Gregory G. H. Rihn (milwaukeesfs) wrote,
Gregory G. H. Rihn

Dumbo (2019)

On Friday, March 29th, we went to see the new (mostly) live-action adaptation of Disney’s Dumbo, the latest of the Walt Disney animated films to get this treatment (next up: Aladdin--). With direction by Tim Burton, you expect it’s going to be a bit different, and expectations are not disappointed.

That isn’t to say that the movie is 100% successful. I have the feeling that, on the one hand, the movie may be too scary for children to enjoy, while on the other hand, being too “corny” for adults.

I say the movie is “mostly” live action, since the baby elephant, Dumbo, is totally CGI. This is the other area where the movie does not quite make it—CGI Dumbo does not quite get all the way over the “uncanny valley.” Of course Dumbo has to have the oversized ears which supposedly make it possible for him to fly, but this Dumbo has also been morphed to make him resemble the cartoon Dumbo. The CGI elephant has two big, blue, human-looking eyes, which are both on the front of his head, to make him more expressive. Resultantly, the head is an odd shape, and the elephant’s trunk seems disproportionately small. The term “mutant” was not in general use when the original Dumbo hit the screen, but now, Dumbo is an obvious mutant elephant, not just one with cutely large ears.

The original plot line, involving Dumbo’s separation from his mother (which Georgie recalled as being adequately dramatic when she saw it as a girl--), is preserved, but is hyped up by adding on the consequences of Dumbo’s fame, when the struggling Medici Brothers’ Circus is bought out by impresario V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), who operates a 1920’s-ish, carny styled amusement park called “Wonderland,” a Burtonesque proto-Disneyland. The creepy Vandevere, who is on the hook for money to the even creepier banker, Remington (Alan Arkin), pushes too hard, too fast for a thrilling success, takes risks with Dumbo and his people, and orders the death of Dumbo’s mother to get her out of the way.  When the elephants’ escape is engineered, Vandevere has a “mad villain” moment that initiates the fiery destruction of the park.

A human-interest plot is also grafted on, semi-successfully. Colin Farrell plays Holt Farrier, a circus trick-riding star, who has come back from World War I minus an arm, to find that the circus has sold off the horses to make ends meet. His wife has died from the Spanish Influenza, leaving his two children, Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins) to be looked after by the circus “family”. This is OK with Joe, but Milly, who wants to be a scientist, has other dreams. Since Holt has no other prospects, they have to stay with the circus, and he reluctantly accepts the job of keeper of the elephants, which ultimately makes him, and by extension the children, responsible for the newborn Dumbo. I initially had sympathy for Holt and Milly, and their issues do continue to be a part of the script, they just get short shrift once the action starts to roll.

Details of the circus life were researched at Wisconsin’s own Circus World Museum, whose pictorial archives informed much of the Medici Brothers Circus appearance, notably the circus people’s clothing on and off stage.  This made the cast look quite authentic. I wasn’t as taken by the appearance of the circus train. While the cars were decorated with what looked like authentic period art, it was presented as so weathered as to be barely visible, which I found not credible. Even for a down-at-heel circus, 1) Paint is relatively cheap; 2) The roustabouts and other workers have time to work on things like that during the winter; and 3) This was a main method of advertising, essential to the circus.

Overall, we enjoyed the movie, but I do not think it was entirely successful.

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Tags: fantasy, movies
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