Us and Dumbo: American dreams and nightmares

Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o) and her family (Winston Duke, Shahadi Wright, Evan Alex) come face-to-face with their doubles during a home invasion in Us. When Adelaide asks herself, “who are you?” Her gaunt dopplganger (Nyong’o in an unforgettable dual role), dressed in a red jumpsuit, holding sharp golden scissors, replies, “we are Americans.”

In Us, writer, director and producer, Jordan Peele (Get Out), gets to the shadowy, conspiratorial heart of the land of the free and the home of the … terrified.

Dancing around plot details is the best gift heading into Us because you should go into Peele’s sophomore film with the mentality of an iceberg. While Get Out examined systematic racism, Us goes bigger by focusing on class and the distinct tiers of American society.

While holidaying in the beach town of Santa Cruz the Wilsons get exposed to the divide between liberty and oppression when their doubles snip their way into their lives and a revolution begins. As the Wilsons try to escape themselves – cue existential crisis – Peele focuses on the extremes of privilege and the bloody means to protect a patch of sunshine.

The nightmare comes from the way Peele uses the story to show how American society justifies and compartmentalises the horrors of its foundations; slavery, minimum wage, undocumented workers, the foes in Us are a clever catch-all for the building blocks of social order.

Tim Burton, once the goth prince of Hollywood, makes a comeback (of sorts) with Dumbo, a live-action adaptation of the animated Disney classic.

A dilapidated travelling circus finds its new star attraction when its ringmaster (Danny DeVito) purchases an expectant elephant who gives birth to a calf with gigantic ears. Baby Dumbo is labelled a freak until they discover he can fly, and an entrepreneur (Michael Keaton) makes an offer to buy the circus.

Look, we need to talk about the flying elephant in the room: Disney just purchased 20th Century Fox, so the timing of Dumbo is incredible.

Burton’s film is a minefield of corporate contradictions because it’s centred on a small circus that gets absorbed by larger corporation; a monopoly – the American dream. But the dream becomes perverted when Dumbo is exploited for bigger ticket sales and the safety of the performers. For all its old school charms, including Colin Farrell channelling Carey Grant, Dumbo has a satirical edge that feels like Burton is making a call from inside the mouse house.

The style is pushed too hard by computer power at times. Dumbo is a digital creation but, like most of the soft-focus scenery, it comes across as phony despite being designed to emulate a puppy and own your heart. Still, there’s enough wonder in Dumbo to set it apart from Burton’s recent poor run of films.

Both Us and Dumbo cross examine American values, hopes and dreams to reveal the creatures lurking in plain sight.

Cameron Williams

The article first appeared in BMA Magazine.