Walt Disney Pictures
Dumbo, the baby flying elephant, gets a makeover in “Dumbo,” the new live action version of the classic animated feature.

Plus: ‘The Mustang’ explores caring for wild horses as a prison teaching tool

By Michael Calleri

The original “Dumbo,” a cartoon feature from 1941, runs only 64-minutes. It tells the story about a baby elephant, born into a circus, who has giant ears. 


At a magical movie moment, Dumbo, who is the victim of bullying, uses his ears to propel himself into the air. His gift of flight makes him a celebrity and helps overcome the negativity that has surrounded his young life. 


Director Tim Burton’s vivid imagination rivals that of many fanciful 19th-century novelists and early silent filmmakers. In attempting to recapture the magic of the earlier “Dumbo,” not only was Burton faced with memories of a movie that has long been available for home viewing, but he also had thematic baggage with which to deal. 


Controversies engendered by the first “Dumbo,” as well as the weight of current political and social causes, include, but are not limited to, the use of alleged racism in the form of jive-talking black crows in 1941; baby Dumbo drinking champagne and seeing “pink elephants,” which is a phrase used to describe an alcoholic’s hallucinations when having delirium tremens; and the demands by the People For The Ethical Treatment Of Animals that the new movie prove animals are better-off in their natural habitat, rather than in a circus.


There are no street-smart crows in Burton’s live-action “Dumbo.” There is no drunken champagne drinking binge, although there is a parade of pink shapes made with soap bubbles. As for “exotic” animals being happier living in the jungle, that’s the focus of the final third of this over-long film. Does little Dumbo belong with the circus he’s always known, or should he live under a leafy canopy thousands of miles away?


Danny DeVito, doing a watered down version of his Louie De Palma character from “Taxi,” is Max Medici, the owner of a flea-bitten circus in 1919. He’s got a little pet monkey and some loyal performers. His lackluster circus drifts throughout the eastern United States. 


One of his stars, Holt Farrier, a faux cowboy, returns from fighting in World War I. He’s lost an arm; therefore, he’s consigned by Medici to cleaning up after the elephants. Colin Farrell plays Holt without much energy. 


Part of the problem is that Ehren Kruger’s bland screenplay gives the cast very little that’s meaningful to say. I haven't seen this many actors standing around staring vacantly in years. Too many sideshow characters lack pizzazz. 


Farrier’s young daughter (a blandly inexpressive Nico Parker) and younger son (a pleasantly expressive Finley Hobbins) have been taken care of by the circus family they’ve always known. Their mother, Holt’s wife, has died as the result of the 1918 influenza pandemic. 


Mrs. Jumbo the elephant gives birth to Baby Jumbo, who, because of a joke in the script that’s too obvious, will be named Dumbo. Mrs. Jumbo is sold off. 


At some point Dumbo, who is bullied, will fly, and his exploits result in a very wealthy theme park owner, V. A. Vandervere (Michael Keaton), signing a deal with Medici and bringing Max’s circus, including Dumbo, into his business empire. Vandervere is supposed to be a villain, but Keaton’s performance lacks energy.


Also, Kruger’s screenplay wants us to believe that once Vandervere learns that an unhappy Dumbo knows where his mother is, the entrepreneur will actually try to keep them separated, thus causing Dumbo to be even less happy. Come on, the man didn’t get rich being stupid. He would have kept Dumbo and Mrs. Jumbo together.


“Dumbo” is strangely convoluted and weirdly meandering – perhaps Burton should have stayed within the original’s 64-minutes. I cannot recommend it for young children. There’s a veil of thematic darkness, Burton style, that will be confusing to kids. For adults, a sense of sardonic pleasure is lacking. Another negative, the music has hints of Nino Rota’s work for Federico Fellini’s “The Clowns.”


There are some bright spots. Eva Green brings a sense of style and woefully needed vibrancy to her role of Colette Marchant, a beautiful trapeze artist, Vandervere’s lady friend, and a very encouraging Dumbo supporter. 


My favorite moment is a clever comic bit involving Max’s monkey and drawers in a desk. I burst out laughing. If only “Dumbo” had more, much more, of this. 


THE MUSTANG: Two months after premiering at the Sundance Film Festival, the perfectly structured “The Mustang” is now playing in selected American cities. Executive produced by Robert Redford, the aspirational drama is rooted in the true story of a current prison program in the western United States in which inmates work taming wild horses in order to develop a sense of responsibility and pride. Once the men are released, their experience helps them re-adjust when they return to the outside world. 


Matthias Schoenaerts stars as Roman, a sullen jailed man who’s made a mess of his life, including fatherhood. The prison psychologist (Connie Britton) encourages him to work with mustangs under the tutelage of the cantankerous old-timer Myles (Bruce Dern). Ruben Impens’ beautiful cinematography captures Nevada vistas that add resonance to the story.


Making a superb feature directorial debut, French actress Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre captures moods and moments in ways that are both eye-opening and engaging. Her exceptionally well-acted film, which she co-wrote with Mona Fastvolt and Brock Norman Brock, is about rejection and cruelty, but most of all, it’s about hope. 



Michael Calleri reviews films for Night & Day. Contact him at moviecolumn@gmail.com.

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