Dumbo

Dumbo poster

Where’s the magic? Where’s the delight? Where’s the fun? It’s not here.

Tim Burton’s live action remake of Disney’s 1941 animated film Dumbo is lacking in the qualities that have made Disney films special. Burton’s Dumbo is just okay, not special.

Yes, the CGI version of the baby elephant with big ears looks real. When he flies, the depiction looks good. The technical aspects of Dumbo are solid.

Yes, the cast is star-studded. Max Medici (Danny Devito) is the owner of a struggling circus that plays small towns a century ago. Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) is the circus performer returning from WWI minus a left arm. V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton) is the Barnum-like showman who brings Medici’s circus to New York. Colette (Eva Green) is Vandevere’s girlfriend and star acrobat.

Yes, there are cute kids. Nico Parker is a charmer as Millie Farrier, Holt’s daughter. Son Joe Farrier is played by Finley Hobbins. (Mrs. Farrier is deceased—yet another Disney dead mom!)

Yes, there is a message about turning a perceived handicap into an advantage: Dumbo’s deformity gives him the ability to fly.

Yes, there is spectacle. The Medici circus, with its variegated cast of performers (animal and human), works hard to entertain in its tent and on the midway. When Dumbo’s extraordinary talent is revealed, the circus goes big time to Dreamland, a giant amusement area like Coney Island.

Yes, all the pieces are there. And yet, something’s missing. As one who grew up with Disney films and TV shows, I recall being emotionally invested in so many of their stories and characters. It didn’t happen for me with this newest version of Dumbo.

Interestingly, in the film’s production notes there is a quote from director Tim Burton in which he admits that as a kid he did not like the circus. To his credit, Burton’s Dumbo is not as gratuitously weird as his films sometimes are.

With live action versions of Aladdin (May 24) and The Lion King (July 19) in the pipeline, one can only wonder if they will recapture the Disney magic that the animated versions from the early 90s had.

 

 

 

 

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Saving Mr. Banks

How could Saving Mr. Banks be anything but a home run? The story of a beloved movie musical, featuring a beloved actor portraying a beloved entertainment icon would appear to be a slam dunk, no? Oh, and most of the movie is set in a place that almost all Americans of a certain age have visited or fantasized about visiting.

Sorry to report that Saving Mr. Banks is not a good as one might have expected. The making of Mary Poppins with Tom Hanks as Walt Disney, set at Disneyland is a tedious story that could have benefited from a more streamlined script. The movie brings some big fun but also is overloaded with the dour disposition of author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson). Walt’s best efforts to charm Travers into letting him make Mary Poppins into a Disney movie are met with strong opposition.

A movie that initially promises light-hearted fun adds in an overly long backstory that reveals why Travers is the way she is. Not that the fun stuff isn’t fun—much of it is. The songwriters Richard and Robert Sherman (Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak) provide many of the film’s highlights. Travers seems to be slowly warming to the efforts of everybody on the Disney team, including her driver Ralph (Paul Giamatti), only to bolt back to London without agreeing to sell the rights to her beloved book Mary Poppins.

The back story, featuring Colin Farrell as her alcoholic father, is set in century-ago Australia. The flashbacks show us the real life inspiration for Mary Poppins, amid circumstances that are definitely not light-hearted.

Eventually, Disney travels to London in a final effort to close the deal. In the climax of Saving Mr. Banks, Disney tries to relate to Travers on a more personal basis. It’s a touching scene and audience tears will be shed.

We know going in, of course, that the film Mary Poppins was made. It was made the way Walt and his team wanted it made. Saving Mr. Banks serves as an excellent promotional tool for the 50th anniversary of Mary Poppins. SMB adds to the legend of Walt Disney and is likely to increase awareness of Walt among younger generations. (There’s plenty of longtime love for the man among boomers.)

Saving Mr. Banks will likely earn Emma Thompson a best actress nomination. She’s great in a mostly unsympathetic role. And, because the industry loves movies about movies, don’t be surprised to see SMB get a best picture nod. Just don’t go to your theater expecting movie magic. It’s a solid film, but it could’ve been much better.

Seven Psychopaths

Among a strong cast, Sam Rockwell is a standout in “Seven Psychopaths.” It’s not that the performances from Christopher Walken, Woody Harrelson and Colin Farrell were lacking. They’re all good, but Rockwell’s character has the most to work with.

“Seven Psychopaths” is an ultraviolent comedy. As with “Pulp Fiction” and similar films, the audience goes from repulsion to chuckles (or vice versa) in seconds. Some of its elements are serious. We see innocent people meet violent ends. But soon after, absurd events or remarks bring us right back to the funny.

Farrell plays an alcoholic screenwriter in L.A. who has an idea for a movie called “Seven Psychopaths,” but just can’t get started. Walken and Rockwell are dog kidnappers who then respond to “lost dog” postings to collect rewards. Harrelson is a hood whose Shih Tzu, Bonny, is taken.

Walken and Rockwell provide Farrell with ideas for the movie’s plot—the one he’s writing, that is. Some of the elements discussed for that screenplay do turn up in the movie we’re watching. The trio takes refuge in the desert after Rockwell kills his girlfriend (who is also Woody’s girlfriend). Woody, meanwhile, wants his dog back.

Among the supporting cast is Tom Waits as a psychopath who shares his personal story with Farrell about the killing he’s done. Gabourey “Precious” Sidibe appears briefly as Woody’s careless dog walker.

“Seven Psychopaths” benefits from the strong quartet of leads, each of whom has been in absurd comedies before. Each man has a commanding screen presence and, as a group, they help the movie over a bumpy section or two.

Worth noting are a couple of fantasy sequences (involving a graveyard shootout and a Vietnamese holy man) that add compelling action.

Writer/director Martin MacDonagh (who also wrote and directed “In Bruges” in ’08) has put together an totally entertaining movie. Its violence makes it off-limits for the squeamish, but for the rest of us, it’s fun.

 

 

 

 

Total Recall

Now THIS is an action movie!

“Total Recall” gets set and then goes. And once it launches, it maintains a breakneck pace with just a few interludes of calm.

Set a hundred or so years from now, “Total Recall,”  presents a world devastated by war. Human life exists only in the United Federation of Britain in Europe and The Colony (Australia).

Colin Farrell is a worker who commutes each day from The Colony to UFB via a speedy underground bullet train called The Fall. He works a dreary job making robot cops. On a night when he’s restless, he takes a walk on the wild side. He turns down a come-on from a hooker with three boobs—no, she really has three boobs—and goes to a business called Rekall to have new memories implanted. That’s when all hell breaks loose.

Farrell’s character is revealed to have had another identity and another life, which he doesn’t quite recall, even with prompts and holograms along the way. The film is essentially a long—but thrilling—chase sequence, leading up to an explosive climax.

Kate Beckinsale and Jessica Biel provide more punch than eye candy in this movie. Kate plays Farrell’s wife who turns against him and Biel is his new/old ally in his escape from/return to his past. You want a cat fight between the two? You got it. It’s a good one.

The hundred-years-from-now land (and water) scapes of the UFB and The Colony may be the best since “Bladerunner’s” vision of a future Los Angeles. The buildings, the infrastructures and the teeming masses of humans offer a compelling guess at a future (not unlike in “Bladerunner”) with a huge Asian influence.

“Total Recall” features another glimpse of what our future may hold: phones physically embedded in Farrell’s and Beckinsale’s hands.

If you’re wondering why the 1990 version needed a remake, go see this one and compare. Also consider that anyone born in 1990 turns 22 this year and is right there in the film’s target demo. Despite the new film’s violence (and the quick flash of the three boobs), the film is rated PG-13. (The 1990 version was rated “R,” by the way.)

If you enjoy a good futuristic action flick, add “Total Recall” to your “must-see” list.