DUMBO

Directing: B-
Acting: C+
Writing: B-
Cinematography: B+
Editing: B
Special Effects: B

Trafficking in nostalgia is one thing, but how many people are even still around to feel nostalgic about the original Disney animated feature Dumbo, which came out seventy-eight years ago? Certainly there are some; even I, as a 42-year-old, watched that 1941 movie many times as a child. But was it my favorite? And now, consider people half my age now — themselves adults — and, more importantly, kids a quarter my age. They have no context for this as a longstanding intellectual property, and plenty will see the 2019 live-action Dumbo as their introduction to the character. What reason do they have to care? Not a whole lot, honestly.

And then we get to Tim Burton, the greatest director of the eighties and nineties, whose output in the 2000s was spotty at best, and who hasn’t given us a film even close to great since Sweeney Todd in 2007. That’s twelve years ago, if any of you are counting. Since then, he has phoned it in and cashed in with pretty much every project, even Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2016) only hinting at the great works of his past.

One might think Tim Burton a perfect choice to direct the live-action remake of Dumbo, which, the few people still familiar with it probably remember, had some pretty dark elements to it. And to be fair, some of the nods to the original film here work very well, not least of which is the circus bubbles show that harkens back to the “Pink Elephants On Parade” sequence.

That said, a peculiar element of this iteration of Dumbo is how, more often than not, the countless nods to the original in its first half rather drag it down rather than lift it up; and it’s the second half, with original concepts that expand on the story, that actually won me over. I’m not sure it won me over enough to make me say anyone should rush out to see this movie in the theatre, but it did win me over.

The sad thing is, Dumbo succeeds in large part in spite of itself. Because it’s got a lot dragging it down, not least of which is a first quarter or so that struggles to be even interesting, let alone genuinely compelling. And I sure hope the two kids who star in this movie never see this review, because I don’t particularly want to hurt their feelings, but frankly, as actors, they suck. In fairness to the kids, the responsibility here ultimately lies on the director, who really wanted totally wooden and emotionless delivery from them, I guess?

There is also the script, the dialogue itself, to consider. Once was a time Tim Burton worked with script writers who gave his movies an eminently quotable, dark wit — and Dumbo, which could have soared on such strengths, has no such wit. It’s also nice to see familiar Burtonian faces: Michael Keaton an Danny DeVito are both working with Burton here for the fourth time; Eva Green for the third. Clearly there is deep affection among actors for Tim Burton as a director, and vice versa. It’s too bad not one of the perormances in Dumbo stands out in any way.

It’s Dumbo himself who is the standout here, an endlessly adorable and stunningly rendered CGI baby elephant who can fly thanks to his oversized ears. But when it comes to the special effects, there remains something oddly static about the rest of the effects shots in this movie, which it has in common with all Burton films to come out in the digital age. This is a man who truly excelled back in the days of practical effects, but when digital effects exploded, his skill level did not quite blossom in the same way.

And it kind of pains me to say these things, as I said for years Tim Burton was my favorite director. Is he still? He remains the best of the eighties and nineties, and even today, in spite of his recent frequency of missteps, I will literally see anything with his name attached. That’s about loyalty more than quality, sadly.

There’s just so much unrealized potential here. From the beginning of Dumbo, Danny Elfman’s characteristically wonderful score brings high hopes. We see the circus train on its way around the American South, and the front of the engine car is rendered with a grinning grill that gives it a design element reminiscent of The Nightmare Before Christmas. That is where this potential begins and ends, as we spend about half an hour struggling to find one thing a character says interesting.

It must be reiterated, though: Dumbo himself lights up the screen, and even without any actual lines — unlike the animated feature, none of the animals talk — he proves to be by far the most adorable and expressive character. This even includes the usually very expressive Colin Farrell, as the injured WWI veteran father of the aforementioned children. Eventually there are sequences of Dumbo flying under the Big Top in circus performances, and these scenes are genuinely exciting. The problem is just how long it takes to get there.

More of this please. The rest of the movie is . . . blah.

More of this please. The rest of the movie is . . . blah.

Overall: B-

CAPTAIN MARVEL

Directing: B+
Acting: B
Writing: B
Cinematography: B
Editing: B+
Special Effects: B+

Original comic books are one thing — I can’t speak to those because I never read them. But in cinema, Captain Marvel is clearly Marvel’s answer to DC’s Wonder Womanand, honestly, the two films average out to being roughly equal quality. Where Wonder Woman faltered is in the areas where Captain Marvel excels, and vice versa. For instance: the opening sequence of Wonder Woman actually was wonderful, and made us all wish the entire story could have taken place on that island of Themyscira. Captain Marvel, on the other hand, is quite deliberately incomprehensible in its opening sequences, the puzzle pieces only coming together for the viewer at the same time they do for the title character.

But! Wonder Woman’s fatal flaw — and this is hardly specific to that movie; it’s a flaw of far too many superhero movies — is the so-called “climactic” battle between hero and villain causing untold collateral damage at the end. Humor, used consistently and effectively, is arguably Captain Marvel, and it very nearly turns that particular trope into a punch line.

Maybe it’s not fair to compare this to Wonder Woman so much, except for the unfortunate thing they both have in common that sets it apart from other films: not only is the superhero at its center a woman, but in both cases they were subject to ridiculously overt, sexist backlash. Well, I am happy to report that both movies are laughing all the way to the bank.

That said, Captain Marvel has less to say about so-called “girl power,” the character’s womanhood being comparatively incidental. Now, to be sure, there are feminist nods here and there: a brief scene in which some schmo on a motorcycle suggests our hero “give me a smile”; a supporting character bristling at being called “young lady”; the 90s-rock-heavy soundtrack featuring No Doubt’s “Just a Girl” during a pivotal fight scene. But nods is all they are, and they are seamlessly woven into the narrative.

Captain Marvel does have a bit of magic to it, in that it’s open to meaning whatever audiences want it to mean to them. Maybe I’m just a big softy, but I actually got slightly teary at a montage of Captain Marvel’s alter ego Carol Danvers (a well cast Brie Larson) getting up after being nearly defeated by challenges throughout her childhood and young adulthood. It was a rare moment for a superhero movie, in which it offers something truly inspiring. Few others outside of Wonder Woman or (the admittedly far superior) Black Panther have managed such a thing.

As for the actual story here — it’s . . . fine. There are no particularly huge faults within the context of what this movie is, but neither does it stand out from most vantage points. There is a fun bit of cleverness, with its setting in the mid-nineties, and thereby serving as a sort of prequel to everything we have seen so far in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. We get to find out how Nick Fury got that eye patch, for example.

Speaking of which, that brings us to the special effects, which are actually pretty impressive. Samuel L. Jackson and Clark Gregg are both digitally de-aged for this movie, and that particular effect is uncanny. Some have said too much so — getting into pseudo-creepy “uncanny valley” territory — but I kept paying close attention to Samuel L. Jackson’s face in particular, the texture of his skin and how it shone in different shades of life, and found myself consistently impressed. There are other moments when characters are clearly being animated by CGI, so the overall effects job is not exactly perfect. But it veers between serviceable to amazing at times.

The same goes for Goose the cat, by far my favorite character in this movie — in fact, I would say he’s worth the price of admission alone — given my doubts when I heard some shots of the animal are CGI and in some cases it’s even a “realistic” puppet cat. Well, guess what? I could not readily see when a puppet cat was being used. And when CGI is detectable, it’s understandable, and often in service of well-used humor. And just trust me on this one: that cat has brings some delightful surprises. Especially at the end of the credits.

Getting back to the Wonder Woman parallels, there is even one for the Robin Wright role: in this movie, the “mentor woman” role is filled by Annette Bening. She is always a delight to see, although she is given so little meat to chew on here that it’s clearly just a paycheck job for her. When it comes to true nuance in performance, that pretty much all falls to Larson, although a sliver of it also goes to another character with shifting position in her life, played by a buffed up Jude Law.

Fundamentally, as in all superhero moves, it’s all just completely ridiculous, and Captain Marvel could have gone for, but has only a fraction of the deliberate cultural import of Black Panther. We’re getting to a point where even the movies that five years ago would have truly stood out for their casting and storytelling choices, are now becoming routine and less exceptional. We shan’t forget Goose the cat, however! Captain Marvel would still have been fun without him, but nowhere near as much so.

Goose is  my  Captain Marvel!

Goose is my Captain Marvel!

Overall: B

FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD

Directing: B-
Acting: B+
Writing: B-
Cinematography: B+
Editing: B-
Special Effects: B

I’m of two minds about director David Yates’s sequel to 2016’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which was itself fun but inessential. The same could be said, really, of Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald — perhaps just slightly less fun, and perhaps barely more essential. That is, for die-hard fans of anything in the “Potterverse,” anyway.

And therein lies the rub: How many casual fans of the Harry Potter series will even care about this? After all, in terms of U.S. domestic box office, were we to fold Fantastic Beasts into Harry Potter as part of the same franchise, the original Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them would come in dead last. To be fair, a domestic haul of $234 million is still enviable in its own right. Still, if you compare that film’s $74 million opening weekend to The Crimes of Grindelwald earning $64 million, there is no denying this endless return to the “Wizarding World” universe is yielding diminishing returns.

And now, according to reports, Fantastic Beasts is intended to be a five-film series. If all of them are released a minimum of two years apart, that’s an additional decade of films set in the same universe as the Harry Potter series — which itself took 11 years to get through, in cinema form, at least. The Fantastic Beasts films, by contrast, are original scripts as opposed to literary adaptations, albeit still written by J.K Rowling.

It may be a fair question, though, to ask if Rowling is at least slightly losing her touch, given certain convictions from the Harry Potter productions now abandoned (I still find myself distracted by British actors playing American characters, after any American actors were strictly barred from being cast in Harry Potter films), or the more recent controversy regarding the casting of an Asian woman (Claudia Kim) as Nagini, the snake creature eventually loyal to Voldemort. As far as that is concerned, I suspect many people have jumped to judgment before seeing what nuance the film actually affords the character — but then, what do I know? I’m just a white guy — and I mean that with more sincerity than flippancy.

Beyond that, it must be said that, plot-wise, The Crimes of Grindelwald is a tad overstuffed. One could make the argument that it’s unfair to make definitive judgment of a single chapter before the entire story is completed, and we still have three left to go. That said, with five films in which to tell this story, why cram so much into this one? I found it difficult to follow at times, and, although this film does have plenty of its own fun magical “beasts” and referenced in the title, they are even less relevant to the overall plot — so far, at least — than they were in the first installment. At least Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them had several extended detours focused on said creatures. In this outing, that being the exact title of the book Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne, endlessly modest charm and charisma still intact) is working on, is never even mentioned.

Furthermore, action-packed though The Crimes of Grindelwald may be, once again being a casual observer of the “Wizarding World” is potentially to the audience’s detriment. Unlike the Harry Potter series, in which each story can stand alone if necessary, anyone watching The Crimes of Grindelwald without having seen its preceding installment is apt to get lost quickly. I got lost occasionally myself, and I literally watched the first film the very morning before seeing this one.

Yet, even though the casting of Johnny Depp as the title character seems a dubious choice at best, I absolutely would recommend The Crimes of Grindelwald to existing fans of this magical world. The production design details remain fantastic; the visual effects are up to standard, if far from cutting-edge; the characters are comfortably familiar. Speaking of the characters, this is one element of the script I will commend: some of them go in very different directions from what their arc in the first film may have suggested. After this many years, there is value in the ability to surprise — even if the characters themselves may disappoint. That is the nature of human imperfection, after all.

We do meet Dumbledore as a young man, at least, and Jude Law works well in the part. We meet him back in London, the exclusive setting of the previous film of 1920s New York City now giving way to several international locations — including even the French Ministry of Magic. It’s a nice broadening of scope to the story proceedings, if also allowing for a bit of an excess in complexity.

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald isn’t great, but for fans of the “Wizarding World,” it’s good enough. It’s . . . fine. It effortlessly holds your attention for well over two hours, and even if it fails to prove truly exceptional, it does leave you ready still for more. It’s like a cinema version of binge-watching a streaming television show: if the credits included a box you could click that said, “Watch next episode,” you’d still think to yourself, I still want to know what happens next! —*click*. One can only hope that, in the end, the inevitable road to Voldemort is more than just puzzle pieces clicking into place, and that the whole of this series proves better than the sum of its parts.

Newt Scamander and a surprisingly drab beast, reluctantly ready for their closeup.

Newt Scamander and a surprisingly drab beast, reluctantly ready for their closeup.

Overall: B