Very rarely do I cry at the movies. But I do. I still do.
The first animated film that made me cry was Dumbo (1940), which I saw at a re-release around 1967 with my parents and brother and sister, and then of course years later on the Walt Disney Show. Filled with colour, spectacle and wonderful characters, it all goes terribly wrong when the little elephant’s mother is deemed crazy and locked away from the others. Dumbo is taken to her by his friend the mouse, and the exchange between them is heartbreaking. He touches her trunk and then fiercely grabs on for dear life as she strokes him and swings him lovingly, her trunk a swing for the little elephant. On the score is “Baby Mine” which only made the heartache that much more powerful. I watched it again before seeing the new live action version, and damned if a tear or three did not gather in my eye.
Four years ago I watched the movie with my then-girlfriend’s two-year old little boy, Ethan. We got up early, he and I, and he loved trains, so of course he wanted Dumbo on. We watched and he curled his little body into me as we settled back, me with coffee, he with water. The scene with little Dumbo and his mother came up and I could sense a change in him. He looked up at me with tears running down his cheeks and curled into me for a tight hug. I told him everything would be ok and he settled back down for the movie, but it reminded me how powerful cinema can be for young and old. I really miss that little guy. It was one of those magical moments that Disney has been known to provide.
When I heard Disney was remaking their animated classics as live action, I was not surprised – greed governs that studio, it always has. But never would they match the power of that scene in Dumbo, they simply could not.
There are several of these Disney remakes coming this year, among them Aladdin, and The Lion King, and the sequel to Maleficent, based on their Sleeping Beauty film. Next year brings more. The greed that runs Disney sickens me, but at the end of the day all I care about is the film. I did not care for their live action film Alice in Wonderland (2010), but did admire Cinderella (2015) and even more The Jungle Book (2017), and yes, Beauty and the Beast (2017) was very good, but with this one they have outdone themselves. Dumbo is exquisite.
To quote an old 70s movie ad (sort of) you will believe an elephant can fly.
Directed by Tim Burton, it is the best of these live action remakes and Burton’s best film in years; since Sweeney Todd (2007), really. After his fiasco with Alice in Wonderland, I was surprised to see him interested in directing another Disney animated to live action film. Often when a filmmaker fails, critics forget that he ever had a success, and Burton certainly had successes, being among the most imaginative directors of his generation. He was a perfect choice for Dumbo because he brings the gentle pathos of his previous films (think Edward Scissorhands (1990) ) to the picture, not overdoing it as animation can, but keeping it real, keeping it in perfect check. A gifted visual filmmaker, Burton is at his best here, creating an incredible fantasy world with just enough reality to keep us grounded.
When a baby elephant with massive ears is born, the owner of a run down, struggling circus, Max Medici (Danny De Vito) hires a father, Holt (Colin Farrell), recently widowed and his two kids Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins) to care for the adorable little pachyderm. His oversized ears make him a freak among the circus folks – the strong man, the mermaid, the acrobat, and the snake charmer, many of them outcasts from society too. Dumbo bonds with the motherless children when his own loving mother is sold off, causing each of their hearts to quietly break. Burton does a magnificent job bringing out the pathos in the story.
Through a silly accident, it is discovered the little elephant can fly, which brings audiences where there were none, a buyer to their door, and a huge boost of energy to the film.
Michael Keaton is superb as VA Vandevere, owner of a much larger circus, and he wants Dumbo. Brash, his eyes glowing when he sees the little creature in the air, Vandevere sees money; more than anything he believes Dumbo will bring money, kind of like Disney executives. Oops, did I really write that?
Everything revolves around the little CGI elephant, so it is surprising he actually has very little screen time. But Tim Burton is too smart to let the movie fall apart due to mere screen time.
Visually the film is a wonder, typical Burton, bringing a Gatsby-like atmosphere to the big city circus, a Mecca of Delights for these new circus folk who are used to much smaller budgets.
The performances are a mixed bag, but Keaton is a bolt of lightning throughout, dominating every scene he is in. It reminded me of the first time I saw Keaton in a film, Night Shift (1982). He steals the film with a brilliant performance.
Colin Farrell is good, but not really memorable, a sad surprise because I am a fan of the actor. The actors who play his children do fine work. Nico Parker is particularly strong as Milly, her scenes with Dumbo hit all the right emotional notes.
De Vito is perfect as the arrogant, crusty owner, stunned when he sees Dumbo in flight, his eyes wide like those of a child.
Gone from the animated film, mercifully, are the crows, and Timothy Q. Mouse, who in the cartoon was the conscience of the baby elephant as Jiminy Cricket was to Pinocchio (1941).
The pink elephant hallucination scene is intact and feels like an LSD trip, however G-rated, and that heartbreaking scene mentioned earlier? There, and beautifully done.
Dumbo drew some tears from me, and took my breath away a few times. And for a few moments, I believed an elephant could fly.
Let me be clear – I did not understand nor support the love in for Jordan Peele’s film Get Out (2017), the darling of the Oscars two years ago. I felt the film had its moments, was well acted, and was creepy, but one of the year’s best films? Nope, not even close. So I waited anxiously for his follow up film, to see if he is the real deal, and finally, here it is.
And yes, he is the real deal.
Us is a solid horror film, using the home invasion by doppelgängers to push its narrative, but not just any home invasion, this one is genuinely horrifying.
In what could be an extended Twilight Zone episode, the director plunges his characters and audience into a world that is a nightmare come to life..
Thirty years ago, in 1986, young Adelaide (Lupita Nyyong’o) has an encounter with something strange in a hall of mirrors in an amusement park in Santa Cruz. She buries the incident deep in her subconscious, only to have it roar back to her 30 years later. She and her family, husband Gave (Winston Duke) and two well-adjusted kids, Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex) head back to Santa Cruz for a vacation, and while there seem to wake long festering demons.
Back at home one night they look out their window and announce, “There’s a family in our driveway,” and sure enough there is, dressed identically in red, messy and unkempt. The strange family makes its way into the home, where it is discovered they look exactly like Adelaide and her family, though only the woman speaks, in halting, gritty tones as though she had just recently learned to speak.
What do they want? How will they get it? Can Adelaide and her family fight back? With horror they realize, “they are us.”
Peele is very good at bringing social commentary into his work, as he did with race relations in Get Out. Here it is very different, because the family is forced to look at itself, to look at each other and say to themselves, “the trouble is us.” In society we spend so much time laying blame, demonizing others, attacking people for their race, that we spend little time looking at the source of our problems, looking at ourselves in the mirror. The film poses the following notion: if there are two of me existing in a single universe, as polar opposites, what would happen if we came face to face with each other? Would the good win out? Or would the streetwise evil of the bad take control?
It makes for some horrifying sequences in the film.
What I liked was that the normal positions of family were turned upside down, with the husband unable to be the protector and the daughter being the one who challenges the doppelgängers best.
Peele has created one of the more beautiful horrors in recent memory, with some stunning shots that are utterly breathtaking. Not since The Shining (1980) has a horror looked so gorgeous.
Nyong’s has not done much since her Oscar win for Best Supporting Actress in 12 Years a Slave (2013), but she makes up for that time away from the screen here with a superb performance. Portraying Adelaide the good, she is fierce yet terrified, watching her family being torn apart by itself. It’s acting as her own double where she truly excels; dead eyes, a gritty ugly voice and pure menace in each movement and glare. How can someone so tiny be so frightening? Though very early in the year, I am hoping the actress earns some attention come Oscar time. She brings genuine presence to both characters, something the film would be less without.
WInston Duke brings some interesting comic relief as her husband, while the great Elisabeth Moss is outstanding as her neighbour and friend.
Miss Joseph is excellent as the fearless daughter, more than wiling to stand up to the doubles and fight for her family. It is a fine, confident performance from a young lady I expect to see much more of in the future.
Peele has had an interesting career, moving easily from comedian to Academy Award nominated director and Oscar winning writer, and now seems in pace to be this generation’s voice of horror, though I think that is far too limiting for him. My belief is that this young man has a masterpiece of three in him and he is just getting started.
Unsettling, deeply trouble, frightening, yet beautiful, Us is a magnificent achievement.