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Thursday, March 28, 2019 12:04 am

You better believe it - Dumbo soars!

As the Disney money machine continues to roll along, so does its series of live-action remakes of the animated classics.  What with The Jungle Book, Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast proving to be major hits – and all quite good as well – the Mouse House is going to continue this line of attack on the box office with Aladdin and The Lion King to be released later this year.

However, before we get to those money-in-the-bank juggernauts, we have Tim Burton’s Dumbo to keep us occupied.  After his success with Disney’s Alice in Wonderland, it comes as no surprise the filmmaker would be approached to helm one of these big-budget re-dos.  Yet, Burton taking on the tale of a tiny flying pachyderm seems an odd choice.  I would have thought the dark undertones of Pinocchio would have been a better fit.  And yet the results here are better than expected.

There are more than a few changes made to the beloved 1940 classic.  This time out, the focus is more on how the title character’s physics-defying abilities affect the humans around him, particularly injured World War I veteran Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell, channeling Gary Cooper) and his children Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins). He’s a bit lost, having returned from the Great War to find his beloved wife has died and the kids are in dire need of a strong parental figure. He hopes to help Max Medici (Danny DeVito) save his dying circus and things look rather dim until a miracle occurs. A misshapen elephant is born, accidently dubbed Dumbo and is regulated to be part of a humiliating clown act…that is, until he shows them all he can fly. Positive word-of-mouth travels fast and folks line up to see the star attraction in every town they visit.  Unfortunately, Dumbo also catches the eye of V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), a shrewd businessman who has other plans for Dumbo and as a result, makes Medici an offer he can’t refuse.

As you would expect from a Burton production, this is a visual knockout, the opening act taking place amidst the wide-open plains, rendered to elicit the nostalgia of unlimited promise.  When the story moves to the city – as Medici’s troupe is absorbed into Vandevere’s urban amusement park Dreamland – the film becomes darker, more claustrophobic.  Each setting is brought to life with a keen eye to detail; the whole film is a world of magical realism where all things are possible.

Obviously, the story had to be expanded, what with the original running a scant 62 minutes. The script by Ehren Kruger is needlessly padded (Is anyone capable of making a movie today that doesn’t have an overextended ending?) yet the characters he populates it with are winning, particularly Eva Green as acrobat Colette Marchant, while the actors cast as the various circus outcasts take a more humanistic approach to bringing them to life than in the similarly themed “The Greatest Showman.”

As a result, the climax has a greater impact than the overrated Hugh Jackman vehicle, though the titular character is a computer-generated creation.  Dumbo is about the cutest pixelated creature you’re likely to see, and he’s a wonder to behold.  Yet, it’s the reaction of the marginalized characters to his amazing feats that are the key to the film.  When Dumbo soars, they soar with him – his success is their success as he defies everyone’s preconceptions of him by simply believing in himself.  To be sure, this is an oft-stated lesson, but there’s an ample dose of heart to the movie that lends the moral a sense of sincerity, making it so we don’t mind hearing it once more as it’s driven home with unexpected poignancy.  No, there’s nothing new where Dumbo is concerned, but I’ll be darn if it still doesn’t pack a punch…that is, if you believe.

Contact Chuck Koplinski at ckoplinski@usd116.org.

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