The latest of Disney’s CGI-driven remakes of its classic hand-drawn films, Dumbo features a rather cute elephant with too little screen time and two abysmal child actors with far too much. Tim Burton is on paper the ideal director to mine the circus setting for visual and situational surreality, splendour, and threat, and to a degree he does, but in comparison to the work that gave him his signature – Beetlejuice, the Batman films and Edward Scissorhands – Dumbo is milquetoast to say the least. It’s a film of rote sentimentality and far too little humour, clumsily treading that weird Disney line of plagiarising its own classics in the name of reimagining them, and despite a flourish here and there, and the best efforts of Michael Keaton and Danny DeVito to inject their scenes with life – and the considerable cuteness of the cute little cute elephant – its emotional sterility and lack of imagination are summed up in the way it concludes by setting Keaton’s mad futuristic circus entirely ablaze, a pointless climax, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
But the elephant is quite cute.
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The Robocop remake is a mixed bag. I think Joel Kinnaman is a brand new star. In the original, Paul Weller seemed a little robotic and inhuman even before he became a cyborg. Here, Kinneman runs the whole gamut from romantic longing to mechanical catatonia but lets the audience into every aspect of it. The rest of the cast is a treat too. I’ve not seen Michael Keaton better since Beetlejuice. He’s lithe, charismatic and oozes the kind of menacing and sleazy charm that can bribe politicians with one hand and pick your pocket with the other. He’s like a Mafia Don of robocops but one who’ll bring out the jazz hands if needed to seal the sale. His scenes with Gary Oldman — as a scientist emollient to the point of weakness and ambitious past the point of ethics — have a real snap.
Samuel L. Jackson, hair high, almost but not quite straightened and set with enough hairspray to stop any onslaught is a delight as a manipulative Fox-style news presenter: reasonable in a speaking-from-the-pulpit kind of way when setting out a case, impatient when he’s not, and bombastic when speaking directly to the audience. It was lovely to see Jennifer Ehle as well wearing clothes as dark as her morals and with elegant features arranged into a poker face until called to action. I also liked Abbie Cornish as Murphy’s wife though the spectre of Nancy Allen – curvy, saucy, crisp and acid – like biting into a tart apple — is bound to haunt anything ever connected with her.
The film is set in 2028; in a Detroit that seems prosperously reconstructed but still crime-ridden and corrupt; thus is license afforded to critique present-day America. But Robocop doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know: corporations rule above governments unimpeded by checks and balances; we live in a surveillance culture that surveys and manipulates the weak and powerless; the media is brutally manipulative and mendacious; life is cheap. The original told us all of that and with a lot more wit, in a setting that seemed more spectacular, and with dialogue that was spare but with enough cutting lines to pack a punch: they relied on irony, conveyed satire, and earned belly-laughs from the audience – who can forget ‘you’re fired!’?
This Robocop doesn’t really overcome the failings that plague cinema in the digital age: the image still seems too thin to me, Padilha hasn’t learned how to make action exciting, lots of people get killed but there’s nothing at stake in their death – or indeed in Alex Murphy/Robocop avoiding his own — and the narrative still hasn’t figured out how to make use of all of story-telling possibilities new technology both diegetically and extra-diegetically make possible. I think what’s really missing is thought on how the new possibilities of dealing with time and the new challenges posed by changing standards of what is believable can result in different ways of communicating meanings and conveying pleasures.
If one could stop thinking about the original however, the film is very enjoyable and worth seeing for the actors alone.