Dumbo

Cast: Colin Farrell, Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Eva Green, Nico Parker, Finlay Hobbes, Alan Arkin

Director: Tim Burton

Writer: Ehren Kruger


At 64 minutes long and made with a relatively modest budget for the time (less than $1 million), the 1941 Dumbo is one of the simplest and least ostentatious films in the Disney canon. It tells the tale of a baby elephant who is born in a circus, is separated from his mother, and is eventually reunited with her when his ability to fly turns him into a sensation. The film is admirably economic in its storytelling, refusing to indulge in subplots or characters that don’t have a direct role to play in the titular character’s arc; the one scene that does not make any contribution to the narrative is the Pink Elephant Parade, which gets a pass by virtue of being one of the most outstanding animated sequences ever put to film. The result of their efforts is an affective and disturbing film that has endured as a classic for decades. That the film compels you to feel such sympathy and regard for a protagonist who never utters a single word throughout is a testament to the expressiveness of Disney’s animation and the clarity of their storytelling. This 2019 live-action remake, which is twice as long as the original, was made with a budget of $170 million, and was helmed by the creative mind behind Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands and The Nightmare Before Christmas, doesn’t even come close to meeting its predecessor’s standard.

Dumbo, a CGI elephant with abnormally large ears and huge, blue eyes, is barely the main character in his own story this time around. The film seems to be much more interested in following the human characters, of which there are far more than there were in the cartoon. The most prominent of them is Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell), a circus performer who has just returned from the First World War having lost one of his arms in combat. His wife has also died from influenza by this point, leaving him in sole charge of their children Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins). The Medici Brothers’ Circus, run by the brotherless Max Medici (Danny DeVito), has also fallen on dire straits and had to sell Holt’s horses in his absence. Holt is thus placed in charge of the elephant Mrs. Jumbo, who soon gives birth to her big-eared baby. Jumbo Jr. is brought into the circus act but his debut goes awry when the crowd catches sight of his malformation. Dumbo, as they cruelly call him, becomes a laughing stock, leading his mother to violently lash out. She gets sold off, leaving Dumbo sad and alone. Later on the inquisitive children discover Dumbo’s miraculous ability to fly and realise that they can use his unique ability to boost ticket sales and raise the money they need to buy Dumbo’s mother back.

That is pretty much the plot to the 1941 film, only instead of a talking mouse and an ensemble of racist crows, we get the Farrier family blues and Dumbo donning some clown makeup. By the time this film gets there though, we’ve barely made it to the halfway mark. There’s still a whole lot of movie to go as V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), a flamboyant and enigmatic business tycoon, catches wind of the magnificent flying elephant. He whisks Dumbo and the rest of his carnival troupe off to his mammoth Coney Island amusement park Dreamland. This glitzy realm of wonders and attractions (a magic kingdom, if you will) becomes the setting for the remainder of the film as the avaricious, young-at-heart Vandevere proceeds with his plan to exploit this awe-inspiring, juvenile phenomenon with his capitalist machine for all it is worth. Whether Burton is making some kind of allusion to Disney and his own experiences of working with them, I can only speculate; then again that might be crediting the film with more self-awareness or substance than it merits. Either way, Keaton and Dreamland do at least bring some light and energy to what had heretofore been a drab and characterless film. If there’s one thing Burton can still do well, it’s playing around in a detailed and visually inventive setting with some colourful, if otherwise soulless, characters.

Dumbo, a CGI elephant who is impossibly cute while somehow simultaneously being a grotesque, photorealistic abomination, barely has any agency in his own story. His narrative passivity isn’t necessarily a flaw, he is a baby elephant after all, but without any strong sense of character he effectively functions as more of an animated prop than a protagonist. The simulation is expressive enough that it’s no great effort to identify Dumbo’s emotional state in the happier and sadder scenes, what’s less clear is how much he actually understands what’s happening around him in a given moment. There is an attempt to establish a connection between Dumbo and the one-armed Holt, who apparently sees something of a kindred spirit in the physically deformed elephant (kind of like Hiccup and Toothless in How to Train Your Dragon). However, if this bond is supposed to be understood as reciprocal between them, there is no indication that it is so on Dumbo’s end. He just pretty much sits there and grins at whoever happens to approach him the way that a cheerful infant with no understanding of the world would. One might not have even noticed that the relationship between Holt and Dumbo was even supposed to be a particular point of focus were it not evident in Farrell’s performance.

It is only by virtue of employing actors as talented as Farrell, Keaton, DeVito and Green (who plays a French trapeze artist tasked with riding Dumbo as he flies in Vandevere’s show) that their characters are able to convey any kind of humanity. The two who suffer the most in the movie are the children, whose performances are necessarily more reliant on the direction than the adults. Parker is the more prominent of the two and, if I were to learn that Burton had explicitly instructed not to display a single emotion throughout the production, it would not surprise me in the slightest. She plays a girl who follows in the example set by Mackenzie Foy’s character in The Nutcracker and the Four Realms of young heroines whose single personality trait is scientific inquisitiveness. The film doesn’t even attempt to integrate it into the story in a way that might feel at least vaguely organic; they just have her outright state her interest in “the scientific method” at every given opportunity. Even then, it doesn’t inform her growth as a character or figure into the larger themes of the story (a scientifically-minded child grappling with the reality of flying elephant might have made for an interesting source of friction, to give one example), it just comes across as a lazy attempt to score brownie points with feminist critics in search of smarter, more progressive female characters in big-budget children’s movies without bothering to write one.

Watching these live-action remakes make the same mistakes all over again year after year is getting so old that I’m as bored of writing about them as I am of watching them. Half of the problems in Dumbo are about trying to fix what was never broken (sans the racist crows) and the other half come about from errors in story, character and filmmaking that are so elementary, they wouldn’t even meet student film standards. All through the first half of the film, for example, the main concerns are on Dumbo being regarded as an outcast and on the familial troubles he and Holt suffer. All of a sudden, as soon as Dumbo learns to fly, a character we’ve never heard of before appears and moves the action to a location we’ve also never heard of and, just like that, the story becomes more about the evils of big business and the shamefulness of animal captivity and showmanship. These two halves have so little to do with one another, they may as well have been two separate films. What’s worse, they even screw up the ‘Baby Mine’ by having the song come from a source that’s entirely divorced from the moment! Dumbo is so ill conceived in so many aspects from its very structure down to the characterisation and motivations that I find myself wondering yet again why Disney even bothered in the first place. The an$wer, of cour$e, i$ a$ obviou$ a$ the$e movie$ are weari$ome.

★★

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Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Ezra Miller, Samantha Morton, Jon Voight, Carmen Ejogo, Ron Perlman, Colin Farrell

Director: David Yates

Writer: J.K. Rowling


As a Brit, I was of course required by law to read the Harry Potter books growing up and, like everyone else, I loved them. The epic adventure, the unforgettable characters, the profound morals, the thrills, the imagination, the sensation and the magic of it all; I loved every bit of it. Although I don’t think the film series as a whole truly captured the books in all their appeal and wonder (a few of them got close though, my favourite being Prisoner of Azkaban), they have undeniably left their impact in recent movie history and I suppose a spin-off was only a matter of time. J.K. Rowling is still very much a part of the franchise and has penned the screenplay to this feature, a move that could either have worked very well or very badly. On one hand Rowling is the mastermind behind this magical universe so who better to decide on its next direction? The same however can be said of George Lucas who ran his own franchise into the ground because nobody would dare tamper with his vision. Either way, I was very interested in seeing what the result would be.

The film takes us away from Hogwarts and transports us to New York in the Jazz Age, a decade of glamour and prosperity for the States, but also one of repression and intolerance. Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) has arrived on a boat on his way to Arizona. In his suitcase are a host of diverse, magical creatures including the mischievous, platypus-like Niffler, which escapes and wreaks havoc in a bank. During the chaos Newt accidently swaps suitcases with a No-Maj (an American Muggle) aspiring baker called Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler). While Newt is taken into custody by Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), a recently demoted Auror, three creatures escape into the city and must be recaptured. Meanwhile Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton) has emerged as a leading No-Maj voice against wizardry in light of the recent crimes of the infamous Gellert Grindelwald. Her abused son Credence (Ezra Miller) however has found a friend in Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), a high-ranking Auror who is searching for a mysterious creature that has caused great destruction around Manhattan. These two stories intersect as Newt discovers the nature of this creature and the truth of Graves’ intentions.

By taking such a drastic change in its setting from the familiar magical school in England to 1920s New York, much is gained but also lost by this film. It is a change that allows for a new exploration of Rowling’s world from a side that has been almost entirely untouched even by the books. This breakaway from the books also allows the film considerably more freedom with its characters and narrative than Harry Potter’s story ever allowed. The downside is that much of what we identified with Rowling’s universe is lost in the transition. It is admittedly difficult to define what exactly constitutes an identity that extends beyond character and setting except that we know it when we see it. It’s the reason why The Hobbit films, while reviving many familiar people and places, didn’t quite feel like The Lord of the Rings. Fantastic Beasts doesn’t have to be Harry Potter, but it does have to feel like it. Does it succeed? Yes… to an extent. There is that sense of darkness and wonder that were defining traits of the Harry Potter series as well as some of the whimsy from the two Columbus films. But there is also some of that generic, artificial blockbuster action that I would associate with a superhero movie before I would with Rowling’s stories. How many movies have we seen by this point where a large city gets levelled by an unstoppable force of CGI? Enough for it to feel tired in this film.

Now, this isn’t to say that Fantastic Beasts is not an entertaining, enjoyable movie in its own right, because it is. It has a likeable protagonist in Newt Scamandar, an eccentric wizard with some tics and a sly grin that evoked memories of Matt Smith as The Doctor. Fogler shines as Jacob Kowalski, the comic-relief sidekick who manages to be more than a comic-relief sidekick. He is our Muggle (sorry, No-Maj) surrogate in this world of magic and, just like us when we were first introduced to Rowling’s universe, he falls in love. The Potterverse is one of those franchises that can have its pick of top-quality actors and Fantastic Beasts gets its fair sure, including a couple of big American stars. Amongst the strongest of these supporting performances are such names as Samantha Morton, Ezra Miller and Ron Perlman. There is also an ensemble of cartoon-like magical creatures (a little too cartoony in my opinion) that will delight little children to no end. The film is at its best when it just takes a moment to revel in the world it inhabits and to enjoy the wondrous things in it. The moment my interest waned was the climax when the film ceased to be its own unique thing and instead became another typical fantasy-action blockbuster. Not bad or dull, just routine.

David Yates, who directed four of the eight Harry Potter films, is very much the safe choice for this film and he delivers about what you’d expect. He and Rowling mercifully restrain themselves from DC levels of franchise building with only the odd reference to Dumbledore, a woman called Lestrange and a (rather obvious) plot twist near the end. The story for the most part is self-contained and easy to follow. There is some of the darkness that Harry Potter was known for as the strained relationship between the wizarding and No-Maj worlds arouse themes of prejudice and intolerance. Credence’s story is also quite grim as he seems to display hints of a magical nature (and perhaps a bit of affection for his confidante that many at the time might have regarded as intolerable) but is forced to suppress that side of himself for fear of being discovered by his puritanical mother. On balance with the cutesy scenes with the magical creatures however I don’t think there is much in this film that’ll scare kids. Fantastic Beasts is by all accounts a fun, enjoyable film. The climax was underwhelming and some characters were forgettable but I definitely had a good time. There were parts that made me laugh, there were one or two moving scenes, and there were moments of spectacle that struck my inner-child. Whether this film will overcome the shadow cast by Harry Potter is a question that only the future can answer.

★★★★

The Lobster

Cast: Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz,  Jessica Barden, Olivia Colman, Ashley Jensen, Ariane Labed, Angeliki Papoulia, John C. Reilly, Léa Seydoux, Michael Smiley, Ben Whishaw

Director: Yorgos Lanthimos

Writers: Efthimis Filippou, Yorgos Lanthimos


Relationships can be weird, harsh and confusing as can be seen in Lanthimos’ surrealist satire. The agonies of being alone, the pressures of finding a perfect partner and the apathies of coupledom are all given a dark and bizarre turn in this absurdist comedy. The Lobster tackles these themes by depicting a dystopian future where the very concept of love and romance is non-existent. Instead the ritual of finding a mate has been desensitised into an unfeeling process of cruel methods and ludicrous regulations as these forlorn souls attempt to find suitable mates who match their singular defining characteristics. The subjects of this film are a stilted, deadpan people who exhibit absolutely no capacity for imagination or passion. It depicts a dark and bleak image of the future where love has become an unfeeling, mechanical process robbed of all feeling and purpose.

David (Colin Farrell), upon being left by his wife, is required by law to stay at a resort so that he might find himself a new partner. The Hotel Manager (Olivia Colman) informs him that he will have 45 days to find a match or else he will be transformed into an animal of his choice. David decides that should he fail then he would like to become a lobster, an animal that lives for over a century, is blue-blooded (like aristocrats) and gets to live in the sea. Amongst his fellow residents are the Limping Man (Ben Whishaw), the Lisping Man (John C. Reilly) and the Biscuit Woman (Ashley Jensen), unhappy daters who have all defined themselves by a single characteristic by which they hope to form a bond with a potential partner. When David proves unsuccessful in his efforts he escapes the resort and falls into the company of the Loners, those who have rejected the custom of enforced coupledom, led by the Loner Leader (Léa Seydoux). It is here that David meets the Short Sighted Woman (Rachel Weisz) whose defining characteristic is one that he shares.

The first half of this film is superb. The hotel in which the dating convention takes place is hilariously dreary and oppressive in the way it forces its miserable occupants into coupledom. The residents must partake in ridiculous exercises such as going about their daily activities with an arm tied behind their backs as a reminder of how two is always better than one. The candidness of everyone’s speech and the deadpan way in which they compose themselves serves to reinforce the simultaneous absurdity and misery that these characters are forced to undergo and does so to a uniquely droll effect. I was astonished at how oddly funny and unsettlingly cruel this film could be in its portrayal of these contrived romances and the pressures and fears that drive these characters to suffer them. A particular highlight for me was when one character became so desperate for companionship that he continuously forced his own nose to bleed as a way of attracting a woman who was prone to nosebleeds.

The second half of this film, when David escapes into the woods to join the loners, is when the film lost me. I think the problem was that the film tried to take its idea too far and ended up getting lost. What had started off as being strange and baffling (in the best way possible) soon became inane and confusing to me. I understood that the Loners were supposed to serve as a foil to the Hotel with their equally oppressive anti-coupledom laws, but beyond that I just didn’t understand where the film was trying to go or what it wanted me to take away. It didn’t help that the woods and its inhabitants were not nearly as interesting or enjoyable as the wonderfully preposterous hotel. I found the film’s latter half to be little more than consecutive sequences of aimless wandering until it suddenly all comes to an abrupt end. Maybe there is a point to be taken away from all that but in the end my thoughts were left more confused than stimulated.

Through its peculiar and inventive concept The Lobster is able to provide a strange yet reflective commentary on the practices of dating, marriage and relationships, along with the customs and pressures that they carry, that I wish had been more fully realised. The film’s understated direction, odd characters and uncomfortable atmosphere allowed for a fascinating and engrossing film to start with, but as the film’s course strayed more and more my interest waned. I enjoyed the film for its quirkiness and style, but those can only take you so far if the story itself fails to be engaging. When it was all over I found myself at a loss over what the film was trying to say or what it wanted me to take away. While there is much to enjoy in this dark, eccentric comedy, especially in its tremendous first half, I think that overall The Lobster is an example of how tiring that Wes-Anderson-esque quirkiness can get when the film loses track of itself.

★★★