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Review: In ‘Dumbo,’ Tim Burton Makes Flight Possible

Colin Farrell, Danny DeVito, Eva Green and Michael Keaton lead the cast in Disney’s new live-action adventure, directed by Tim Burton.

Nostalgia can play tricks on the mind.

dfn_dumbo_300First released in 1941, Walt Disney’s production of Dumbo was a fine family film for its era, centering on certain animals that performed at a circus and, especially, on a young elephant born with outsized ears whose only friend is a plucky mouse. The hand-drawn animation remains beautiful, though other elements in its 64-minute running time, such as a segment featuring black crows acting and singing in a stereotyped manner, have dated badly with the passage of decades.

Directed by Tim Burton, Disney’s new live-action version is wonderfully captivating. Ehren Kruger’s script greatly expands on the original slender premise, retaining memorable motifs and even entire scenes, yet refashioning them so that they fit comfortably within the new story.

The focus is on circus people this time, rather than the animals, though it must be acknowledged that all the animals are treated with appropriate respect. Appropriate punishment is meted out to any human who does not uphold such standards.

Everyone is surprised to see Holt Farrier (Colin Farrier) when he returns after The Great War, probably in 1919. Oh, his two young children Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins) are happy to have him back, but they are still mourning the loss of their mother, who died while Holt was serving in the military.

His fellow former workers at the Medici Brothers Circus also welcome him home, though all their eyes are initially drawn to Holt’s missing arm, which he lost in the war. Holt hopes to resume his career as a star of the show, performing tricks on horseback. Unfortunately, explains owner Max Medici (Danny DeVito), the circus has experienced rough times economically; the majority of workers and performers have been laid off, and the horses were sold off. But there is one position that Max can offer to Holt …

… and so Holt becomes an elephant tender. It’s a humbling change of circumstances, but Holt needs to provide for his family. More importantly, he needs to learn how to be a father again; his wife primarily cared for the emotional needs of the young ones, and Holt has no idea how she did it. The youngest, Joe, quickly re-adjusts to his father’s standoffish personality, but Milly is a different story.

A bright and determined young woman, Milly is determined to become a scientist, not a circus worker. She has declined to learn any possible circus skills, to the consternation of her father, as well as Max.

Things change with the arrival of a newborn elephant. Max bought Jumbo recently, without knowing that she was pregnant. When her child is born with enormous, ungainly ears, Max’s immediate plans for a new attraction are foiled and Holt is ordered to ‘take care of it.’

Sensitive to the young elephant’s ‘disabled’ appearance, the one-armed Holt is overly protective, warning his children away. Being curious youngsters, they ignore him and soon enough learn that the elephant has a secret ability to fly, which is apparently triggered by the appearance of any feather.

Soon enough, the newly-dubbed Dumbo becomes the star attraction of the show and attracts the attention of the wealthy business entrepreneur V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), accompanied by his lovely star attraction, the French trapeze artist Colette Marchant (Eva Green). Clearly, Dumbo is on his way to becoming a superstar of the early 20th century!

Things don’t work out that way, of course. Dumbo is very much a creature of the 21st century, celebrating differences and banishing all hatred and villainy. It is, after all, a tale for children, though it is also actively engaging for adults.

Born in Burbank, California, which was also the home of Walt Disney Studios, Tim Burton has long been associated with Disney fantasies, dating back to his time as an animator’s apprentice in the early 1980s. (Reportedly, he was fired by Disney after making Frankenweenie, a short film deemed too “dark and scary” for children.)

In more recent times, Burton remade Alice in Wonderland (2010) in 3D for the studio, effectively kicking off Disney’s current series of ‘animation to live-action’ remakes, which has spread through Maleficent (2014), Cinderella (2015), The Jungle Book (2016), and Beauty and the Beast (2017), among others, with more on the way. In the meantime, Burton has made TV show adaptation Dark Shadows (2012), feature-length animation Frankenweenie (2012), live-action drama Big Eyes (2014), and fantasy book adaptation Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2016).

After the major disappointment of Batman Returns (1992), I confess that my devotion to Burton as a film fan faltered. This was reinforced nearly a decade later by Planet of the Apes (2001), and I have not rushed out to see his live-action films since then. His animated films Corpse Bride (2005) and Frankenweenie (2012) played much better for me. So, perhaps out of my own ignorance, Dumbo strikes me as a triumph for Burton.

His fevered imagination is on full display, brought to life by a large crew that includes director of photography Ben Davis, production designer Rick Heinrichs, costume designer Colleen Atwood, and film editor Chris Lebenzon. Danny Elfman composed the musical score, which is only noticeable when it needs to be, otherwise contributing a steady and percolating background to the action.

The film is not a classic by any means. The acting, especially, is all over the map and tonally inconsistent; it sounds like the actors were given total freedom to come up with their own approach to their characters and then never reigned in, though it is fun to see the reunion of Keaton and DeVito in a neat sort of role reversal from Batman Returns.

Of all the cast members, young Nico Parker shines the brightest. She displays a calm demeanor and a capacity for childish glee that can explode at any moment, as well as a firm command of every dramatic scene in which she appears.

Tim Burton’s Dumbo approaches magic, and not just in making a young elephant with outsized ears fly.

The film will open wide in theaters throughout Dallas on Friday, March 29, 2019.

Review: ‘Incredibles 2’

dfn-Incredibles2-poster-300Before superheroes dominated the thinking of big Hollywood studios entirely, The Incredibles felt like a blast of fresh air in 2004.

Revolving around the Parr family, hiding out in suburbia because superheroes have become illegal, the film illustrated the very real dangers that might exist if super-powered people existed in the real world, weighed against the good that might be accomplished by such people if they were allowed to legally act upon their own altruistic intentions.

Written and directed by Brad Bird, The Incredibles followed up the filmmaker’s previous animated triumph, The Iron Giant, with an approach that felt very much ‘of the moment,’ a self-aware adventure that was filled with action sequences as well as commentary on contemporary issues. Bird completed his trilogy of outstanding animated films with another dissection of power and its relative value in Ratatouille, disguising his disgust in a heartwarming food story.

Bird then turned to live-action projects, first helming Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol to enjoyable, popcorn-chewing delight, and then faltering a bit with Tomorrowland, which resounded in visual splendors yet stumbled with its often-confusing, perhaps overly ambitious narrative.

Now he has returned to the friendly world of big-budget animation with Incredibles 2, which is absorbing and compelling to watch on the big screen, even though it doesn’t supply as much fresh material as his earlier animated endeavors.

Perhaps that was Bird’s intention? The new film picks up soon after the conclusion of the original. Bob Parr, aka Mr. Incredible (voiced by Craig T. Nelson), his wife Helen Parr, aka Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), their teenage daughter Violet (Sarah Vowell), their young son Dashiell (Huck Milner) and baby Jack-Jack (Eli Fucile) are in the government’s witness protection program — or, rather, the ‘super protection program’ — and struggling to get by in life.

Everyone in the family is superpowered, except for baby Jack-Jack, and remains eager to use their abilities to help ordinary citizens, especially when they come under attack by criminals and other villainous elements. Such activity is still illegal, however. And, after the family leaps into action to try and stop one such villain, not altogether successfully, the government acts swiftly to shut down the program and stop providing financial assistance.

Soon enough, however, possible salvation arrives in the form of Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk) and his sister, Evelyn Deavor (Catherine Keener). Winston is the very public head of a large and very successful telecommunications company who is very much in favor of all superpowered people (or “supers”) returning to legality and he enlists Elastigirl in his public campaigning efforts. His sister Evelyn, meanwhile, likes to stay in the background while she develops innovative technology to further the cause.

As Elastigirl becomes a spokesperson for the “make supers legal” campaign, she is drawn away from her family, leaving Mr. Incredible to remain just Bob, a beleaguered ‘house husband’ who is quickly overwhelmed by domestic duties and raising their children on his own. Violet is a rebellious teen and Dashiell is a mischievous kid. Oh, and Jack-Jack starts to demonstrate that, while he cannot talk yet, he definitely has inherited a few powers of the “super” variety.

The pace is lively and the extended action sequences are well designed for maximum impact, each differentiated by the primary character(s) involved. Elastigirl’s early sequences, for example, are dark and shadowy, reminiscent of film noir in color as she prowls about the city in search of crimes to foil.

Incredibles 2 flies along with such visual grace, bolstered by witty dialogue and insightful character moments, that the absence of any great driving force behind the film as a whole is not felt until the third act. It’s wonderful that the focus has been shifted from the male to the female perspective on things (in general), yet beyond that, the film doesn’t have much else on its mind, or at least nothing that approaches the depths explored in Bird’s first three animated features.

In that sense, Incredibles 2 resembles Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol: a roaring good time that won’t necessarily stick in your head for any particular reason, beyond its considerable value as feel-good entertainment.

The film opens in theaters throughout Dallas and Fort Worth on Friday, June 15.

Review: ‘Zootopia’

zootopia-poster-300Zootopia is the 55th feature-length animated Disney film, and it’s one of the best.

That’s not because its artistic qualities are better than its predecessors. Truthfully, technical developments in the modern animation age mean that most high-budget Hollywood productions look alarmingly similar to one another in character design and backgrounds. That means the stories and characterizations take on even greater importance; as beautiful and detailed as so many animated films look, they can quickly become tiresome for adults if they simply keep playing the same notes over and over again.

Since filmmaker and executive John Lasseter came over from Pixar to help steer the animation ship at Disney, the films have steadily ticked upward in the quality and depth of their stories, from Tangled to Wreck-It Ralph to Frozen to Big Hero 6. Now Zootopia continues that upward trajectory.

The story revolves around Judy Hopps (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin), a young rabbit raised in the countryside. She has a strong sense of justice and so pursues a career in law enforcement, despite the lack of positive role models around her. Accepted at the police academy in Zootopia, she happily heads off, determined to overcome any obstacles that might arise.

Judy’s initial obstacle is that she’s so much smaller in size than her fellow students. Zootopia is a metropolis that is home to a huge variety of animals, who all talk and mostly walk on their hind legs. The city is a civilized place where carnivorous animals have curbed their natural desire to eat other animal. It’s a city where equality is still a goal, rather than a reality.

Judy, for example, is the first bunny in the police academy. Upon her graduation, she is dismayed to be assigned by her boss Chief Bogo (voiced by Idris Elba) to meter duty, though her buoyant spirit remains vibrant. On duty, she becomes acquainted with Nick Wilde (voiced by Jason Bateman), a fox with a wily disposition toward a crooked lifestyle. Eventually, she drafts him to help her solve the case of a missing animal.

The investigation plays out as the primary storyline, but the filmmakers are interested in much more than the solution to a mystery. The screenplay, credited to Jared Bush and Phil Johnston, and the direction by Byron Howard and Rich Moore, dives deep into the implications of the society that’s been created. Eventually, questions of discrimination between carnivorous and non-carnivorous creatures arise, with pointed references to modern human society.

The deeper layers of the film can easily be ignored, of course, because of the generally witty tone of the characters and the scenarios. Directors Howard (Bolt, Tangled) and Moore (The Simpsons, Wreck-It Ralph) keep the pace brisk, while still allowing individual sequences to play out organically.

The greatest strength of Zootopia, however, is that depth. It’s a deep reservoir, available to be tapped, and it’s delivered with grace and sincerity into the heart of the movie, which lingers like the taste of fine wine.

The film opens wide in theaters throughout Dallas on Friday, March 4.

Review: ‘Tomorrowland’

'Tomorrowland' (Disney)
‘Tomorrowland’ (Disney)
An adventure story for young people, Tomorrowland follows a plucky teenage heroine named Casey Newton as she attempts to save the world.

It’s a family-friendly film, with a buoyant, optimistic emphasis on the possibilities of a future in which technology has been harnessed for the benefit of mankind. Yet it’s also serves up a moral lesson about mankind’s reluctance to change, even in the face of dire warnings about the end of human society as we know it.

For much of its running time, Tomorrowland functions as a science-fiction mystery, with an opening featuring a grizzled George Clooney and an excitable Britt Robertson dithering over how to present the story. Clooney goes first, giving the origin of his character, Frank Walker, as a fantastically bright boy who heads to the 1964 World’s Fair in New York with his invention, a jet-pack that doesn’t quite work yet.

While there, young Frank (Thomas Robinson) meets Athena (Raffey Cassidy), who looks to be his age, and she introduces him to a fantastically bright future, filled with geegaws that are very suggestive of a far more animated extension of Disneyland’s very own Tomorrowland theme park section in the 1960s. It’s much more a world based on fantasy than science, but it looks exactly like something dreamed up by a science-fiction loving kid would have dreamed up in the 1960s.

The film then pauses, turning the stage over to Casey (Robertson). She’s revealed to be a fantastically bright young woman living in Florida. Her father (Tim McGraw) is a NASA scientist who’s about to lose his job because the nearby launch platform is shutting down. Her younger brother Nate (Pierce Gagnon) looks to be pretty smart, too, but it’s Casey who is trying in vain to delay the closing of the launch platform. During a legal entanglement, she discovers a mysterious pin among her possessions; touching the pin transports her to a magical world that looks much like the one that Frank first visited some 50 years before.

Soon Casey meets up with Athena, and then with the grown-up Frank (Clooney), and the point of the story will become apparent, but until then it’s a grand, motion-filled ride, as the ever-optimistic Casey deals with one challenge after another, all in pursuit of an undefined goal. It’s a wonderful way to handle an adventure story that’s aimed at young people, and for much of the movie it works wonderfully as a ticking clock.

Once the purpose of the mystery is exposed, however, the movie becomes more unsettled as it races to the finish. Tomorrowland originated with producer Damon Lindelof, who wrote the story with Jeff Jensen. When Brad Bird joined the project as director, he also took on writing duties with Lindelof, and while it’s difficult to say with any certainty, the movie feels like a lumpy blending of their strengths as writers. Lindelof, co-creator of TV’s Lost, is known for crafting extremely complicated mysteries; Bird, writer and director of the animated The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, and Ratatouille (he also directed the live-action Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol), is known for his mature view of nostalgia and partiality for moral lessons.

While Tomorrowland benefits from its mysterious scenario, the lead characters — let’s call them Grumpy and Happy to tie in the Disney mystique — fail to make much of an impact upon the story. We’re repeatedly told, for example, that Casey is special, but her intelligence is reduced to a series of hunches, not deductive reasoning. And Frank seems to have become little more than a paranoid, self-serving hermit.

It’s too bad that such an exciting setup is frittered away to little effect, or that the concluding scenes play as little more than an excuse for Bird to preach about the failings of mankind, via the voice of a character who pops up at the end. (That’s an idea that sounds stolen directly from The Wizard of Oz.)

Still, Tomorrowland has much to recommend it, especially for younger viewers and their parents, who should have a good time discussing the thematic issues raised. Overall, however it’s a reminder that yesterday’s Tomorrowland pales in comparison with today’s problems.

The film opens wide in theaters across Dallas and Ft. Worth on Friday, May 22.

Review: ‘Wreck-It Ralph’ Wins With Cool Graphics, Warm Hearts

'Wreck-It Ralph' (Disney)
‘Wreck-It Ralph’ (Disney)
Super happy fun-time joy joy! At first blush, Wreck-It Ralph swims in a pool of video game goodness, threatening to drown anyone who doesn’t share its nostalgia for the golden era of the early 80s, a time in which arcades, quarters, and pixels ruled the minds and wallets of young people. Yet even if you’ve never been tempted to pick up a game controller, the movie turns out to be built around a very sweet father-daughter relationship that reaches far beyond the constraints of its environment.

Setting aside my own personal connection to the video gaming setting that is celebrated uncritically, it’s the characters who emerge with winning personalities, despite their two-dimensional nature. Wreck-It Ralph (voiced by basso profundo John C. Reilly) is the villain in an arcade game called Fix-It Felix, (the reedy-voiced Jack McBrayer) a Donkey Kong knock-off whose 8-bit graphics fit perfectly with that period. The movie imagines that all the characters in video games are “real,” living lives that are restricted to a degree by their pixellated nature, yet still able to leave their particular environment and visit other games and characters via electrical wiring and gathering in their version of Grand Central Station.

Well, Ralph is tired of being the bad guy, spurned by all the other characters in his game, who party like it’s 1999 and make clear that they don’t want to be friends with Ralph, who has giant hands and an oafish nature. He attends a support group for video game villains, but it’s not helping him deal with his continuing sadness. One night, a misunderstood remark leads him to believe that he he can only win a medal, the other characters will be nice to him and he won’t be so lonely.

So Ralph goes renegade, sneaking into another game, an ultra-modern military fighting game, where he encounters Calhoun (Jane Lynch), and is pursued by Felix, who wants him to come back to the game. (Without Ralph, the other characters suddenly realize, the game is considered defective, and they run the risk of being unplugged and hauled away to oblivion.) Eventually they all end up in Sugar Rush, a candy-themed racing game, where Ralph becomes friends with young Vanellope (the scratchy-voiced Sarah Silverman), who has been ostracized much like Ralph, and tries to stay positive, even though she is lonely too. Meanwhile, she harbors a not-so-secret desire to qualify for The Big Race.

All of this set-up may sound a bit laborious, but the movie slides effortlessly from one story point to the next, driven by the sad-sack antics of Ralph and the chirpy enthusiasm of Vanellope, and enlivened by the performances of actors well-chosen for their vocal talents. Alan Tudyk practically steals the show as King Candy, who rules Sugar Rush with an iron fist big candy cane.

Director Rich Moore got his feet wet with 17 episodes of The Simpsons back in its golden era of the early 90s, before moving onto other shows, most notably Futurama, so he’s well-versed in making every frame count, stuffing the film with visual jokes as well as more video game character namechecks and product placement than would fit in a normal-sized grocery store. The witty dialogue and story supplied by writers Jennifer Lee and Phil Johnston (Cedar Rapids, in which Reilly played a starring role) — with additional story material credited to Reilly — keeps the jokes flying, though time is also carved out to develop a most atypical, and unexpectedly touching, father-daughter relationship between Ralph and Vanellope.

Granted, Wreck-It Ralph hits many of my personal sweet spots, over and over again, and frequently threatened to overwhelm my system with pleasure, so it’s difficult for me to be entirely objective, but I think the movie is a rare treat, one that works its magic on both children and adults.

Wreck-It Ralph opens wide across the Metroplex on Friday, November 2.

Review: ‘Brave’ Introduces the Pixar Princess

'Brave' (Disney-Pixar)
‘Brave’ (Disney-Pixar)

Pixar Animation Studios has created a consistently impressive body of work since Toy Story was unleashed upon the world in 1995.

That debut was immediately noteworthy because of its advanced computer graphics, but as the company hit its stride with Finding Nemo (2003) and The Incredibles (2004), it became apparent that Pixar was even more concerned with honing their stories and characters to the highest quality possible, to a point well beyond the dismissive “good for a kiddie flick” or “not bad for a cartoon.”

Cars was considered a dip, falling below their standard of quality, but upon reflection (and repeat viewing) it’s more comparable to A Bug’s Life or Monsters, Inc., enjoyable comedies, though lacking in emotional and thematic heft.

Pixar upped its game with its next four releases (Ratatouille, WALL-E, Up, Toy Story 3); each deserved placement among the best films of its respective year. Cars 2 was a greater disappointment, as much as anything because the brain trust behind the film failed to learn much from the shortcomings of the original.

And now we come to Brave, which is a good and ambitious film, yet betrays several weaknesses in its narrative structure that keep it from fulfilling its potential for greatness. Nonetheless, it stands up on its own as a charming and rambunctiously entertaining story with absolutely gorgeous animation.

Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald) grows up in the royal household of a kingdom in ancient Scotland. She is a princess, but the crown worn by her father Fergus (Billy Connolly) is meant to be passed on to the man she will marry, to be chosen from among the first-born sons of the other three kings (Craig Ferguson, Kevin McKidd, Robbie Coltrane) who rule in the land.

Naturally, Princess Merida is not happy about the prospect of an arranged marriage to a complete stranger, but she is even less enchanted by her mother Elinor (Emma Thompson), whose entire life is focused on making Merida’s day to day existence a nightmare. At least, that’s how Merida sees it: her mother enforces rules that restrict Merida’s personal freedom and trains her relentlessly for her future role as Queen. The young woman wants nothing more than to be free to live her life the way she chooses, without any rules or restrictions.

Oh, if only there were a spell that could get Merida’s mother off her back …

Quicker than you can hum “When You Wish Upon a Star,” Merida is heading deep into the forest and emerging with something that will change her mother, er, profoundly and unexpectedly. Let’s just say that it leads to some unbearable excitement before the credits roll.

It’s difficult, if not impossible, to shrug off the idea that Disney’s long-established “princess ideal” has rubbed off on Pixar. Brave is Pixar’s first film to feature a female protoganist, and yet choosing a princess seems to be a backwards step. Unlike Disney’s traditional efforts, or even the studio’s recent Tangled, however, the relationship between mother and daughter feels grounded on a very human, relatable scale.

Writer/director Brenda Chapman conceived the project as a dark fairy tale, and drew upon her own experiences with her daughter. Creative disagreements arose, however, and Mark Andrews took over as director in the midst of production. That’s not unusual with animated films, which have been re-shaped time and again through the long period it takes for production, but in the case of Brave, the film does not emerge as a unified whole.

There is a clash of sensibilities, the story takes several perplexing turns, and the characters are not well-defined. It’s especially disappointing that the extremely vital mother/daughter relationship takes a back seat right at the point in the narrative where it’s ripe for further exploration.

Still, the film is above average in quality, it’s very funny, and it’s refreshing in that it expands Pixar’s palette into even more adult territory. Maybe the next time or two out, the result(s) will be completely successful.

Brave opens wide across the Metroplex on Friday, June 22.