I have always been more tolerated than celebrated.
I've always been a bit of an outcast, an oddster really.
It has been true since childhood, really, from the early days of middle school when Valerie, one of my rare true friends, pronounced me to be "Dumbo," not because of anything resembling big ears but simply because she'd identified all of her friends by their Disney soul mate and she'd decided that I was both physically different and had the potential to soar.
It was a compliment. I think.
Valerie and I are still friends, her daughter Victoria now my Godchild and my life stuck somewhere between physical oddity and semi-accomplished.
The truth is I never had many friends growing up. As a paraplegic growing up with spina bifida, I spent far too much time in the local county hospital to really have a hope of forming lasting friendships.
I was an oddity. Everyone knew that I was an oddity. The only person who showed semi-interest, Jeff, ended up raping me upstairs while his adoptive parents played strip poker downstairs. He knew that he could do anything he wanted, my abundance of surgical scars practically guaranteeing to hide any additional masterwork he might do.
So, he did.
I've turned out alright, I suppose. I exist, for the most part happily, somewhere between Mister Rogers and Dr. Frank-N-Furter, a genderqueer experiment with social skills having gone awry yet an essential goodness that seems to keep more people around than I really deserve.
This is a really bizarre intro, I suppose, to my review of Tim Burton's best film in years, the live-action remake of Disney's 1941 cinematic classic that was made to recoup the studio's losses from the loftier ambitions and failed box-office of Fantasia.
Dumbo isn't a masterpiece. It will be unlikely to ever show up on any of Burton's "best of" lists, though it's decidedly bolder and more visionary than anything the director has made in recent years. It's both Burtonesque and Disney woven into the cinematic fabric of the same film, unquestionably taking liberties with its source material yet maintaining a sense of faithfulness to the darker underpinnings of the Dumbo story that have always existed.
The original film was only 64 minutes in length, while Burton's Dumbo comes in at nearly two hours as he fleshes out a story, courtesy of producer and scribe Ehren Kruger (The Brothers Grimm, three of the Transformers films), that adds depth and meaning yet doesn't always quite satisfy and is unlikely to satisfy both Dumbo and Disney purists.
If you're anything resembling an oddity yourself, you've likely already figured out that a Dumbo/Burton pairing is absolutely inspired, Burton's long-standing embrace of those oft-exploited by a misunderstanding society a natural voice to tell the tale of the good-hearted, adorable elephant with flapping ears who is, indeed, exploited and abused and often far from embraced for his uniqueness.
The cruelty that is far more present and vivid in Burton's remake was unquestionably present in the 1941 original, though perhaps glossed over by the Disney touch. Those of us who've known it certainly have always recognized it. Those of us who recognize it will marvel, as I did, at Burton's ability to capture both that darkness and the wonder that shines through anyway. Burton's remake sheds the story of Timothy Q. Mouse, expands the humanity around Dumbo, and, considering the vast changing of the times, wisely unburdens the story with those pesky crows.
It should be noted that while Burton's Dumbo is a darker tale with more of the story's inherent cruelty to be found, it's still a PG-rated film and remains quite friendly to both children and adults and Disney's warm, gooey center is ever present. Burton may very well recognize and embrace the darkness of humanity, but he's never failed to deliver on the essential heart and humor of even his darkest characters.
If there's a major disappoint to be found here, it's that Colin Farrell's wounded war vet Holt Farrier is almost criminally underdeveloped. While Farrell's work here is perfectly fine, admirable even, Kruger's script fails to give the character his due and woefully unexplores Farrier's physical otherness that likely leads him to identify so strongly with Dumbo.
Fortunately, the film's other players fare much better.
Danny DeVito's Max Medici is DeVito's best role in years, perfectly capturing the actor's own physical uniqueness yet celebrating it vibrantly and passionately. Medici's struggling circus is where the young Dumbo is born, the now one-armed Farrier tasked with caring for the baby elephant along with his kids, Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins). Eventually, of course, we learn that Dumbo can fly and, as one might expect, quickly becomes a circus sensation which is where Michael Keaton's weirdly enticing V.A. Vandevere swoops in with a plan to buy the Medici Circus and add it to his Burtonesque fantasyland known as Dreamland.
The reuniting of DeVito and Keaton, who co-starred in Batman Returns, is absolutely inspired as even the haters haven't possibly forgotten that oddball coupling and it's magnified here with Keaton's icy coiffed Frozen leftover and his manic magnetism that draws you in and makes you want to buy a used car from him or at least sell him your circus.
Eva Green, as the trapeze artist Colette, suffers a fate similar to that of Farrell. Colette is simply too underdeveloped to matter, though Green certainly gives it a good go.
Dumbo himself is impossibly adorable, those goth-inspired eyes distracting only momentarily until you surrender yourself to the awesomeness of his being and the wonder his having both a spirit and a body that soars, at times tragically and at times with overwhelming wonder and magic.
I've long ago stated that Danny Elfman should just take up permanent residency with Disney as their composer extraordinaire and, indeed, he's worked his magic once again here with an original score that plummets the depths of emotion and soars throughout the universe. Ben Davis's lensing serves up a visual feast, while Rick Heinrichs's production design segues from a sort of purple-hazed, muted world into an off-kilter retro-styled design that hints at the futuristic world of Vandevere's Dreamland. While Dumbo has, indeed, let go of some of the original's music stylings, a version of "Baby Mine" by Arcade Fire that plays over the closing credits swoons with quiet majesty and simplicity.
Dumbo is destined to be yet another Burton creation both loved and hated with equal passion and enthusiasm. My gut feeling, though, is that those who truly identify with the darker, more richly human elements that have always been contained within the story will embrace Burton's ability to capture it all without losing the magic and the wonder. Dumbo isn't perfect, but I'm better for having seen it.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic