Sunday 14 April 2019

Dumbo by Kruger, Aberson & Pearl

Dumbo was, as you know, a classic Disney cartoon released in 1941. It was primarily written by Joe Grant and Dick Huemer, based on a slender and obscure book for children by Helen Aberson and Harold Pearl.

The new film which is now in your cinemas — though not for long, judging by the lukewarm response — is written by Ehren Kruger, a prolific screenwriter with a special line in fantasy material. I thought his spooky story Skeleton Key (2005) was terrific and his quirky heist movie Reindeer Games (2000) very nearly terrific (one twist too many in its twisty plot).

And the new Dumbo is, of course, directed by Tim Burton. Which is why I bothered going to see it in the first place.

This 2019 Dumbo is not a great picture. But neither is it the glum failure I expected from the early sections of the film — like the flapping-eared pachyderm himself, the movie manages to pull out of its death plunge and, if not exactly go soaring, at least achieve flight.

Those early sections set up the characters, and the circus they work in. And it's all as dull as ditch water. Danny DeVito fails to charm, and his antics with a mischievous monkey are just pitiful.

But the central character is Colin Farrell as Holt Farrier, a cowboy star in the circus who has just returned from World War One missing an arm. Holt's scarred-veteran backstory is almost the only interesting and effective thing about the character — although Farrell looks surprisingly great in clown makeup.

Holt's wife, who used to ride horses with him in their act, died of the Spanish Flu while he was away, but Holt is reunited with his son and his daughter Milly. Milly is played by Nico Parker and she is striking — one of those slightly scary, not quite human looking kids you find in Tim Burton movies.

Milly is the only major female character in the first part of the film and she isn't enough. It badly needs a strong, grown up female lead.

The only successful scene in this early section is a rather heart rending depiction of Dumbo separated from his mother which, tellingly, not only closely follows the same sequence in the original 1941 cartoon but is also scored with the song which accompanied it — the gorgeous 'Baby Mine'. (Here is Bonnie Rait's fabulous version of it. Please buy a copy.)

(Later on we almost, but not quite, get a version of 'Pink Elephants on Parade'; which is sort of this movie in a nutshell — it's almost but not quite.)

But things pick up considerably when Michael Keaton arrives on the scene as V. A. Vandervere, a sinister and eccentric impresario who wants to do a Svengali number on the little flying elephant.

Best of all, Vandervere is accompanied by his slinky girlfriend — in the best Tim Burton slinky-girlfriend tradition — Colette, played by Eva Green

Colin Farrell snaps awake at this point, as well he might. Eva Green is absolutely magnificent and pretty much single-handedly saves this movie.

She's a sexy French acrobat with a Louise Brooks hairdo and carloads of attitude. She's supposed to do a double act with Dumbo when he's relocated to Vandervere's Atlantic City theme park — sort of Disneyland's evil twin.

Various complications ensue, with Eva Green always fantastically watchable and compelling, and proving what a fine actress she is.
Keaton is also good value in these sequences, and he has some priceless dialogue. When he first sees Colette and Dumbo's double act, supervised by Holt, he bursts out, "You beautiful one-armed cowboy, you've made me a child again!"

At the end, Dumbo is thankfully reunited with his mother and Danny DeVito's circus thankfully ceases to exploit animals.

In the final scenes, Dumbo and mum rejoin an elephant herd in the beautiful basin of majestic waterfalls in the Indian jungle. Dumbo soars over them in the company of flamingos and, just for a moment, the movie soars too.
You can see why Burton was attracted by Ehren Kruger's somewhat dark take on this story, with its evil-Walt Disney villain and his evil-Disneyland (which burns down at the end.)

The script is full of interesting decisions, but seemed to me astonishingly under developed, especially from such a talented and experienced screenwriter as Kruger.

Just to give one example, Farrell doesn't just have a daughter, Milly, he also has a son. But I've said almost nothing about him because he has almost nothing to do in the movie. He has no presence or role in the story and is completely expendable.

Removing this character would have immeasurably strengthened the script. Giving Farrell just the one child — all that's left of his family — would have raised the stakes.

It would have magnified his predicament, and also Milly's isolation, when he finds he isn't up to being a father.

And that isolation could have driven Milly into a deeper friendship with Dumbo — both of them forsaken by their parents — and made for an entirely more compelling movie.

Oh well, maybe Kruger (who was also the producer) got a note from the studio insisting that he include a young boy in the story, to allegedly guarantee appeal to all kids, everywhere.

It's just the sort of stupid note a studio would give.

I wouldn't recommend you see Dumbo in the cinema, but when it's available for home viewing you might want to rent a copy. I'd advise you to skip through the early part of the film, except for that lovely sequence with the song 'Baby Mine', and start watching at the point where Michael Keaton and Eva Green turn up.

Approached in that way, I think you'll enjoy it.

(Image credits: A remarkable 20 posters to be found at good old Imp Awards.)

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