With Rainy Eyes Write Sorrow
Dumbo proves to be an enjoyable, if lugubrious, live action remake of the 1941 classic
On March 20 the Walt Disney Company finalized its $71.3 billion acquisition of 21st Century Fox thereby solidifying its elephantine position over the global entertainment industry. On March 29 it released Dumbo, a film that critiques the soul-crushing and creativity-stifling nature of megacorporations. Irony, it seems, is among the many assets acquired in the Fox deal. Though the film’s anti-corporate messaging is a bit suspect given its production company Dumbo proves to be an enjoyable, if lugubrious, live action remake of the 1941 classic.
The film’s success is due to director Tim Burton who has created another world of wonderment rich in tonal playfulness and imaginative craft. His highest achievement is the creation of the character Dumbo, a CGI masterpiece whose eyes, at times hopeful but mostly heartsick, do all the work in telling the story of his alienation and determination to transform his disabilities into his advantage. In fact, this speechless character emerges with the best acting performance in the movie.
This isn’t to say that the human acting is so bad. Danny DeVito in particular is great as the rowdy carnivalesque circus master Max Medici, proprietor of Medici Brothers’ Circus. Michael Keaton’s goonish and greedy V.A. Vandevere is also a delight to watch. And Eva Green as Colette Marchant delivers the movie’s most complex role as the trapeze artist whose friendship with the lowly Medici Brothers’ Circus workers slowly transforms her from a cold corporate drone into a caring and motherly advocate of fellowship and family.
The importance of friendship and family to the success and wholeness of the individual is the main thematic concern of Dumbo. Dumbo, for instance, must find his mother in order to be complete. The misfit Medici Brothers’ Circus workers must come together in cooperation to find happiness in a world that has rejected them. The Farrier siblings, children of Holt Farrier, Medici Brothers’ resident equestrian, recognize the importance of motherly love and affection when their own mother succumbs to influenza and this prompts them to do all they can to help Dumbo find his mother. In the end it is friendship and family that provide the lift, thrust, and drag that empowers an individual to take flight.
That may seem like a sappy perspective but the film grounds itself in deliciously dismal art direction. Dumbo is almost certain to collect Academy Award nominations for costume design, makeup and hairstyling, and production design. Here we have the trademark Burton combination of gothic melancholy and idyllic cheer with an emphasis on the gothic melancholy. Whether it’s the opening scene’s peeling, faded paint on the Medici Brothers’ train or the shadowy Dr. Caligarian set design of Nightmare Island, a creepy exhibit in Vandevere’s Dreamland amusement park, Dumbo is host to all manner of thematically relevant haunting audiovisuals.
If the film does have a flaw it is that its audiovisual brilliance overshadows its performances and robs it just a little bit of its emotional resonance. In the end, however, Dumbo’s desolate tinge provides a necessary counterpart to its friendship and family focused themes. It gives cinematic expression to Tristram Shandy’s observation that “we live amongst riddles and mysteries -the most obvious things, which come in our way, have dark sides, which the quickest sight cannot penetrate into; and even the clearest and most exalted understandings amongst us find ourselves puzzled and at a loss in almost every cranny of nature’s works; so that this, like a thousand other things, falls out for us in a way, which tho’ we cannot reason upon it, — yet we find the good of it, ay it please your reverences and your worships — and that’s enough for us.”