version of “Dumbo,” I am sure that they, along with everyone unlucky enough to encounter it, will be happy to make an exception.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=31497&reviewer=389
originally posted: 03/26/19 13:26:57
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User Comments

1/27/20 David Hollingsworth Is there a rating lower than zero? 1 stars
4/01/19 Jimmie T. Murakami Majestic magnificence of the highest level and order, quite stunning. 5 stars
3/28/19 James Queerbugger A gloriously enchanting and magical film, much better than Disneys now laughable original. 5 stars
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  29-Mar-2019 (PG)
  DVD: 25-Jun-2019


  DVD: 25-Jun-2019

Directed by
  Tim Burton

Written by
  Ehren Kruger

  Eva Green
  Colin Farrell
  Michael Keaton
  Danny DeVito
  Alan Arkin
  Joseph Gatt

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