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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: ‘The Founder’

dfn-thefounder-300He’s friendly and outgoing. He looks like an ordinary man. But in The Founder, he’s The Devil.

As portrayed magnificently by Michael Keaton, Ray Kroc is a typical American traveling salesman. He’s got his sales pitch down and he never stops, even in the face of general rejection of his latest sales item, a commercial milkshake mixer.

At the age of 52, he has done alright for himself and his wife Ethel (Laura Dern), able to afford a comfortable, if modest, lifestyle in a placid Illinois neighborhood. They are a childless couple, though, and Ray’s long absences have left Ethel alone and unhappy over the years. Oblivious to his wife’s needs, Ray plows ahead.

One day, he hears from his faithful secretary — and only employee — June Martino (Kate Kneeland) that a restaurant in California has ordered six (?!) milkshake machines. Certain that it’s a mistake, he makes a long-distance telephone call and is informed that, no, that is correct, but come to think of it, better make it eight machines.

Having nothing better to do, and a bit fed up with his the poor sales he’s been experiencing at the drive-in restaurants on his self-made route, Ray drives to California on Route 66 to see for himself. (It’s 1954, and people did things like that in those days.) Upon arrival in San Bernardino, Ray is amazed to see people lined up at McDonald’s, a burger stand that serves its few menu items amazingly fast.

Soon he meets the owner/operators, Dick and Mac McDonald (Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch), and they are only too happy to show him around their small but well-designed facility, and then explain over dinner how their arrived at their “overnight” success story after more than 20 years in business.

Ray, like a friendly, outgoing, ordinary viper, wants in.

The balance of The Founder tells the story of how Ray Kroc brought franchising to the McDonald’s operation and slowly but steadily stole their concept out from under them and introduced fast-food restaurants to the United States. It’s a tale of treachery and ambition and greed, detailing how little businesses can become multinational corporations.

It’s horrifying, yet familiar. Dick and Mac are not stupid; they are, in fact, exemplary and conscientious businessmen. Their burgers may be cheap, but that’s because of efficiency, experience, and expertise, not because they cut corners on the quality of the food or tried in any way to cheat the customers.

Ray, at least as presented in the film, is obsessed with making McDonald’s as big as possible, and making himself look as good as possible in the process. He takes credit for all the ideas dreamed up by Dick and Mac, and soon tires of their contractual control of the business. That leads to the McDonald’s we all know and loathe today.

Director John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side) keeps things hopping and allows space for the actors to shine. The script by Robert D. Siegel (Big Fan) is superbly incisive. John Schwartzman’s cinematography and Carter Burwell’s musical score nicely complement the action.

Among the supporting players, Patrick Wilson and Linda Cardellini stand out for their sharp turns as a restaurant owner and his wife who cross paths with Ray.

The film really belongs to Keaton, Offerman and and Lynch; they each give terrific, beautifully-modulated performances. As the personification of evil, Keaton is sublime. We get the clear sense that the aging Ray Kroc, facing the end of his days as a very modest success, seized upon a great opportunity and then tore apart any who stood in his way to becoming a monstrous success. But quietly and, apparently, politely; it’s not like he wanted blood on his hands or stains on his conscience.

The Founder is good food for thought, especially anytime the prospect of a quick meal at McDonald’s beckons.

The film opens wide in Dallas theaters on Friday, January 20.

Review: The New ‘RoboCop’ Is The Same, Only Different

'RoboCop' (MGM / Sony)
‘RoboCop’ (MGM / Sony)

Zoom zoom zoom! The sleek new version of RoboCop sprints at high speed through a multitude of plot points and sociological concerns, leaving little room for emotional impact and absolutely no compelling artistic reason for its existence.

The surface is highly-finished and reflective. Writer Joshua Zetumer copies the story and characters of the 1987 RoboCop so closely that original writers Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner also receive credit for the screenplay. Certainly there are differences, most significantly with the individual credited for the “creation” of RoboCop, Dr. Dennett Norton, played with fierce adherence to subtle emotional modulation by the reliable Gary Oldman.

Dr. Norton is portrayed as a man of science who earnestly wants to avoid any of his work being weaponized for military purposes. He’s fooling himself, of course — he is employed by OmniCorp., which is (apparently) entirely devoted to the manufacture of drones and other mechanized weapons for use by the U.S. military — and it’s only a matter of time before OmniCorp. head Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) and his nasty minions (ice-cold Jennifer Ehle, sleazy Jay Baruchel, and dead-eye Jackie Earle Haley) coerce Dr. Norton into making RoboCop into the mechanical man of their financial dreams.

As Dr. Norton wrestles his conscience into submission, Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) struggles with the loss of his manhood, both literally and figuratively. The new film demonstrates a heightened awareness and increased sensitivity toward Murphy, who is treated (eventually) with the kindness and patience accorded a soldier disabled in military service. While no direct connection is made on that front, the film’s opening sequence takes place in Tehran, Iran, and explores the political impact of drone warfare on public consciousness, and it’s a short step from there to viewing Murphy as an unwilling pawn of the U.S. government.

Except the film doesn’t really “go” there; it conjures up a controversial law banning the use of completely mechanized weapons, and focuses like a laser-beam on the premise that U.S. citizens of the near future are most desirous of having humans manning robotic death machines, which neatly avoids the far more controversial issue of gun control. Within this film, it’s more like “gun control control.”

Always keeping meaningful issues at arm’s length means that the film pens itself into a prison of its own devising. Padilha’s action sequences unfold with brutal efficiency, though none of the actual bloodshed is shown; dozens of people are killed throughout the movie, but almost always without an ounce of blood flow, all the better to secure a PG-13 rating, rather than a more honest R rating.

Honoring a film because it is not as bad as I anticipated really doesn’t make any sense. To be fair, the cast invests the film with as much heft as possible, which threatens to topple the slender the narrative into pomposity. Oldman is terrific and Kinnaman makes the role his own; notable additional contributions are made by Abbie Cornish (as Murphy’s wife), Michael K. Williams (as Murphy’s partner), Marianne Jean-Bapiste (as Murphy’s commander), Samuel L. Jackson (as media commenter Pat Novak), and Aimee Garcia (as Dr. Norton’s lieutenant).

The abundance of talent on hand ensures that the film is competently made and acted. But the original film still exists and is still as fresh, timely, and poignant as ever. Why watch a copy when the original is so widely available?

RoboCop opens wide in theaters throughout Dallas and Ft. Worth on Wednesday, February 12.