Dumbo (2019) review

DUMBO

Director: Tim Burton
Cast : Colin Farrell, Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Eva Green, Alan Arkin, Nico Parker, Finley Hobbins, Roshan Seth, DeObia Oparei
Genre : Adventure/Family/Fantasy
Run Time : 1 h 52 mins
Opens : 28 March 2019
Rating : PG

           This year, we’ll be getting several live-action remakes of Disney animated features – or, to be pedantic, a photo-realistic CGI remake with The Lion King. The House of Mouse kicks off the 2019 slate of remakes with Dumbo.

It is 1919 and Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) has returned from World War I, having lost his left arm in the battle. Holt and his late wife Annie were trick riders in the circus. Holt returns to the circus, run by Max Medici (Danny DeVito), to find they have run into hard times. An elephant acquired by Medici gives birth to a baby elephant with abnormally large ears. The baby, named Jumbo Jr. and nicknamed Dumbo, is forcefully separated from his mother. Holt’s young children Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins) discover Dumbo can fly.

The story of the amazing flying elephant attracts the attention of entrepreneur V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), who buys out Medici’s circus. The circus performers, including Dumbo, relocate to Vandevere’s sprawling theme park Dreamland. Vandevere has Dumbo perform alongside trapeze artist Colette Marchant (Eva Green). While Medici is initially swayed by Vandevere, he and the other circus performers eventually discover that Vandevere is exploiting them and is exploiting Dumbo in particular. Holt, Milly and Joe hatch a plan to free Dumbo and reunite him with his mother.

Disney’s live-action remakes have sometimes been criticised for being too literal – 2017’s Beauty and the Beast comes to mind. A remake should put enough of a spin on the original such that it doesn’t lose its spirit, but still feels transformative enough to be worthwhile. Dumbo largely achieves this with its story focusing on new human characters, while keeping the titular baby elephant as its emotional centre. Thankfully, elements from the original such as the racist crows are jettisoned, and this film’s message of inclusivity feels more genuine than that espoused by fellow circus movie The Greatest Showman.

Tim Burton’s sensibilities might not seem like the best fit for a family-friendly Disney film, and his attempts at family-aimed movies do tend to be inadvertently horrifying. However, Dumbo benefits from the distinct visual stylisation that Burton brings to it, and is also very much a story about outsiders, which is familiar territory for the director. Dumbo’s big ears, the thing for which he is mocked, are also the source of his special abilities. It’s not quite Edward Scissorhands, but one can see the connection there. There are times when it feels like this isn’t exactly a passion project for Burton and that he’s very much a hired gun, but then again, it’s easy to overdose on Burton-ness and for him to lapse into self-parody, which he stays a safe distance from here.

A lot rides on the shoulders of the titular pachyderm – if audiences believe the wholly computer-generated creation as a living, breathing character, then it’s easy to empathise with him and to feel sad when bad things befall him. The visual effects are supervised by Richard Stammers, and while Dumbo might look a bit unnatural in stills and posters, the result is successful. The human characters do a lot of interacting with Dumbo, which is mostly seamless. This is a movie in which the title character is only added into the film in post-production, and there isn’t an actor performing motion capture on set like with the Planet of the Apes reboot series or Alita: Battle Angel.

In addition to the synthetic main character, the human cast is a big part of what makes Dumbo work. There was a period in Colin Farrell’s career when Hollywood was pushing him as an action hero, and he’s much better as characters like Holt – quiet, tortured characters who are still noble, they’re just not spouting one-liners. Farrell brings a pensive sadness to Holt, who is handicapped after fighting in the war and is struggling to raise his two children after the death of his wife.

Michael Keaton is having heaps of fun as the slimy P.T. Barnum analogue. His villainous character is never truly terrifying and isn’t half as terrifying as Keaton’s portrayal of the Vulture in Spider-Man: Homecoming. There’s also the irony of a slick huckster who swallows up a smaller business being the villain in a Disney movie, given that Disney regularly swallows up slightly smaller businesses.

DeVito brings humour and heart to the role of Medici, someone who cares for his employees but who is struggling to make ends meet. The film hints that the circus performers have lives and personalities beyond their gimmick – Roshan Seth’s snake charmer character Pramesh Singh cares deeply for the elephants, while DeObia Oparei’s strong man character Rongo is also Medici’s accountant and general right-hand man.

Eva Green has become something of a muse of Burton’s, this being her third film with him. She brings elegance and mystique to the role of Colette, whom Vandevere keeps firmly under his thumb.

Nico Parker gives an assured performance as Milly, who has her heart set on becoming a scientist. She’s a girl ahead of her time, aspiring to something more than being a circus performer. Milly’s brother Joe is a bit less defined as a character, but Finley Hobbins is still quite endearing.

While Dumbo sometimes feels just a bit too conventional, it is a moving, often enchanting take on the classic animated film. The film benefits from just enough of Burton’s signature weirdness and darkness while still being something for the whole family.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Going in Style

For F*** Magazine

GOING IN STYLE 

Director : Zach Braff
Cast : Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Alan Arkin, Joey King, Ann-Margret, Christopher Lloyd, John Ortiz, Matt Dillon Peter Serafinowicz
Genre : Comedy
Run Time : 1h 36min
Opens : 20 April 2017
Rating : NC16 (Some Coarse Language and Drug Use)

Here in Singapore, senior citizens have been urged to use their SkillsFuture credits to take courses in I.T., languages, cooking and crafts. There is yet to be a SkillsFuture course on bank robbery. In this comedy, lifelong friends Willie (Freeman), Joe (Caine) and Albert (Arkin) find their pensions funds dissolved after the steel mill they work for undergoes a restructuring. Joe, who found himself caught in a bank robbery, proposes that the trio steal what is rightfully theirs from the bank. While Willie seems open to the idea, Albert is adamant that the plan will fail. Through his ne’er-do-well former son-in-law Murphy (Serafinowicz), Joe contacts Jesus (Ortiz), who is a part-time pet store proprietor and part-time thief. Jesus trains Willie, Joe and Albert in the art of the heist, so they can pull off the audacious robbery and retrieve their hard-earned pension.

Going in Style is a remake of the 1979 film of the same name, directed by Martin Brest and starring George Burns, Art Carney and Lee Strasberg. Adapted by Theodore Melfi of Hidden Figures fame and directed by Zach Braff, this remake is amiable if rather toothless. This is obviously aimed at moviegoers of a certain vintage, with the filmmakers taking care not to make things too depressing even as in the film touches on how the elderly get gradually forgotten by society and are taken advantage of by financial institutions. Even though its characters are shown smoking weed and one is depicted post-coitus, it’s far from an edgy enterprise and is likely to be a hit with the retirement home set.

This is nothing short of a top-shelf cast, the film’s three leads having all won Oscars. The characters’ personas are generally in line with how we perceive each actor: Caine plays the steadfast team leader, Freeman is warm and has a twinkle in his eye, and Arkin is the curmudgeon who’s grumpy and caustic but ultimately well-meaning. These actors have no problems garnering sympathy from the audience, and while nobody will be nominated for Oscars for this one, their camaraderie is fun to watch.

There are recognisable names in the supporting cast too. Ann-Margret, the Oscar-nominated triple threat pinup of the 60s, is entertaining as a grocery store employee who makes romantic advances towards Albert.

Matt Dillon plays it straight as a dogged FBI agent on the bank robbery case, while Christopher Lloyd is hilarious as the guys’ senile friend Milton. Milton is a one-joke character, the joke being “he’s crazy because he’s just so old”, which isn’t exactly tasteful but is in line with most of the characters Lloyd has played in his recent career.

Caine shares some sweet moments with his onscreen granddaughter Joey King, and it’s additionally amusing because Alfred is Talia al Ghul’s grandpa (The Dark Knight Rises is five years old, we can spoil it all we want). The Jesus character could’ve easily been a bad case of racial stereotyping, but Ortiz fleshes him out well, and the character is depicted as being competent and ultimately good-hearted, even given his criminal actions.

Going in Style is light-hearted if a touch too sentimental at times, and because of its powerhouse cast, can’t help but feel slightly underwhelming. Because so much time is spent with the characters just hanging out before the heist is even proposed, the intricacies of the planning, execution and aftermath of the heist seem rushed through. However, thanks to the overall likeability of its cast and glimmers of wit, Going in Style is easy to go along with.

Summary: You’ll be forgiven for expecting more from a cast of this calibre, but Going in Style’s reliable, talented leads make this a fairly enjoyable old time.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong