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Film reviews: Dumbo

Tusk-master: Danny DeVito’s circus ringmaster has his eyes on Dumbo

THE BIG RELEASE

Dumbo

(PG) ★★★✩✩

AS patron saint of outsiders, director Tim Burton (Edward Scissorhands, Charlie And The Chocolate Factory) seems the perfect match for Dumbo, the tale of a big-eyed baby elephant mocked for his freakishly big ears. But though this is arguably Burton’s best film in years (not a tough task), his fans may feel this live-action Disney remake just isn’t Tim Burton-y enough.

Unlike the original 1941 cartoon, there are no songs or talking animals. Instead, we enter the tale from the human perspective, with two circus children (Finley Hobbins and Thandie Newton’s daughter, Nico Parker) welcoming their now one-armed daddy, Holt (Colin Farrell), back from the war.

Once a star rider, Holt is reduced to mucking out the elephants by the circus ringmaster (serial Burton collaborator Danny DeVito). However, when his children teach baby Dumbo to fly, their act catches the attention of a flamboyant theme park owner (Michael Keaton, masticating on the scenery) and the circus troupe’s scrappy fortunes seem to be finally looking up — or are they?

Given the original, at just 64 minutes, is one of Disney’s shortest features, you can forgive the makers here for padding out the story. However, the extra material feels sketchy, as does the human characterisation — even if the assorted cast, which also includes My Mad Fat Diary’s Sharon Rooney (lovely as a gentle circus mermaid) and Eva Green as the show girl/love interest, do their best to keep you engaged. And while the production design is lavish, the overall look is dulled, boasting neither Tim Burton’s trademark gothic exuberance nor Disney’s magical, multicoloured bounce.

That said, even if the script can’t really decide what it’s about — animal rights? Maternal bonding? Anti-corporate greed? — emotionally it’s guaranteed to punch your ‘weep’ buttons. Indeed, it’s perhaps the most traumatic Mother’s Day release of all time. It’s also worth hanging in there for the spectacular big-top set pieces: it’s here that this movie, like Dumbo himself, truly soars. Larushka Ivan-Zadeh

THE VERDICT

Expensive, non-essential Disney remake saved by a very cute little CGI elephant

Out of blue

(15) ★★✩✩✩

‘Ambitious’ is often critic speak for a movie that’s interesting, challenging and borderline unwatchable. Thus ‘ambitious’ is the kindest way to describe this latest boundary-pushing work from Carol Morley (Dreams Of A Life, The Falling). One of the most intriguing British directors working today, Morley here courageously steps outside her comfort zone to shoot an atmospherically styled kind-of-Nicolas Roeg-influenced CSI whodunnit set in New Orleans.

Loosely based on the Martin Amis novel, Night Train, it’s an intentionally (one assumes) stilted tale that blends astrophysics and serial killers — or would do if it gelled. Perhaps it’s just ahead of its time…

Still, Patricia Clarkson puts in a commanding lead turn as an enigmatic, ex-alcoholic cop called Mike, with guaranteed excellent support from Toby Jones and Meryl Streep’s daughter, Mamie Gummer.

And if you ever puzzled over the quantum paradox of Schrödinger’s cat (nope, me neither), you’ll find it extensively explained.

At Eternity’s Gate

(12) ★★★★✩

Willem Dafoe’s Best Actor Oscar-nominated turn as Vincent van Gogh is not, it turns out, the only reason to catch this adulatory, wildly expressionistic biopic. The action focuses on the last years of Van Gogh’s life when, as a penniless artist, he was urged to ‘go south’ to France by fellow post-impressionist Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac in a big hat and goatee) to paint the sunlight. Here he went in and out of insane asylums until his early death, aged only 37, in Auvers-sur-Oise.

Though 62 when he shot this, Dafoe channels Van Gogh so indelibly that it’s a shock to look back at the real self-portraits and not see Dafoe’s face there.

The film won’t have just have you hanging about for the bits where Vince goes ‘ooh, nice sunflowers!’, then cuts off his ear, either. Rather than retell a familiar story, painter/director Julian Schnabel vividly plunges us behind Van Gogh’s eyes — a trick he similarly pulled off with his 2007 Oscar-nominated biopic The Diving Bell And The Butterfly.

The film’s dialogue might come across as clumsy but Schnabel’s woozy, bobbing camera is so captivatingly feverish it even seems to breathe. Catch it on a big screen and prepare to swoon.