New from Every Movie Has a Lesson by Don Shanahan: MOVIE REVIEW: Dumbo

DUMBO— 3 STARS

During this continuing trend of Disney live-action “reimaginings,” one that shows no sign of stopping, fulfillment is an adulation not often realized by these newfangled and amplified tentpoles.  Improvement is another lost reward. Audiences constantly question the values of duplicated enjoyment or tangible purpose for needing anything new and shiny made from something that worked just that way it was intended decades ago.  With Tim Burton’s ambitious Dumbo, we fortunately get both.

Out of all the animated classics getting their corporeal polish, Dumbo had arguably the most room for growth and most need for freshening.  This incarnation skips the musical numbers to add human anchors and craft larger strides for the same tried-and-true themes.  It also expands and ventures further than the 64-minute 1941 original and cleans up its embarrassing antiquated foibles. Say goodbye to trippy drunken hallucinations and the minstrel crows of thinly disguised racial stereotypes and welcome a new squeaky clean right down to the beautiful bubbles of modern special effects its scrubbed with.

The plump pachyderm with the big ears, alluring azure irises, and the “face only a mother could love” arrives to his big-top performing mother Jumbo in 1919 to the trainbound Medici Bros. Circus.  Helmed by the frazzled charlatan Max Medici (Danny DeVito), the troupe of freaks and sideshows has shrunk with the hard economic times and departure of men fighting the Great War overseas. One of former soldiers is the equestrian patriarch Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell).  He returns home to his old saddle of employment and two doting children, the science-minded Milly (the debuting Nico Parker, the spitting image of mother Thandie Newton) and the impressionable Joe (similar newcomer Finley Hobbins), after losing an arm on the battlefield and his loving wife to the flu.  Holt and his precocious kids add elephant training to their many hats in the roadshow.

Dismissed as a lemon of a bad business deal, Dumbo and his lofty unrealized potential are relegated to the clown portion of the show.  The fear and belittlement are made worse when his mother is sold away to another handler. The Dumbo you know revealing talents and conquered fears to the world ends at the halfway point of Burton’s movie.  From there, Dumbo’s act brings instant celebrity status and the cha-ching greed of rich amusement park magnate V.A. Vandervere (Michael Keaton) and his French-born trapeze muse Colette Marchant (Eva Green).  The pair and their dubious businessman partner J. Griffin Remington (Alan Arkin) buy out Medici’s circus to absorb it into their luxurious and wondrous facade of a haven named Dreamland.

LESSON #1: THE BOND BETWEEN A SON AND HIS MOTHER— The deeper inclusion of this lesson in this longer storytelling opportunity fulfills the long held wishes of reunion and hope that went unrealized from the original movie.  The impressive animal creation effects achieve this wordlessly with the mother’s physical presence and the young calf’s wimpers, yelps, and baby blue tears. The feels aren’t as throat-lump-inducing as classic’s, but the bond lasts thankfully longer.

LESSON #2: PERFORMING ISN’T EVERYTHING— When pressed why she doesn’t have a gig in front of the crowds, Milly answers “I don’t need a world staring at me.”  The girl’s reserve is something her now-handicapped father Holt has to accept and a prudence she spreads to disarm Colette’s celebrity.  Most of all, this liberating introvertedness also matches the freedom she wishes for Dumbo to be free of the spotlights, teasing, exploitation, and spectacle.  

The overwhelming volume of the flair comes from the veteran side of the cast.  In his fourth collaboration with Tim Burton and first in the 27 years since 1992’s Batman Returns, Michael Keaton continues his career resurgence with a just-nutty-enough part of absolute relish.  His haughty zingers and sharply snotty line deliveries are priceless. Much of that reparete and banter are traded with the bristly foil of Danny DeVito.  Other than animated voice roles and smaller indies like Weiner-Dog, DeVito hasn’t had a film role this meaty and significant since 2005’s Be Cool.  Throw in little extra grilling from 85-year-old Alan Arkin and you cannot help but enjoy yourself right alongside the performers.  These older favorites make up for somewhat vacant child performances of Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins and nothing too affecting from top-billed Colin Farrell.  Their senior zeal really helps.

To see Tim Burton’s brand on the label of this family film tonic simultaneously brings expectations and misgivings.  The measurement question of weirdness level is on everyone’s mind. This week, the fine folks at Screen Junkies debuted their newest “Honest Trailer” titled “Every Tim Burton Movie” chronicling the filmmaker’s storied career and aping all of his repetitive caprices and conceits.  In the video’s signature “Starring…” section, they listed twelve distinctive Burtonesque tropes ranging from pale-faced Johnny Depp and severed hands to graveyards and old gnarled trees.  

With great relief and pleasant pleasure, Dumbo contains less than six of them.  That, in and of itself, is quite the achievement and departure for the world’s eeriest poet laureate of cinema and the screenwriter responsible for the last three Transformers trainwrecks (while also forgetting Ehren Kruger, at one time, was Thriller Central with The Ring, Arlington Road, and Scream 3 on his resume).  Plenty expecting and favoring the murk may even call this too tame and not audacious enough.  They wouldn’t be wrong. For something like Dumbo, safe and less works.  There’s no need to blast this story with gothic glitter for the sake of shade.  It’s an endearing elephant baby that flies for wide-eyed spectators.  That’s sparkle enough. Go back to that notion of fulfillment.

With that perpetual sunrise/sunset magic hour-loving tone, Dumbo boasts some of the vibrant best of the long-standing lavish artistry orchestrated by Burton and his stable of trusted creators. The stupendous circus and fair settings designed by Sleepy Hollow Oscar winner Rich Heinrich are astonishing in detail, function, and style.  The same praise can be echoed to four-time Oscar winner Colleen Atwood’s costumes frocked with everything from podunk plush to elegant extravagance.  One tremendous new collaboration comes from Marvel-experienced cinematographer Ben Davis, whose swooping lens bring sky-high energy and flair away from the usual dingy and dark palette of Burton.  Big or small, every fleck and flourish is distilled to a quainter potency fitting the subject matter.

LESSON #3: THE DEFINITION OF “MYSTIQUE”— Keaton’s V.A. Vandervere keeps asserting this catchy term and, beyond the narrative, becomes the paragon of the whole movie and its production value.  The Merriam-Webster Dictionary expresses that “mystique” means “an air or attitude of mystery and reverence developing around something or someone.”  Dumbo has the attitude and the expansion of story that does enough to gain reverence around the little awestruck wonders we may already know are coming.  Like the movie proudly touts, it “makes the impossible possible.”

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