Sunday, March 31, 2019

Predictably, I disliked the new 'Dumbo'

Michael Keaton as the incarnation of all that is evil -- Walt Disney? 
Did you ever play pile-on as a kid? It’s pretty simple; you tackle whoever has the ball and everybody else piles on top of you until the carrier is crushed at the bottom, out of breath.

It’s what’s happening right now critically with Tim Burton’s Dumbo, which if it had been better, or made more money, would be referred to as Disney’s Dumbo. It’s pile-on time for Burton. This is unfortunate, as it’s not his fault.

Dir: Tim Burton
Scr: Ehren Kruger
Phot: Ben Davis
Release date: March 11, 2019
112 min.

First of all, I’m going to see whatever Burton makes. I’m one of those people. There are a couple of dozen directors out there whose work I’m going to watch. Even if it blows. Why? Because they are interesting, and I like to see what they are thinking about and how their work is evolving, for better or worse.

This means I sat through Alice in Wonderland (2010), which read like an epileptic fit I once had inside Meow Wolf. This means I sat through the new Dumbo. Because by God, I am going to give Tim Burton the benefit of the doubt.

And really, does any director have a chance with Dumbo? Disney’s new Brilliant Plan consists of reshooting everything successful — as live-action when the original was animated, and I’m sure vice versa when we run out of intellectual property — back and forth, across eternity. Given the importance of the character, it was, natch, necessary to update all the racism and underage drinking out of it, meanwhile making it fall within the parameters of today’s set of mainstream sensibilities — racially and ability-sensitive, anti-corporate, inclusive.

Given that, it’s a pleasant way to pass the time, especially if you never saw the original. In fact, if you never saw the original, you would wonder what all the fuss was about. In that context, it’s a diverting fantasy. Compared to the original, though, it’s a train wreck (or fire — things tend to burn down in this film). How come?

Oddly, the original Dumbo was prompted by a merchandising tie-in. In 1941, a new toy called a Roll-a-Book, much like a panorama or an early Viewmaster, needed a sample story for the device to use. The device failed, but Disney bought the story rights.

The original Dumbo was not produced under optimal circumstances. In the wake of the box-office failures of Pinocchio and Fantasia in 1940, Dumbo was made in a stripped-down, cost-effective fashion unlike Disney’s previous, more craftsman-like efforts. In addition, a five-week animators’ strike during production affected the work, and permanently changed the atmosphere at the studio.

The original was one of those traumatizing Disney experiences I suffered as a child, along with PinocchioMary PoppinsBambiSnow White, Old Yeller . . . With Dumbo, you have to jettison a lot. In the original, Dumbo drinks water spiked with champagne, leading to the bizarre and inventive “Pink Elephants on Parade” sequence (which freaked me out as a kid and inspired in 5-year-old me an epic anesthetic-triggered sequence of nightmares during my tonsillectomy), which leads directly into the insanely problematic “When I See An Elephant Fly” sequence.

Dumbo and his friend Timothy the mouse are befriended by a group of crows, who are characterized as African American men. Yeah. Just to make sure we get it, their leader is named Jim Crow. He is voiced by Cliff Edwards, a white man (best known as the voice of Jiminy Cricket) using a stereotyped “Negro” voice. The rest of the voices are performed by black performers (James Baskett, Hall Johnson, Nick Stewart).

So, we have to get rid of all that. Unfortunately, the screenwriter goes to the old Disney standby — the dead parent! It can’t really be a Disney film unless someone is dead or dying, can it? There’s one beautiful moment when Holt the trick rider and single parent (Colin Farrell) talks to his precocious oldest child Milly (Nico Parker) in the lamplight of their circus tent, which behind them bears the illustration of Holt and his wife and partner, Milly’s dead mother. Which the film promptly comes back to again and again until you’re like OK I GET IT.

But it doesn’t help. The screenplay fails because it is timid, it tiptoes around the story, it doesn’t want us to get too upset, it is afraid of messing it up. Which causes it to mess it up. Dumbo wants to be edgy and impactful, but it doesn’t have the balls.

Basically, the new version is about being yourself and all that shit. That Colin Farrell has to walk around with a sawdust-filled fake arm is pretty representative of the whole problem. He’s a traumatized WWI veteran! Can he still be a valuable member of society? Sure! Cast away thy superfluous simulacrum of an appendage! The character is saddled with symbolic action that no one would ever really engage in.

It’s difficult to tell what, if anything, is real here. The entire production was studio-shot; there are no outdoor sequences at all. It is vacuum-sealed. Is it fair to call it live-action? It is really a digital work, with human bits pasted in here and there. This is now out mainstream cinema, all superheroes and fantasies. Late-empire dreaming.

What other problems were there . . . .oh, yes, why is Eva Green in this movie? She’s a great actress when you give here something to do. She’s given nothing here. Is she good? Bad? Indifferent? Does she have a backstory? Is her character anything but a means to an end? Nnnnnnope.

And Michael Keaton. Well. He gets to do that thing that every classic Disney villain does — he gets to yell, “GET THOSE KIDS!” (Later he gets to yell, “GET THAT ELEPHANT!”, which is just icing on the cake.) With Keaton, you get something killer or you don’t. In this case, he does not get the opportunity to create a distinctive character. When his theme park burns down, I find myself worrying about the villain’s insurance policy. This is not what the audience should be thinking about when this is happening. In fact, the whole idea that this new story is some kind of subversive allegory about the evil corporation stamping the life of out of the American Dream doesn’t fly either.

On the plus side, Danny DeVito does fine, he’s indestructible. (There’s a brief attempt at pathos, when it’s revealed he’s not a set of twins, as advertised. Why? What was that?) Burton also takes very good care of his supporting players. He finds great faces, including in this outing Sharon Rooney as Miss Atlantis, DeObia Oparei as Rongo the Strongo the strongman (and one-man band, and accountant), and Frank Bourke the organ grinder. It’s a pleasure to see Roshan Seth as the snake charmer (loved him since Juggernaut) — though he is called on repeatedly to portray stereotypical Indian characters, he is charming and memorable.

And the heavy-lifting award goes to Phil Zimmerman, who must undertake the thankless chore of playing the psychotic, sneering, sadistic Disney villain, named Rufus Sorghum to underline his bumpkin-nature. Here he must play the animal trainer who torments the animals (WHY do they always hire sadistic psychos to take care of the animals? What are the hiring procedures implemented by the circus? Can they not make applicants take the Myers-Briggs test?) and of course must suffer a satisfying grisly and embarrassing punishment-death as a result. Right on, Phil!

Oh, and Dumbo flies. That was cool.

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