July 16, 2019

“Dumbo”

A Relevant Elephant
3 popcorns
By Michael S. Goldberger
film critic

Here’s what drives me crazy. Mostly everyone you and I know has been brought up on a steady motion picture diet of morality tales like this latest version of Disney’s “Dumbo,” based on the studio’s 1941, animated delve into the wiles and munificence of human nature. All the good lessons concerning proper human behavior are therein contained. And yet, look at some of these uncaring, inconsiderate curmudgeons young and old sharing the planet with us. This week I’m particularly down on the 30-something, balding Wall Street dude, sunglasses-attired, who passes you on the right in his 3 series BMW and then celebrates his belligerence by giving you the middle finger salute.

I ask you. What did I do besides buy into the sweet lesson taught by a little elephant born with giant ears who, despite his divergence from the quote-unquote norm, overcomes his circumstances through the heroic attributes that reside within him? Huh? I estimate that said BMW malefactor, for reasons of genetics, upbringing or astral intervention, sees Dumbo as a sucker for not using his flying powers to wreak revenge on the humans who at first scoffed at his diversity. Is that how he’ll explain it to his kids when he takes them to consume massive portions of gummy worms and cheese-saturated nacho chips at a theater showing “Dumbo?”

Happily, that’s not how about 60% of the parents will explain it to the good future citizens they’re raising. While there may be halfhearted, mostly unsuccessful attempts to smuggle in carrot sticks, celery and yogurt as substitutes for those nachos, Mom and/or Dad will more than likely recap the tale in après movie discussion with the humanitarian bent that the filmmaker intended. And, just for good measure while they’re on the subject anyway, a note or two about gun control, curtailing global warming and not voting for obvious bigots when they reach their majority might also be in order.

Albeit etched with a caustic edge to grant it a realistic PG instead of a Pollyanna G, director Tim Burton makes sure his “Dumbo” remake contains all the elements necessary for the ethical considerations that have been an integral part of fairy tales ever since Oog first adorned the cave walls with his template for Animal Crackers. This includes an instructively funny performance by Danny DeVito as conniving circus owner Max Medici who, by his example, illustrates not only the rationalizations often a part of making a buck, but also the struggle of conscience that may or may not lead to redemption.

Natch, for little ones looking ahead to the future and accompanying parents who like a good love story, the spark created between Colin Farrell’s Holt Farrier, the circus’ horse trainer extraordinaire recently injured in WWI, and exotic French trapeze artist Colette Marchant, fits the bill. Holt, the very image of fine and upstanding, is in one handsome package a single parent, a worker displaced by his disability, and the personification of uncompromising integrity. But, subscribing to the theory that lessons are best learned from peers, the bulk of the story’s primer on benevolence and honor is taught by his kids, Millie (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins), two wise little apples who haven’t fallen very far from the tree. Dumbo couldn’t ask for better allies.

Handling the villain and semi-villain responsibilities respectively are Alan Arkin’s J. Griffin Remington, dispassionate captain of investment, and Michael Keaton’s P.T. Barnum knockoff and manipulator of souls, V.A. Vandevere. Both make no masquerade about their desire to capitalize on Dumbo’s talent no matter how it impacts him, his mother and everyone else who grows to love him.

And then there’s what we’ve all come to this circus movie for in the first place. It’s a little bit of a physics problem rolled into a philosophical thesis. The idea of a baby elephant that can fly advocates in a delightfully Aesop-like way that not only can we overcome obstacles of nature like gravity, but that much of our survival, salvation and ultimately our happiness itself hinges on the exercise of mind over matter.

Children of a certain age not yet jaded by the phantasmagoric kaleidoscope of whim and wonder that they’ve been inundated with ever since the mobile above their crib was sent spinning, will doubtlessly squeal with joy when Dumbo takes flight. And I suspect even that aforementioned, ungracious dabbler in stocks and bonds will agree that the movie magic employed to make the principal pachyderm soar majestically through the rafters of the big top is pretty darn good. But alas, unlike the prized offspring you may bring to the theater, the allegory of honesty and civility will be lost on him. Perhaps his kids will tell him that no matter the hurry, “Dumbo” would never pass someone on the right, let alone obscenely brandish his trunk in the process.
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“Dumbo,” rated PG, is a Walt Disney Studios release directed by Tim Burton and stars Colin Farrell, Danny DeVito and Eva Green. Running time: 112 minutes

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