Michael Keaton, Eva Green, Colin Farrell, Danny De Vito, Nico Parker
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…a cautionary tale of what happens when monopolistic capitalism goes unchecked and who suffers as a result.
With Disney well and truly in their postmodern era, bringing back just about every one of their animated classics to be remade in varying forms of live-action over the last several years, their latest ostensibly should serve as just the latest in a recent trend. Take something about the original, whether it’s the characters, where the narrative is focused, or even just translating the original directly, and re-examine it with a fresh perspective; it started with Burton’s own Alice In Wonderland and it persists to this day. However, this film serves as a different kind of examination; not of narrative or character, but of the company that brought them to life.
Director Tim Burton has made an entire career out of telling the stories of talented outsiders being exploited, so to find him at the helm here is very on-brand. And sure enough, he and DOP Ben Davis (Guardians Of The Galaxy, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Captain Marvel) bring a sense of Disney wonder and grandeur to the classic story of a flying circus elephant. The CGI work is about on par with Wonderland, in that it is quite iffy in places, but they at least do the title character justice by maintaining the inescapable cuteness that is Dumbo.
Not that Dumbo really ends up being the character to focus on here. Nor is it Colin Farrell’s war veteran or his wonkily-performing children (Nico Parker as his daughter is way too stiff to be given this much dialogue). Instead, it’s the villain, Michael Keaton’s V.A. Vandevere, who ends up drawing the most attention.
He is shown as an entrepreneur and showman who buys out the circus owned by Danny De Vito’s Max Medici (it’s like the Batman Returns reunion we never realised we needed), absorbing the company and its properties into a larger fold, which includes a gigantic theme park where “the impossible is possible”. He is also presented as someone whose want for power grows so disastrously that he ends up destroying everything he set out to build. It’s difficult to look at this and not think of how this reflects on Disney as a company, given their own practices along with their recent acquisition of Fox.
Burton and an uncharacteristically subtle script by Transformers scribe Ehren Kruger, essentially create art from dissent behind the main lines, showing a cautionary tale of what happens when monopolistic capitalism goes unchecked and who suffers as a result. It furthers Burton’s oeuvre by going beyond who is being exploited, namely Dumbo and the other circus ‘freaks’, and dives right into who’s doing it. It’s still wondrous, but it’s a wondrousness that is tempered by who is presenting the performance both in and out of the universe.
Whether this falls under critique, irony, or just plain hypocrisy remains to be seen, but with the current cultural climate, it still shows a commendable amount of brass in everyone involved to take aim at a target this massive, and under their own banner at that.