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‘Operation Dumbo Drop’ (PG)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
July 28, 1995

Walt Disney's "Operation Dumbo Drop" is a Vietnam-era story so peculiar that one barely knows where to start.

First off, the movie—which stars Danny Glover, Ray Liotta and Denis Leary—begins in South Vietnam in 1962 with scenes of a bucolic paradise where man and elephant live in harmony. The focus of these scenes is a little boy riding on the back of an elephant named Bo-Tat. Soon, however, the beauty and quiet of this green land are disrupted by gunfire and fighting. The boy is separated from his father. The war has begun.

Six years later it's still going on, and Capt. Doyle (Liotta) has just arrived to begin his mission in the mountain village of Dak Nhe. The villagers have experienced hardships, most recently the loss of an elephant, and in a gesture of solidarity and appreciation, Doyle's predecessor, Capt. Cahill (Glover), pledges to do "one good thing" before returning to the world—make sure the village gets a new elephant in time for its big ceremonial shindig that weekend.

What all this says about the U.S. role in Vietnam is completely open to interpretation. (The Americans may not be blameless, the movie seems to say, but they're better than the evil Viet Cong.) At the same time, what's clear is that this return of the elephant—which in mythological terms is the father of all the gods—is meant to represent some sort of cultural rapprochement between Americans and Vietnamese. The elephant the soldiers smuggle over 200 miles of enemy terrain to the mountain village is Bo-Tat; he is accompanied by the same boy, Linh (Dinh Thien Le), who lost his father at the start of the movie and was taken with his elephant friend to the South. Everything comes full circle.

That this supposed reconciliation takes place in Vietnam in 1968 creates a weird sort of time warp; it's as if our present openness toward our former enemies were enough to change history. Actually, the war seems little more than a passing bit of unpleasantness. All that's needed, the film suggests, is a little goodwill and maybe a payoff or two and all is forgiven.

Of course, the real audience for the film—the kids—will have not the slightest hint of all this. They'll be far too consumed—as well they should be—with the goofy antics of Bo-Tat, who, as movie elephants go, is actually pretty wonderful. They should also have a good time with Glover, whose beaming worldly-wise smile is a bonus for any movie, and whose nonchalant, confident presence is particularly welcome as a counterpoint to Liotta's live-wire electricity.

Directed by Simon ("Lonesome Dove") Wincer, "Operation Dumbo Drop" isn't a shoddy piece of work or a cynical one. It's well acted, well directed and far more interesting visually than most children's films. In its heart of hearts, though, it is more than slightly schizoid. On the one hand, it's a diverting entertainment for children and young adults; on the other, it's a ludicrous fantasy about a war whose complexities cannot be contained by facile metaphors.

Operation Dumbo Drop is rated PG.

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