FilmSpace: Eaten By Lions; Dumbo; Pet Sematary

Film critic Calum Cooper examines some of the week’s additional releases, praising the uproarious comedy of Eaten By Lions, chastising the emotional hollowness of the live-action Dumbo, and exploring the unnerving craft of the new Pet Sematary.

Eaten By Lions – ★★★★☆

At the heart of Jason Winguard’s feature is a story on the deepness of familial roots; roots that run deeper than blood or nationality. It’s endearing, and very thoughtfully envisioned. But it is first and foremost a comedy, and a legitimately hilarious one at that.

Eaten by Lions premiered at the 2018 Edinburgh Film Festival, where I was lucky enough to catch it. Now it has finally been released to UK cinemas, albeit somewhat limited if my own research is anything to go by. This is such a shame because Winguard has created something truly riotous, and it deserves to be seen by as many audiences as possible.

We meet two half-brothers, Omar and Pete (Antonio Aakeel and Jack Carroll respectively). After their parents were eaten by lions, they went to live with their grandmother, someone both boys cherish greatly. When she sadly passes away too, they are faced with the real prospect of living with a xenophobic aunt and a dim uncle, who clearly favour Pete. Omar decides to embark on a journey to Blackpool to meet and confront his estranged father, with Pete tagging along.

From there all sorts of antics ensue, from fortune tellers to strange motel owners to gargantuan misunderstandings of hysterically awkward proportions. But each is as engaging as it is funny, woven together by a mostly witty script, and two very charismatic leads.

There’s a lot to admire about this film, not just comically, but narratively too. Winguard co-wrote the story with David Isaac, and in between the humorous hijinks is a heart-warming tale on family and identity. It’s all about trying to find your own identity, for Omar in particular given his Asian heritage while being in a white family, something which subjugates him to the xenophobia of his aunt and uncle, but is embraced by Pete. The moments where the two of them reminisce together on shared memories of their gran are warmingly wholesome, and the right amount of sentimental. It’s arresting and well thought out, asking tough questions and answering them maturely and sincerely.

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Making this stronger is the chemistry between Aakeel and Carroll, which is as energetic as it is genuinely touching. Their shared dynamic is impeccable, with Aakeel delivering strong emotional moments, and Carroll’s range and timing easily generating the most laughs in the film. Although that’s not to say they aren’t capable of the reverse too. The characters are written well, but the actors breathe such life into the roles, creating two brothers whose relationship, whether displaying affection or trading insults, you firmly believe in.

This chemistry amplifies the comedic tone, its effectiveness of which I cannot overstate. Most of the comedy spawns from the constant calamities that befall the brothers on their journey, largely due to their own inexperience or conflicts of interest. It puts the two of them in situations that they can’t control, and with only each other’s shared bafflement or desperation as comfort, the results are side-splittingly funny. The best scene in the film is when a girl they meet takes a psychotic liking to Pete, where all of Pete’s overconfidence from earlier scenes comes back to bite him, creating laughs so abundant that you almost miss what comes next.

As far as issues with the film, the third act is narratively quite safe, and the aunt and uncle are a little too cartoonish in their antagonistic portrayals. They felt more like satires of their roles than actual threats. But, honestly, those feel like mere nit-picks when all is said and done. It does almost nothing to detract from the titanic entertainment value the film offers.

Sometimes even we critics just want to have a good, relaxing time at the movies, and Eaten By Lions more than satisfies in that regard. It has more than enough heart and charm to spare, but, with two magnetic leads working off of each other effortlessly, and a borderline overdose of intelligent jokes, we’re treated to a film that’s equal parts alluring and sentimental, and consistently hilarious. If you get the chance to catch a viewing, absolutely take it.

Dumbo (2019) – ★☆☆☆☆

There’s an eye-rolling irony within the presentation of this live-action reimagining of 1941’s Dumbo. For most of the film we’re in a fairly typical run down circus setting, where our big-eared friend resides. But we eventually enter a set-piece that looks lifted from Tomorrowland, and the film starts showcasing a message on how big spectacle doesn’t matter if it overpowers and diminishes the real magic.

You know what they say – people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.

This unnecessary live-action reimagining of Dumbo is set in 1919, in the aftermath of the First World War. Colin Farrell’s Holt Ferrier returns home to his travelling circus a broken man, having lost his arm to the war, as well as his wife to illness during his absence, leaving two young, distant children, Milly and Joe (Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins respectively). With no more horses to perform his old routine, Holt is placed in charge of the elephants of the circus. One elephant, Mrs Jumbo, gives birth to a son, a calf with astonishingly enormous ears. At first, the circus owner Max (Danny DeVito) wants to utilise the calf, mockingly named Dumbo, as little as possible. But when the kids teach Dumbo to fly using his ears, word gets out and the circus becomes all the rage. From there, all sorts of possibilities open up, including a partnership with Michael Keaton and Eva Green, who may or may not wish to exploit Dumbo’s abilities.

The characters and potentially enriching themes are traded in for something that’s merely pretty to look at. But, with such hit-and-miss CGI, even the visuals aren’t always so pretty.

Reading that summary you can tell what the first problem is. The film is needlessly overstuffed with the drama surrounding these human characters, who, with the exception of Farrell, are all incredibly bland. His kids seem to be the most predominant allies to Dumbo. Yet Joe’s importance is acknowledged so fleetingly that you forget he’s there half the time, and Milly’s strongest personality trait is that she likes science, which is not a personality trait. DeVito is just playing himself, and Keaton’s role is such a caricature that he becomes entertaining for all the wrong reasons. And it doesn’t help that the majority of the acting, outside of Farrell and maybe Keaton, is frustratingly wooden.

But it’s not just the boring characters. The story is overstuffed and needlessly complicated. A surprising chunk of the dialogue centres round business deals and financial agreements, which just wasn’t what the story of Dumbo was about. The war backstory involving Farrell I can understand, as Farrell is struggling to find purpose just as Dumbo struggles to find acceptance, given their respective situation and appearance. Even some of the animal cruelty overtones I can empathise with. But the shady business dealings, exposition heavy dialogue, and painfully weak comedy overcomplicate and eventually dissolve the understated pathos of the original. It’s oversaturation purely for the sake a modern runtime. After all, this is a 2 hour film whereas the original was just barely over 1.

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What strikes me though is the fakery and vacuity of its emotional intent. As it’s directed by Tim Burton, there is some visual flair present, but there’s little to no substance to any of it. With such clichéd plot points like a revered trinket from a deceased mother, corporate avarice, burlesque villains, and a climatic fire, the whole thing feels so artificial. The characters and potentially enriching themes are traded in for something that’s merely pretty to look at. But, with such hit-and-miss CGI, even the visuals aren’t always so pretty. Again, it’s ironic as this is the very thing the film seems to be criticising, despite being monstrously guilty of it as well. This is particularly the case in the few instances where the film replicates scenes from the original, such as the pink elephants or the caged reunion, where their very presence is either nonsensical or is emotionally vapid once you assess the context of the scenes themselves.

Besides, the decision to make it live-action actively harms our attachment to the Dumbo character and story. People often dismiss animation as a childish genre for film, when nothing could be further from the truth. The animation of the original allowed the film to be much more expressive with its characters and wacky with its imagination. Because the live-action and incorporated CGI seem designed to ground this film in some kind of realism, the expressions and emotions of the animal characters are repressed, giving each animal a bland appearance. There’s no spark or sense of energy to them because we can tell we’re looking at computer effects. They don’t feel real, and thus the intended emotions the film wants to evoke go unfelt, providing us instead with indifference at best and maddening boredom at worst, even for the younger audience members.

I don’t have that big an attachment to the animated Dumbo. It’s not like the original Beauty and the Beast or Mary Poppins where I get swept up in the magic without fail. Yet its heart is gigantic and its messages are still just as relevant today. It’s bad enough that this overbloated, soulless imitation can’t find a reason to exist. But it’s all style and no substance, and even the style isn’t worthy of the Tim Burton name. With that godawful live-action Beauty and the Beast, and now this, I really hope this isn’t a sign of things to come with these Disney remakes.

Pet Sematary (2019) – ★★★★☆

Stephen King at his finest is the master of cautionary tales. It’s easy to become jealous of his ability to churn out so many eerie, intricate ideas in such a short space of time. His 1983 novel Pet Sematary is one of his creepiest. It’s supposedly the novel of his that scares King the most, and in 1989 it spawned a film adaptation, which garnered understandably split reactions on its initial run. Now it has been remade for 2019 audiences, and the results turned my blood to ice.

The Creed family moves from Boston to a rural village in Maine (because it wouldn’t be a Stephen King story without Maine). Louis (Jason Clarke) is a doctor who agreed to move with his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz) so that he could spend some more time with his kids, daughter Ellie (Jeté Laurence) and son Gage (Hugo and Lucas Lavoie). Soon after moving in, Ellie discovers an animal burial ground, misspelled as Pet Sematary, which neighbour Jud (Jon Lithgow) brands a ritualistic landmark. When a tragedy occurs, Jud shows the grounds to Louis, revealing supernatural properties that brings the dead back to life. But, as we know, when you upset the natural order there’s going to be hell to pay.

Pet Sematary is designed around grief and its manifestations. It feeds off of our subconscious fear of death and forces its characters into situations that challenge their beliefs and dreads, past and present. Logic is challenged and trauma is amplified. Mortality is never a light topic, and the way this film shows how attempts to avert or even control mortality can lead to consequences worse than death is nothing short of spine chilling.

It capitalises off of terrific performances and a drawn out atmosphere to achieve this. The idea is an inherently disturbing one, with or without the baggy backstory that King laid out in his original novel, and the film’s mixture of stringently built tension and deliberately slow pacing at times heightens the senses drastically. The atmosphere lingers as the dark lighting and muted visuals slowly start creeping onto our screen, contrasting with the weird but otherwise colourful nature of the town.

Mortality is never a light topic, and the way this film shows how attempts to avert or even control mortality can lead to consequences worse than death is nothing short of spine chilling.

Characterisation is nurtured and conveyed humanisitically too. They may be somewhat toned down from King’s book, but they are still complex individuals that we care for thanks to the film taking time for the audience to be within enough of their company to feel the mundanity and familiarity of their family dynamic. It means when the heartbreak strikes, we feel the enormous grief and loss as they do, and can uncannily empathise with the actions taken, even though we know deep down that they’re wrong, or even immoral. The performances only add to this. Jason Clarke and Jon Lithgow have immaculate dynamic, balancing good humour in lighter scenes with deep running desperation and regret in later scenes when the supernatural elements start to reveal themselves. Amy Seimetz is also great as the tortured mother with long lasting guilt. But it’s wee Jeté Laurence who steals the show as the young Ellie. Whatever the role requires of her, whether it’s playful innocence or something darker, she commits to without hesitation, turning in a stunning performance.

Yet it’s the cautionary undertones that make this Pet Sematary such an uncanny experience. Using its layered characters, dark visual look, and lengthy direction, it festers on its own ideas, forcing you to think on what you would do if you were in these characters’ shoes. If we were given the opportunity to communicate with the dead or revive a loved one, whether to spare someone else from the harsh inevitability of death, or for curing our own grief, chances are we wouldn’t know what to do straight away. Our moratality is an inescapable concept of such finality that plagues our minds, and it provides the perfect platform for this story to warn us on the consequences should we try to overturn nature’s course, or worse start playing god.

What keeps me from going all the way and calling this up there with Carrie and Stand By Me in terms of King movies is that it takes a while to get more diverse with its scares. While the first act does a good job laying the foundations for its story and characters, it has a tendency to rely on jump scares, one of if not the cheapest form of horror out there. It thankfully does get better, becoming more fixated on atmosphere and psychosis in the latter half, but that doesn’t change the jump scares being annoying at their worst. Also, and this may be too late to say, but if you’re going to go see it, don’t watch the trailers. They give away the entire film, including crucial changes between this film and King ‘s original novel.

Nonetheless, Pet Sematary is one of the better recent King adaptations. It’s no Misery or Gerald’s Game, but it does justice to its source material in ways that its original unfortunately couldn’t to many. Its atmosphere is sturdy, its visuals are bleak, its acting is superb, and its themes and characters remain as impactful and thoughtfully handled as they were in King’s original work. It’s simultaneously harrowing and thought provoking, utilising its unsettling ideas with articulate depth, occasionally going even further into the darkness than King did. Sometimes dead is better, but sometimes a remake is just what a story needs to have its full potential captured.

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