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Schultz reviews: “Dumbo" and "The Highwaymen"

Schultz reviews: “Dumbo" and "The Highwaymen"

Carl Schultz

 

“Dumbo” Distributed by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, 115 Minutes, Rated PG, Released March 29:

 

It was only a matter of time.

 

The Walt Disney organization in recent years has seemed preoccupied with producing live-action remakes of their animated classics, with variable results. So far, we’ve seen superb new live-action versions of 1950’s “Cinderella,” 1967’s “The Jungle Book,” and 1991’s “Beauty and the Beast” ... and not-so-wonderful live-action updates of 1959’s “Sleeping Beauty” and 1961’s “101 Dalmatians.”

 

Shading somewhere toward the upper extreme is the new “Dumbo,” released on March 29 and now playing in area theaters.

 

Usually considered to be one of Disney’s minor classics, and at 64 minutes one of the studio’s shortest animated features, 1941’s “Dumbo” was originally produced as an antidote for the studio’s recent losses at the time, incurred by the faltering box office receipts of its two latest features, 1940’s “Pinocchio” and “Fantasia.” Those pictures had failed at the box office due to the collapse of the European market for U.S.-produced motion pictures during the war.

 

The original “Dumbo” was of course the story of a baby circus elephant, Jumbo Junior. Ridiculed for his oversized ears and cruelly nicknamed Dumbo by the other circus animals, circumstances eventually reveal that the young pachyderm’s wing-like ears actually give him the ability to fly ... a capacity which causes a media sensation, boosts the animal’s failing confidence, and saves the failing circus.

 

Adapted by Ehren Kruger and set in 1919, in the new live-action version of the venerable fable Dumbo essentially becomes a supporting player in his own picture. Overlaid onto the plot of the original picture is a drama of a World War I veteran returning from wartime military service minus an arm. The veteran attempts to reconnect with his two young children following the death of their mother, who was swept away in his absence in the flu epidemic of 1918.

 

Offered a job as a roustabout during his recovery and re-assimilation with the traveling show, the returning soldier attempts to resume his relationship with his melancholy and remote children while also endeavoring to reclaim his status as the circus’ star horseback daredevil.

 

Simultaneously, the owner of the circus is approached by ruthless gazillionaire showman V.A. Vandevere with a business offer too good to refuse: Attracted by the failing circus’ sudden profits as a result of its flying elephant, Vandevere proposes to incorporate the circus — and the elephant — into his Disneyland-like amusement park Dreamland, using the flying elephant as little more than a stylized prop for his girlfriend, the star trapeze artist Colette. Naturally, Vandevere actually harbors intentions variously larcenous, lascivious and nefarious.

 

The new “Dumbo” benefits from the imaginative and evocative direction of Tim Burton. With his signature visual flair and superb storytelling skills, Burton perfectly captures the aura of mystery which seems to dwell beneath the Big Top — the scent of the peanuts and sawdust, the blend of sweet and sour, simultaneously seedy, seductive and sinister. Having begun his career as an animator with the studio and with a 2010 adaptation of the studio’s 1951 animated classic “Alice in Wonderland” already on his resume, the collaboration between Burton and Disney is seamless and natural.

 

The most memorable moments of the animated 1941 original are given their due, but relegated to background details: A live action Timothy Mouse has a wordless cameo, a flock of storks precede the baby elephant’s birth, and the emotionally wrenching “Baby Mine” is performed by circus musicians as Dumbo bids farewell to his mother. The familiar “Pink Elephants on Parade” are included in an especially inventive manner, while the racially-offensive ravens are thankfully omitted entirely.

 

Also adding to the fun is an all-star cast of veteran performers. As the veteran returning to the circus from wartime service, Colin Ferrell has fun seemingly channeling George W. Bush. Danny DeVito repeats his Louie DePalma characterization from television’s “Taxi” as Max Medici, the circus’ owner. And Alan Arkin puts in a thankless appearance toward the end as a banker deciding whether or not to provide additional financing for the show.

 

Only Michael Keaton seems strangely out-of-place as the villainous Vandevere, contributing the most unfocused characterization of his career: Alternately dramatic, comic and manic, occasionally sporting an accent of indeterminate origin, Keaton’s role seems to have been written for Christoph Waltz. “Dumbo” marks Keaton’s fourth collaboration with director Burton, after the classic 1988 supernatural farce “Beetlejuice” and the popular “Batman” pictures from 1989 and 1992.

 

The real revelation of “Dumbo” is the performance of Eva Green as Colette, the trapeze artist star of Dreamland and Vandevere’s arm candy. Known primarily for her appearances as a screen siren and femme fatale in the 2006 James Bond reboot “Casino Royale” and 2014’s “300: Rise of an Empire” and “Sin City: A Dame to Die For,” Green displays her familiar racoon-like mascara during her first scenes in “Dumbo.” But eventually the makeup comes off, and the actress begins to build instead a warm and wholesome characterization, revealing in the process a Disney heroine for the ages.

 

Filmed in England with a reported budget of $170 million and released to 4,259 theaters across the U.S. and Canada in both 3D and “flat” versions, “Dumbo” was projected to earn up to $65 million during its opening weekend. With final totals of only $45 million, the film has debuted at the top of the Box Office Mojo Top Ten, easily besting Jordan Peele’s hit horror picture “Us,” now in its second week of release. But so far, “Dumbo” is considered a box office disappointment for the Disney studios.

 

“Dumbo” is rated for scenes of action and peril, some thematic elements and brief mild language concerns.

 

“The Highwayman” Distributed by Netflix, 132 Minutes, Rated R, Streaming March 29:

 

Sometimes an anomaly will occur in history, and produce a fascinating result. 

 

It’s fun to think of a character or personality from one era inhabiting the time of another — that’s part of the reason novels like H.G. Well’s “The Time Machine” and Mark Twain’s “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” remain popular over a century after their original publication dates, and that the “Jurassic Park” movies are invariably blockbusters.

 

While time travel is still impossible and dinosaurs never existed in the same era as humans, there have been occasions when times have moved so quickly that some of the inhabitants of separate eras have encountered each other. Wyatt Earp acted as a referee for professional boxing matches late in his career, and Bat Masterson eventually became a sports columnist for the New York Morning Telegraph. And there was at least one occasion when gangsters from the Great Depression were hunted by lawmen from the Old West.

 

That story is told in “The Highwaymen,” the riveting new movie from Netflix. Written with intelligence and attention to detail by John Fusco and directed with a storyteller’s sensibilities by John Lee Hancock, “The Highwaymen” stars Kevin Costner as Frank Hamer, a legendary Texas lawman summoned out of a fitful retirement to hunt down the bank-robbing, murderous Barrow gang — Bonnie and Clyde.

 

The Great Depression of the 1930s was the era of the outlaw. The exploits of bank robbers such as John Dillinger, “Pretty Boy” Charles A. Floyd, and George “Baby Face” Nelson were reported breathlessly in lurid headlines of the nation’s newspapers, capturing the imagination of a population that had lost its trust in financial institutions and felt their country had deserted them. Considered by many to be the Robin Hoods of the time, the nation thrilled to the gangsters’ adventures, often cheering them on as folk heroes of the time.

 

The reality of Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker sharply contrasted their popular image. Often portrayed in the print media of the 1930s as stylish and attractive young lovers, hopelessly in love and romantically doomed, Bonnie and Clyde were the rock stars of their day. Described in “The Highwaymen” as “cold-blooded killers who are more adored than movie stars,” the two were actually kill-happy maniacs living in a fashion more appropriate to feral animals in heat.

 

Clyde Barrow in real life was a shiftless vagrant from the wrong side of the tracks who learned early in his life that stealing was infinitely more satisfying than working. Barrow found a perfect mate in Bonnie Parker. Attracted to bad boys, married at 16 to a career criminal she never quite got around to divorcing, Parker was smitten with Barrow at first sight, swept away by promises of an exciting life on the run. “Bonnie liked Clyde’s shiny new car,” one character observes, “and by the time she found out the car was stolen, she was already in love.”

 

Instead of a life of high fashion and excitement, Barrow and Parker mostly either camped in the woods or lived in stolen cars. They wore stolen clothes, ate stolen food, and bathed if at all in muddy streams. The couple usually travelled with two or three other small-time criminals at a tune — the cast of characters in the Barrow gang was fluid and variable, depending largely on which members were in prison or recovering from bullet wounds. Bonnie’s younger sister Billie rode with the gang for a while, and promptly infected several of its members with STD.

 

On one occasion when the gang scraped up enough money to rent an apartment for a week or two on the run, instead of laying low and avoiding attention they ended up annoying neighbors with loud drunken parties. When unknowing of their identity the law showed up to ask them to quiet down, the gang reflexively exploded into a melee of bloodshed and carnage. And the Barrow Gang did not hesitate to kill anyone who got in their way, civilian or lawman. By the time of his death, Clyde Barrow had murdered nine police officers.

 

Sent to hunt them, the former Texas Ranger Frank Hamer was a walking contradiction. A large man with an ample girth, indifferent to posture and prone to slouching and leaning against doorways, Hamer moved easily and with surprising grace. Speaking softly, slowly and deliberately, Hamer had undeniable presence and unquestionable authority — people knew when he was present in a room and listened to what he said. 

 

A relentless hunter of men, Hamer thought of criminals in terms of the animals he’d hunted as a child in the prairies of Texas; he likened the Barrow gang to wild coyotes. And like a bloodhound, Hamer had a reputation for running his quarry to ground. Tireless and methodical, Hamer tracked men with a sort of controlled mayhem, was a crack shot and shot to kill. And he always got his man.

 

Retired from the Texas Rangers by a governor who’d dissolved the law enforcement division as obsolete, Hamer was persuaded to accept an assignment to hunt down the Barrow Gang. Commissioned as an officer of the Texas Highway Patrol by the reluctant governor (“Why don’t we just dig up Wyatt Earp?” she asks early in the picture), Hamer often operated in tandem with less-seasoned agents of the spanking-new Federal Bureau of Investigation.

 

At some point the tacit understanding became that Barrow and Parker wouldn’t be taken alive. The mission wasn’t so much to capture Bonnie and Clyde as it was to hunt down and exterminate them. That’s why they called Frank Hamer.

 

As Hamer, Kevin Costner creates not so much a career valedictory as a recap of previous characterizations, a natural bookend to his portrayal of U.S. Treasury Agent Eliot Ness in 1987’s “The Untouchables” blended with Charley Waite in 2003’s “Open Range” and the laconic idealism of John Dunbar from 1990’s iconic “Dances With Wolves.” Noted for his skills as a director and producer but usually patronized as a performer, “The Highwaymen” reminds us how sublime an actor Costner really is. The actor even manages to resemble the real Hamer.

 

Recruited by Hamer as his partner in the manhunt is Maney Gault, played by Woody Harrelson. Like Hamer, Gault’s been involuntarily retired, but less easily and less comfortably: Forced by the economics of the Depression to live with a working daughter in her modest home threatened with foreclosure, responsible for cooking breakfast and getting his grandchild off to school. Perceiving an opportunity to escape back into law enforcement, Gault instinctively knows why Hamer’s there, asking “Does your visit have anything to do with that jackass and his girlfriend?”

 

Filmed primarily on the locations where the actual events occurred and once intended as a project for Paul Newman and Robert Redford as a follow-up to their classic pictures “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” in 1969 and “The Sting” in 1973,“The Highwaymen” is not a perfect picture. There are narrative lapses, and some events are telescoped as a means of condensing the story. This is a tale which might’ve been better told in a more leisurely medium — a television miniseries, perhaps, or even a season’s worth of episodes of HBO’s “True Detective.”

 

But as a whole, “The Highwaymen” is worthwhile viewing, a blend of history and drama, consistent in tone from beginning to end, richly textured, informative and fascinating. This is one movie you might even want to watch twice.

 

Frank Hamer was portrayed by character actor Denver Pyle in the 1967 film classic “Bonnie & Clyde,” which depicted the lawman as a glory-seeking backwoods bumpkin driven to vengeance by an act of humiliation at the hands of Parker. As a result the characterization, distributor Warner Bros. Pictures was sued by Hamer’s widow for defamation of character. She received an out-of-court settlement rumored to run into six figures. Hamer was also portrayed by character actor Douglas Kennedy in 1958’s “The Bonnie Parker Story.” 

 

Woody Harrelson’s character in “The Highwaymen” is a composite of two historical figures. Benjamin Maney Gault was an actual law enforcement officer employed at the time as an officer of the Texas Highway Patrol and known to Hamer from their service together in the Ranger Company. But Gault joined Hamer’s hunt for the Barrow Gang relatively late, just before the pursuit moved from Texas to Louisiana.

 

Harrelson’s character is based equally on Bob Alcorn, a deputy sheriff in Dallas assigned to Hamer by his chief. A highly-experiences lawman, Alcorn accompanied Hamer throughout his pursuit of Barrow and Parker. He was the one participant in the manhunt who had actually knew Bonnie Parker prior to her career as a criminal, while she was employed as a waitress in a cafe near the Dallas courthouse. Alcorn had also once arrested Barrow for a minor offense early in his career. Both Gault and Alcorn were present during the final confrontation with the two criminals.

 

“The Highwaymen” is rated R for strong violence, language and bloody images.

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