Going into it, I never would have imagined that Operation Dumbo Drop would provoke any thought whatsoever; it is, after all, just another predictably heartwarming human-animal bonding story, about a bunch of tough American servicemen charged with procuring a baby elephant to please the inhabitants of a strategically important South Vietnam-ese village.
But after sitting through it, I found myself wondering whether some subjects are inherently antithetical to the very idea of entertainment. In some cases, the answer is yes--especially when you're talking about the Vietnam War, which serves as the picture's backdrop. Dumbo Drop is almost certainly the only buddy-animal movie ever to be set during the Tet Offensive, which means that despite its many creative failings, it at least deserves points for chutzpah. And to be fair, the film's attitude towards the war is unusually conflicted and sensitive; the script alternates kid-friendly slapstick routines and elephant excrement jokes with a number of melancholy and sometimes violent interludes that acknowledge pain and loss. All of which is kind of honorable, in a strange way.
But the film's setting keeps reminding you, unfavorably, of all the other far more savage and morally challenging Vietnam movies released in the past 20 years, so that you find yourself second-guessing the studio's reasoning instead of enjoying the story. Reviewing Born on the Fourth of July, Pauline Kael observed, "War is always hell for the losing side." And she's right. That's why it's acceptable for Indiana Jones to battle Nazis for our entertainment, but it's unacceptable for Disney to set a family comedy during Tet; merely reminding us of what happened to America's collective ego in that bloody battle amounts to placing an instant curse on a movie. We've been down this cinematic road before, and we can't help recalling that it was not an especially lighthearted trip. When Danny Glover, Ray Liotta, and the other soldiers load the pachyderm on a boat and take her upriver, I halfway expected them to encounter a bald-headed, T.S. Eliot-quoting Marlon Brando at the end of it. Or, at the very least, for wiseass costar Denis Leary to hop off the boat to relieve himself, step on a pongi stick, and bleed to death.
But the Magic Kingdom's bold gamble does open up the possibility of a whole new sick movie subgenre: historical tragedy kidflicks. Like Bobo: An American Chimp in Pol Pot's Cambodia. Or Tailgunner Tabby: The Enola Gay Kitty. Or Fuzzy Wuzzy and Jeffrey Dahmer.
--Matt Zoller Seitz (email@example.com)
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.