First, the bad…I was incredibly disappointed that the Disney Store–online and off–had no special character Dumbo (or even Timothy the Mouse) hoodie for kids. I was prepared to purchase one just to set the mood for the press screening of the new live-action Dumbo on Monday, but the circus (in a good way) mood was set by the setting. At El Capitan, there are two selfie/Kodak moment stations–one upstairs in the lobby with the lovable Dumbo and you’ll be supplied with the all important feather and one downstairs were art and artifacts from the movie are on display.
You can be either (or both) Dumbo’s new fans or pretend to be Rongo the Strongo. Inside the movie theater are circus billboards advertising other attractions. From the brochures, fans will be delighted by a mini circus before the screening. It sounds like fun for the kiddies and hopefully the parents as well. The merchandise in the neighboring Disney Store was limited but I did get a blue-eyed elephant plush on the way out.
This morning I checked and there are such rarities as blue-eyed elephants. Let’s hope this movie doesn’t set the sights of some big game hunter.
Based on a book by with a script written by Helen Aberson and Harold Pearl, Ehren Kruger (best known for scripting three of the five “Transformers” movies), Tim Burton’s concept begins with a circus well past its prime: The Medici Brothers. Their private and personal train cabins are worn wood with advertisements on the long sides that have partially peeled off to reveal grayish wood. A returning war hero (wearing three medals), Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) gets off a train to reunite with his two children, Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins), and re-join the circus in its winter hibernation in Florida.
When he left, Holt and his wife had been the stars, trick riding horses, but the influenza (yes, the flu) came and hit the circus community hard. Holt’s wife died, leaving the children in the care of their circus family until Holt returned. What Holt didn’t tell his children or the ringmaster and owner of the Medici Circus, Max (Danny DeVito as his grungy best), was that his bravery cost him his left arm. As he walks through the bustling circus community–past Parmesh Singh (Roshan Seth), the snake charmer; past Rongo the Strongo (DeObia Oparei) and all-around gofer; past Miss Atlantis (Sharon Rooney)–to Max’s office, you can see the dread and awful calculations in the faces of his fellow performers: How will he perform? But the situation is worse than that. Max sold all of Holt’s horses. There are no trained horses.
Medici Brothers’ Circus is now a one-ring circus with a one-man band, Rongo, and no star act. Even Rongo isn’t particularly fully immersed in his muscleman act which is supplies some of the low key humor and establishes the level of professionalism of the circus. This is not Cirque du Soleil or even a Ringling Bros. level group of entertainers.
The children have no skills. Milly is determined to become a scientist and work using scientific methods, but her learnings in logic haven’t gone toward practical applications of math in economics. You’d think that having grown up in a circus she’s understand the importance of money and work ethic, but she’s oblivious. Not the kind of older sister you’d like to take charge of desperate situations. Holt is left with the job that no one wants, learning more than one ever wanted to about how much poop a grown elephant can produce.
And to bolster the elephants’ allure to the small town crowds, Max has just bought a new attraction–a pregnant (CGI) elephant. Someone hasn’t been paying attention because the elephant mama, Jumbo, gives birth without anyone knowing. The little pachyderm package is hidden underneath fresh hay and when revealed has baby blue eyes and ears that would only make a basset hound owner proud. Large enough to drag and cause the baby to stumble. Max calls them defective, but you’re likely to find them cute.
Under Burton’s direction, all the cuteness and preciousness is reserved for this CGI Dumbo with the two kids playing things straight enough to qualify for the next Addams Family flick. The children are the first to discover that Dumbo can fly but no one will listen to them. Max demands that those oversized ears be hidden in time for the big show, and a bonnet is devised. The baby is wheeled out in an oversized baby carriage, but during a disastrous debut, the baby panics, stumbles and the bonnet falls off, revealing its ears. The baby elephant, now dubbed Dumbo, calls for its mom who comes crashing in and ends up killing the first baddie we meet. He was a minor baddie; the real bad guy has yet to come: V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton) who learns of the flying elephant through a news report and visits the Medici Brothers circus and makes a deal you know is plain evil.
Vandevere swears he will take care of all of the Medici Brothers circus performers and they are taken to Dreamland which is basically a 1950s version of Disneyland if Walt Disney didn’t have daughters and a soft-heart for them. Instead of the Haunted Mansion, there’s a place for dangerous beasts, a zoo with animals–some real and some augmented reality in a carny sense. There’s also a science pavilion and a rocket rollercoaster ride. Yet it’s all sleek and hard, shining with a hard outer light, without the warmth that comes from love and the tenderness for humankind.
Vandevere has eye-candy, a French trapeze artist, Colette Marchant (Eva Green), who will soon be making eyes at Holt. Despite his castle and cavernous office, Vandevere needs more money and Dumbo’s flying act must be made more spectacular to attract the financial backing of Wall Street tycoon, J. Griffin Remington (Alan Arkin). Things will not go well for Vandevere because this is a Disney film and bad guys are always punished.
Fans of Timothy the Mouse will be disappointed. He appears, but there’s no friendship with Dumbo. Burton has created a wonderful steampunk dismal version of Disneyland in Dreamland and centers this movie on the CGI cuteness of a blue-eyed elephant baby who only wants its mommy and has the spectacular gift of flight. It’s a lovely film about celebrating physical differences, finding family and friends to support one and being kind to animals. Kids and adults are sure to love the photo op at the El Capitan so indulge your kids or channel your inner child at the El Capitan. “Dumbo” officially opens on 29 March 2019 in the US.