Friday 5 April 2019

Never forget: "Dumbo"

Having parted ways with Disney as a young animator once it became clear his outlook wasn't the easiest fit, Tim Burton was embraced like the prodigal son upon proving himself capable of delivering what the Mouse House brand increasingly demands: heavily digitised spectacle. Burton kickstarted Disney's current cycle of live-action remakes with 2010's gaudy and (to these eyes) inexplicably successful Alice in Wonderland, and now returns to the fold to rework the tale of the elephant who could fly - although his retelling seems markedly less interested in the fate of the pachyderm than in the day-to-day running of a circus. In this, the new Dumbo's real cinematic progenitor isn't the 1940 animation, nor the Alice redo, but 2015's Jurassic World, which remodelled Jurassic Park according to the neuroses of creatives facing up to the twin challenges of a changing studio system and viewer déjà vuBurton's baby jumbo will be born into a clapped-out carny slogging round the Florida Keys in the depressed wake of WW1 and falling subject to cutback after cutback, such that - in the film's best new joke - towering strongman Rongo (Deobia Oparei) has to pull additional shifts as the troupe's accountant and percussionist. "We're all wearing multiple hats!," insists desperate ringmaster Max Medici (Danny DeVito), in a line bound to chime with those Disney execs obliged to jobshare with their Fox equivalents following last month's merger. Whatever their entertainment value, these theme-park event movies are going to be quietly fascinating for future scholars as proofs of 21st century Hollywood's insecurities around finding, building and keeping an audience.

As entertainment, the new Dumbo is but so-so. It's not terrible, but it does feel terribly inessential; it improves upon Alice in Wonderland only by being benignly empty, rather than obnoxiously so. (Take it with its slightly soft box-office figures, and you sense why those creatives are getting antsy.) Inevitably, it's nowhere near as touching as the animation, because it no longer has the affecting simplicity of cartoon logic, nor a cartoon's elevating imaginative flourishes. Instead, scenes and set-ups are routinely explained away by the human protagonists, and the story's subtexts have been repositioned front-and-centre as text, both to fill the extra space, and reassure any viewers the new version thinks somewhat dumbo-ish. When Dumbo sees his mother being led away in shackles, it is as though a neon light goes on above the screen bearing the words "SEPARATION ANXIETY", though Burton soon cuts to some new distraction, lest anybody in the audience gets too traumatised. A perfectly scaled and weighted 64-minute animation has been tricked up to just under two hours via cavernous production design (characters now take days to cross the frame) and a subplot involving an unusually colourless Michael Keaton as a peroxided corporate impresario who buys up Medici's circus and puts his glamorous French trapeze-artist mistress (Eva Green; of course Eva Green) on the elephant's back. Again, the film betrays its fascination with business over any animal magic: this turn-for-the-FT ushers on Alan Arkin as a perfunctory banker who might equally have featured in last Christmas's fine-but-already-forgotten Mary Poppins Returns, and some mixed messaging besides. The idea that theme parks like Keaton's Dreamland are disasters waiting to happen suggests major self-doubt on somebody's part.

Burton is on generally well-behaved form: he does a reasonable Chris Columbus impression around the lopsided family (armless widower Colin Farrell, plus kids) fleshing out this version - if Chris Columbus impressions were what you wanted from a Tim Burton movie - and he outsources the one surviving musical number ("Baby Mine") to Arcade Fire, who attempt nothing at all radical with it. Mostly, we find the director contenting himself with doodling sight gags in the film's margins - when Farrell embraces snake charmer Roshan Seth, the latter's boa constrictor wraps itself round both of them - reminding us of the fun we could be having if he wasn't so obviously on the clock here. At no point, however, does he extricate this Dumbo from its central bind. The Dumbo in the movie is a very great novelty, eliciting gasps from onlookers as it swoops round inside the big top; yet the Dumbo of the movie retains no novelty whatsoever, being a cuddly grey ball of pixels programmed to do what audiences have watched a far more charming hand-drawn equivalent do umpteen times over the past seventy-odd years. I watched this one fly on the same day as my Twitter feed clogged with hot takes on new Joker and Terminator movies, so clearly we've reached the point where even our cannier multimedia conglomerates are setting expensive store in the prospect of fully-grown adults responding to more or less the same stimuli they received in their childhood days. Yet in doing so, the studios risk devaluing those earlier works, as if they weren't standalone items of cinematic art, but part of some elaborate, Manchurian Candidate-style imprinting exercise. Nobody - not the studios, nor directors, nor viewers - is being allowed to move on, get better, wise up. This summer sees a 30th anniversary reissue of Burton's Batman, the film that shone the spotlight-signal for the current superhero cycle, and thus arguably paved the way for the infantilisation of the commercial cinema. When we all sit down to revisit that particular corner of our youth, it will be instructive - I'm willing to bet astonishing - to see just how Burton's creative development has been arrested.

Dumbo is now playing in cinemas nationwide.  

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