There's a 'PC' in Pachyderm
I was charmed by the 1941 Disney cartoon Dumbo when I was a small child—others have been, apparently, as it was inducted to the National Film Registry in 2017. Very slight, the film clocked in at a mere 64 minutes, barely over an hour, but it was big in detail in my memory. For instance, the train "Casey, Jr." was a big part of the movie for me, even though it only appeared for a few moments, Timothy Q. Mouse was an important character to me, and Dumbo...well, how could you not love twinkly-eyed Dumbo with his out-sized ears, who by mere suggestion of a feather could launch into flight, making him more akin to a bee whose ability to fly despite the wing to body-mass is one of the mysteries to science (but don't tell the bees because they don't care).
I also liked it because it was all about animals and there weren't any humans of any consequence—they were all bastards, anyway—and the actions of the animals were easily understood by a young boy. I cried like a child (because I was) at the scene where Mama Jumbo cradles her baby 'phant from her prison car and was thrilled at watching Dumbo fly. I thought the crows were really good characters who helped Dumbo a lot because they had sympathy for him and I had no idea that they were actually racial stereotypes (how stupid I was as a child).
As I've grown up I've encountered elephants, interacted with them (had lunch with one for a week once) and my respect for them as an adult has only increased as I've learned about their social interactions and group dynamics. Elephants are really cool animals.
My memories of Dumbo are happy ones and nothing can alter them.
Not even Tim Burton's downright clunky live action remake of the film—because the Disney studio is really scared of doing anything original these days—which is more "evolved" (let us say) than the '41 version but has none of the verve or emotional resonance that the first one had.
I don't think it's the material, alone. I think it's director Burton. This saddens me because I'm a big fan of his, but Dumbo reveals an essential flaw of Burton's that will color my perception of his work now for everything he does in the future, and casts an awareness over his past work that changes them slightly and not for the better.
But, let's start with the material. The movie is longer, more involved, and has more irons in the fire than just a baby elephant learning to make advantages out of dis-advantages. Also, the movie is far more human-centric than the 1941 version and that makes it less about Dumbo than it does about his support system. The humans were background characters in the cartoon; they were merely the animals that ran the circus and didn't figure much in the story-line. Here, their machinations are front and center and Dumbo's story is just one of many. The animals don't talk—Dumbo doesn't, of course, he's a baby—but the elder elephants did, as did Timothy, the crows, all the animals commiserated. Now, animals have talked in these Disney CGI-fests before—The Jungle Book, for instance, as they do in the up-coming live-action The Lion King, but here, all the animals are mute, and merely animals. Given that so much of the movie centers on the proper treatment of animals, here they're narratively regulated to second-string treatment.
It is 1919 and The Medici Brothers Circus (it's so poor there's only one Medici brother—played by Danny DeVito) has fallen on hard financial times. They're loading up their train to start their circuit, but it's a smaller task than it was before. Influenza has taken the lives of many of the circus clan, and animals have had to be sold off to make some money. But, one purchase has been made, an Indian elephant named Jumbo, who is pregnant. Medici hopes that a baby elephant will bring in the crowds and restore their fortunes. Soon enough, storks are flying overhead (a nod to the earlier version) and Baby Jumbo is born.
One clever thing the screenplay does is create a parallel story for the humans that mirrors Baby Jumbo's: the circus has its collection of oddities, the un-normal who have found a home and community in the circus—it's a common theme in Burton's movies—but there are two children, Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins) Farrier, who are living with the circus. Their mother died of the influenza and they're being raised, basically, by the circus. Their father, Colt Farrier (Colin Farrell, doing a dead-on George W. Bush imitation) returns to the circus from World War I. But, he's a changed man. A former circus rider and sharp-shooter, he's lost his left arm in combat, and now must be a single father to his kids, who have grown up without him, and he must find a place with the circus—he can't do his lariat tricks anymore and Medici has sold his horse. But, he needs work to keep his family going, and the circus is all he has.
It is up to Colt and his kids to find the baby hiding in a big pile of straw, and coax him out. But, the sight of his big ears puts Medici in a conniption. "That's an abomination!!" he tells Colt. "You have until tomorrow to fix this!" Little Jumbo is locked away in a cage in isolation, and the kids start disobeying Medici's orders to stay away from the baby elephant, visiting to cheer him up. It's when he starts playing with Joe blowing a feather back and forth between his cage-bars that he snorts the feather into his trunk, and he immediately starts to levitate out of his open-topped cage and by flapping his ears, flying around the trailer, bumping into walls in his disorientation with the new ability.
It's not the only thing about Dumbo that produces a massive headache.
The kids keep his flying abilities a secret—little Milly wants to be a scientist and she wants to study this—but Baby Jumbo is made a part of the elephant act, riding a baby carriage with a bonnet covering "those" ears. It does not go well, as his deformity is revealed and the crowd—being a crowd—laughs and jeers, upsetting him. His cries provokes Mama Jumbo to charge out of her trailer and her resulting stampede to protect her baby causes one of the big top's support poles to topple, causing a panic, closing the show, and —oh yeah—killing the bad elephant wrangler (the jerk). Medici locks up Mama Jumbo, chaining her in the trailer, and sells her back to the original seller at half-price, orphaning little Dumbo (as he's been called by the jeering crowd and it's taken up by the supposedly sympathetic circus-folk).
To make a short story even longer, eventually Dumbo becomes a part of the circus and becomes renowned as the miracle he is—a flying elephant. He becomes a big draw for the Medici Circus, and business picks up as the shows start to sell out. This attracts the attention of one V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton, back working with Burton, and tries hard—maybe too hard—to make the character an eccentric in the manner of Johnny Depp), an entertainment entrepreneur out of Coney Island, who has a massive theme park called "Dreamland"—because Fantasyland©, Tomorrowland©, Adventureland©, and Frontierland© are *cough* apparently taken.
Keaton's Vandevere is so mercurially devious that one is surprised there isn't a casino in Dreamland. Any comparisons to Walt Disney or Donald Trump are merely superficial.
But, yes, it will occur to you.
Vandevere comes to Medici to buy the circus lock, stock and trunk to make them part of his Dreamland experience, a plan that Medici immediately falls for in order to gain the short term money. V.A.'s plan is to feature Dumbo in an aerial act with his courtesan Colette Marchant (Eva Green, who is, as always, marvelous) self-described as "one of the many gems he wears to reflect back on him."
It turns out all he wants is the flying elephant act, and once that act is shown to be a reality to his banker, J. Griffin Remington (Alan Arkin, disappointingly underutilized), he'll cut the rest of the circus loose including Medici. There's a lot of corruption going on at Dreamland, with Vandevere calling the shots and cutting corners...like safety ("There's no net!" "There is, but it's invisible...") that makes the character a cluelessly manipulative egotist and so entirely hissable that by the time the movie has run its course, there will be no audience satisfaction until Dreamland has crumbled around his ears.
At this point, Dumbo becomes less about its namesake as the Farriers and Vandevere, and that's not enough to engage one's interest. There are the occasional good lines as when Vandevere notices a particularly meddlesome monkey invading Medici's desk—"You keep a monkey in your drawer?" "Only for emergencies."—or when Colt meets Colette and the war veteran muses "I went to France once. I didn't like it." But, that's as clever as the script gets. It has its white hats and black hats, but there's no middle ground and precious little nuance.
It's a movie that says everything is okay because they say it is, even when the evidence points otherwise. There's a happy ending of sorts as Mrs. Jumbo and Dumbo somehow make their way to an East Indian paradise filled with their kin (and no poachers to thin their numbers) and the Medici Family Circus (as it becomes known) adopts a new policy of keeping no animals in captivity—except for horses. Somehow, they don't seem to count.
So, the script has problems—try as it might to fit in as many call-backs to the cartoon version as possible, with songs being quoted but minimally used, lines repeated, and even managing to squeeze in Burton's version of the original's weirdly psychedelic "pink elephant" sequence.
Try as they might to emulate the original, they cannot match it. There's one very good reason. The movie doesn't have the heart or sentimentality of the original. It might be a little unfair to fault them on this point; the original's a cartoon and the new one's "true-as-it-can-be" representation of Dumbo can't compete with the Disney animators drawings with big blue expressive eyes and the advantage of being able to make Dumbo have a wider variety of expressions that you just can't do if you're trying to create a more photo-realistic baby elephant.
But Burton, the director, also has a cynical, slightly demented side that doesn't allow for sentimentality. Think back on his work—has there ever been a movie that evokes tears? A sense of wonder, certainly. Even a sense of spectacle. But, Burton has always gone for emotion once-removed, even in films which should have manipulated the emotions like Edward Scissorhands, Big Fish, or—as close as I've come to being moved by one of his films—The Corpse Bride. Burton has always had a sense of beauty (and Dumbo looks gorgeous). But, they have always been a bit distant.
For example, the "Baby of Mine" sequence where baby Dumbo reaches out to his caged mother SHOULD have wiped the audience out, bringing out the handkerchiefs and reducing the audience to puddles—as the first one did. Burton pays trunk service to it—how could he not?—but, he doesn't have the sensibility to "push" it emotionally so that it resonates. That should have been the easiest trick in the book. But, irony—which Burton excels at—is not emotion, tugging at the brain and not the heart-strings.
Another moment that falls short by not achieving the Big Emotion it should have evoked is the sequence when Dumbo first flies in the circus. It should have been a magical, emotional event. But it isn't. This is partially because Dumbo is placed in such peril—and Burton enhances that to create as much fear and tension as he can muster—that the freedom evoked when he does fly should be cathartic. However, when Dumbo first soars, the movie should have too, and it just does not, no matter how much sublime cooing composer Danny Elfman throws on the soundtrack.Unfortunately, Burton's Dumbo is a children's tale without joy or delight and that is a very sad, charmless thing. Can Burton ever cross the bridge from hip irony to deeply-felt soulfulness? I don't know. It may be his biggest weakness as a director, and before Dumbo—with his hand-chosen projects—the deficiency has never been so openly apparent. But, with this one, it stands out...like a flying elephant in the room.
And that is a shame.
|Gen Stilwell (Robert Stack) cries at Dumbo in Spielberg's 1941.|