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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Ghost in the Shell

Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Michael Pitt, Pilou Asbæk, Chin Han, Juliette Binoche, Beat Takeshi

Director: Rupert Sanders

Writers: Jamie Moss, William Wheeler, Ehren Kruger


When a film has generated such widely publicised controversy as Ghost in the Shell has, it’s often difficult to divorce the topic from the movie itself. As a critic it is my duty to evaluate each film I watch by its individual flaws and merits. The reality however is that no film is released in a vacuum and, as a viewer, I cannot help but have my perception altered by the circumstances surrounding a movie’s release. With that in mind, I’m not going to turn this review into an essay about feminism, whitewashing, or about America’s view of Japanese culture because I am not nearly smart or qualified enough to write one. Ghost in the Shell is a movie first and foremost and that’s how I plan to approach it. It isn’t a good movie but it is a visually stunning one. It is also a movie with poorly thought out morals and philosophies, insubstantial character development and a troubling relationship with race.

Set in a future where cybernetic enhancements have become a norm for human beings, the movie follows Major Mira Killian (Scarlet Johansson), a human whose brain was placed inside an entirely mechanical body after her own was damaged beyond repair in an accident. Now working for the anti-terrorist bureau Sector 9 with Batou (Pilou Asbæk) under Chief Daisuke Aramaki (Beat Takeshi), she combats threats and keeps the country safe. However she starts experiencing hallucinations and is puzzled by their meaning and significance. Her designer, Dr. Oulet (Juliette Binoche), dismisses them as glitches, but Major suspects they might be related to her past, of which she has little memory. Her confusion, as well as her suspicion that her friends and colleagues are lying to her, lead Major to start questioning her humanity and her place in the world. This existential crisis comes in the wake of an attack carried out by a terrorist known as Kuze (Michael Pitt), whom Major must track down and stop.

The anime this movie was based on had a compelling story that raised complex questions about what it means to be human. This film discards much of that complexity and depth in order to focus on how heroic and unique Major is, thus, intentionally or not, providing a quintessentially American type of narrative. Time and time again the movie periodically reiterates how special Killian is and how she is the only person (machine? being? entity?) of her kind without ever going deeper into the larger questions raised by her existence, or indeed by the very nature of the world they live in. What does identity mean to these people, especially Major? Where does one draw the line between human consciousness and artificial intelligence? What effect has technology had on the concept of race and gender? The film raises and alludes to all sorts of questions along these lines but never provides any detailed exploration or genuine insight.

The debate over whether the actress playing the main character of a Japanese manga should reflect their racial origins is one that I’m not prepared to go into. Johansson has proven herself in the past, both as an actress (Under the Skin, Her) and as an action star (The Avengers, Lucy), so I suppose it’s fair to say that I was prepared to accept her casting should she give a performance worthy of the character. The performance doesn’t work however because she was never able to form a convincing emotional connection with her character. Maybe this is because the character is tied so strongly to Japanese culture that no Caucasian actress could have built that connection, or maybe the fault lies elsewhere. In fairness, I don’t think the rest of the ensemble fared much better. Besides Batou I honestly cannot remember a single member of Killian’s team. Binoche does a decent job as a character whose presence hints at an intriguing mother/daughter relationship that I wish could have been explored more, but alas the film was too busy focusing on Major and how special and unique she is. Pitt as the villain is just bland and forgettable.

The movie is poor enough on its own. The characterisations are weak, the story is dull and the themes lack depth. What really kills Ghost in the Shell though is its problematic relationship with race. Perhaps the film could have survived the controversy if it merely side-lined any matters of race and just focused on the story it was trying to tell. Instead it fully addresses the issue in perhaps the most awkward, misguided way it could possibly have chosen. Far from allaying any concerns viewers might have had, the film ends bringing even more attention to the problem and throwing fuel onto the fire it started. I suppose the film should get some credit for at least trying to be representative by going to lengths to depict Japanese culture in its futuristic setting and featuring a not insignificant number of Asian actors in its cast. It is telling however that four out of five of the main characters are played by white actors. The film is often visually beautiful and has some great action as well, but narratively it feels soulless and empty. Kind of like a shell without a ghost.

★★