Dumbo 2019



Main Cast: Colin Farrell, Michael Keaton

Director: Tim Burton

Filming has begun on my wonderful new adaptation of The Pajama Game for Amazon studios.  Now entitled Tee for Two, I’ve had my brilliant writer adapt the rather clunky original script into a sleek and modern affair set in a Thai H & M t-shirt factory.  We spent today filming the big company picnic number which we’ve set on a lovely tropical beach here in Phuket.   My leading man, Peter Dinklage, and I were simply exhausted after all those dance moves on sand.  It simply doesn’t give a good purchase to my toe shoes when I have to get up en pointe and I nearly fell once or twice.  Fortunately, I have a buff team of local dancers backing me up who kept me on step.  There was some sort of translation error when we requested them from the local employment agency and our order for sixteen chorus boys resulted in sixteen Thai lady boys showing up for the first day of shooting. They’re all lovely people, if somewhat prone to fits of giggles and add a certain camp je ne sais quoi to the proceedings.

When my casting people in New York let us know that Peter Dinklage was available for our shooting schedule, we immediately seized on the opportunity to use someone as famous and well known to the Millennial generation as he is.  David even managed to turn our love duet, There Once Was a Man, from a quasi-Western number to a medieval fantasy theme so we could work in an homage to Game of Thrones.  When darling Peter arrived, I did realize we had a teensy problem with our height differential.  We’ve managed to solve that with nine-inch platform shoes and a large box, but it does make our pas de deux a wee bit of a challenge.  Mary Gee and Kim Dee, my brilliant costumers have come up with some incredibly clever designs for some balloon leg pants for him that brilliantly disguise all this in the long shots.

After a busy day of shooting, Leah, my gal Friday, and I, packed a few wine coolers and grabbed a cab along with Mack and Mark, two of our chorus kids, and we all headed into town for dinner and a movie.  After some lovely fish curry at a little bistro on the beach, we headed to the Phuket Palace cinema where we were just in time to catch the next showing of Dumbo, Disney’s latest live action adaptation of one of its classic cartoons.  There’s quite the slate of these scheduled over the next few months including Aladdin and The Lion King as the current regime at Disney continues to monetize the contents of its vaults.   Dumbo was given over to the unique visual imagination of Tim Burton, who also redid Alice in Wonderland for Disney a decade ago. Like that previous film, Burton and his collaborators use the original cartoon as a jumping off point, creating a very new version of the tale of the flying elephant.

The original Dumbo, released in 1941 shortly before Pearl Harbor, was a short (64 minute) feature aimed at children with a sweet tale of a maligned baby elephant, teased for his huge ears, who ends up being able to use his ears to fly, leading to a happy ending for all.  It included a few songs, some racially problematic crows, a truly weird sequence of hallucinatory pink elephants, and a brightly colored circus backdrop.  The film was short as it was rushed through to completion to pump some money back into studio coffers after the relative failure of Fantasia the year before.  It joined the Disney pantheon of animated features released and re-released every few years during the formative times of the baby boom and the title character became instantly recognizable and the sweet lullaby Baby Mine became a leitmotif in various Disney offerings over the years.

In this new vision, Tim Burton has changed out the cotton candy colored circus for a seedy traveling show that looks a lot like the sets for American Horror Story: Freak Show.  As we’re now in the real physical world, rather than an animated fantasy, the animal characters are only slightly anthropomorphized and do not speak, despite being mainly CGI.  This leads to the elimination of Timothy Q. Mouse (other than as a brief cameo in a cage with some other mice who are not identified), the stork, the crows, and the snotty other circus elephants.  Instead, we get a passel of new human characters.  Chief among them is Colin Farrell as Holt Farrier, a former equestrian circus star who has returned from World War I missing an arm.  His wife has died and his children (Nico Parker, Finley Hobbins) who have been running around the Medici Brothers Circus relatively unsupervised are not overly trusting. The only Medici in view is Danny DeVito as the ringmaster and owner of the circus and whom has bought a pregnant female elephant who soon gives birth to her son with his enormous ears.

The first half of the film follows the general outline of the original.  Young Dumbo joins the clown act and learns to fly using his ears as wings, only it’s the Farrier children who are his guides and his voice.  (Just as in the original, Dumbo never speaks).  Then it’s as if Burton and his screenwriter, Ehren Kruger, decided to tack on a whole second film, Dumbo II: Dumbo in New York.  A mogul who runs a Coney Island amusement park (Michael Keaton) and his mistress (Eva Green) buy up the circus and take Dumbo away to create an act that will be a centerpiece of his Dreamland, flying around a huge arena with Eva Green’s Colette Marchant, who just happens to be a French aerialist, mounted on his back.  This leads to skullduggery, double crosses, animal exploitation, major explosions, and a happy ending of which PETA would be proud.   So, obviously, this new version of Dumbo is much more complex than the original, and a good deal longer.  Empty your bladder before enjoying.

So how is it?  The visuals, as per most Tim Burton films, are stunning.  I don’t particularly agree with the choices made for the circus as it’s much too somber, seedy, and spooky and this makes the whole tone of the film rather gothic for the tale and I’m not sure it can really support all that weight.  I understand what Burton is going for in terms of making points about both people and animals being oppressed by their circumstances, but the whole thing becomes a bit solemn and there’s not enough humor or music to leaven it.  (All the original songs make an appearance at some point, mainly in underscoring – only Baby Mine is actually sung and it’s as affecting in this version as it is in the original.)  Burton allows his imagination to run riot once the gang gets to Coney Island.  Dreamland is a carnival fantasia that seems to be part Beetlejuice, part Pleasure Island from Pinocchio, and part a lampoon of Disneyland.  It’s full of wild little visual touches suggesting a steampunk theme park crossed with the old Carousel of Progress Ride.  I enjoyed the look, but the twists and turns of the plot didn’t do much for me.  There were far too many people worried about money and far too few flying elephants.

It’s not really a film for actors.  It’s much more about visuals and CGI elephants.  The major players do fine with their roles, but no one is really special.  Michael Keaton is a bit more restrained than usual, but you can feel his manic energies raging underneath.  It might have been nice if he had been given a scene in which he could cut loose.  Colin Farrell just needs to look handsome and project occasional worry.  Danny DeVito does his usual schtick and does it well.  Eva Green comes off best of the major players.  She actually finds a character arc.  The two kids get way too much screen time.  The girl seems to be trying to channel Christina Ricci from The Addams Family and the boy is a complete non-entity.

Dumbo is made with care, should be considered at Oscar time when it comes to production design, and ultimately doesn’t really work.  It’s too long and too dark for smaller children.  Older children might enjoy it a bit.  Adults will be mystified trying to figure out the why of the film.  Why was it made?  What is it trying to say?  Every time it seems to settle down into consistency, it takes another detour.

Fake mermaid.  Bad prosthetic arm.  Gratuitous Roshan Seth. Collapsing big top.  Spooky animal exhibit.  Flying without a net. Master control room. Gratuitous elephant bathing.

To learn more about Mrs. Norman Maine, see our Movie Rewind introduction, visit her entire back catalog and follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/missvickilester

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