Thursday, March 28, 2019

Big Ears: DUMBO

Tim Burton’s live-action remake of Disney’s Dumbo does a disservice to every part of that phrase. It’s a Tim Burton film with a fraction of the visual whimsy and comedic timing, and with only the most pro-forma of his pet misunderstood-misfit thematic concerns. It’s a remake of a Disney classic that takes a simple parable of an awkward elephant learning to fly and makes it about a struggling troupe of circus misfits — looking for all the world like sad, boring performers cut from The Greatest Showman — that somehow manages to lose track of Dumbo himself for long stretches of time. I spent the first moments of the film straining to like it. I was charmed by Danny DeVito’s ringmaster; he plays it as a disheveled conman who’d love to go legit if only he could afford it. (He also sings “Casey Junior” under his breath as he stumbles back to his bunk. That’s cute.) I liked Colin Farrell as a freshly one-armed WWI veteran returning to his old stomping grounds to reunite with his precocious backstage kids (the adorable — and Burton-eyed — little Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins) and piece their family back together. It’s a fine echo of what little baby CG Dumbo is about to go through. But to find “Baby Mine” didn’t quite cue the waterworks for me was a first warning sign. After the promising opening, the plot set in motion here all happens too easily, tromping from expected beat to expected beat as Ehren Kruger’s screenplay goes into the most basic family film beats of easy believe-in-yourself symbolism and repetitive crisis-resolution shaping in every scene. Only Burton’s valiant visual attempts to spark life — fine Colleen Atwood costuming filigree; Busby Berkeley circus choreography; a striking bubbly Pink Elephant sequence; an Art Deco amusement park that often looks more Tomorrowland than the film’s ostensible 1919 period setting — briefly keep the film from just laying there dead on screen. The eventual conflict involves the scrappy circus facing a takeover from a fancy entertainment industry huckster (a game enough Michael Keaton who nonetheless doesn’t have a chance to cut loose). The guy is bent on taking over and commodifying anything he can, growing through expansion and losing the heart of the family entertainment biz in the process. Thus the only truly interesting part of this whiff of a picture is that Disney somehow allowed the movie to have a greedy Walt Disney type as a heartless showbiz businessman villain and stage a triumphant fiery finale in which a proto-Disneyland goes up in smoke. 

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