‘Jumbo’ Movie Review: Matterhorny [AFI FEST]

Jumbo has a premise that would be easy to mock if it didn’t work. Writer/director Zoé Wittock’s first responsibility is to protect her character from such ridicule. She succeeds in making sure her movie handles its controversial subject matter with dignity and grace. It may not all come together in the end, but that’s up to the viewer’s interpretation, not any shortcomings of the filmmakers or actors.

Girl meets ride in ‘Jumbo’

Even before Jeanne (Noémie Merlant) gets a job at a carnival, she wonders if inanimate objects have a soul. That is a relevant theme. Marie Kondo acknowledges we should thank inanimate objects for their service. If they don’t have a soul, they still mean something to us, and what better definition of a soul is there? 

Noemie Merlant | AFI FEST

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When Jeanne works on the Jumbo ride, she forms a romantic relationship with it. Jumbo moves unattended and communicates with its lights and sounds. So, if no one’s operating it, then Jumbo is sentient, unless it’s all in Jeanne’s head. 

The ambiguity of ‘Jumbo’

When Jeanne and Jumbo are alone together, they talk. Jumbo comes to life and answers her yes or no questions. Jeanne also has dreams about Jumbo or his oil. The dream sequences are rather beautiful, Merlant in an all white void submerged in black liquid. 

When Jeanne tries to introduce her friends and family to Jumbo, it becomes a bit more of a Snuffelupagus situation. Is Jumbo only alive for Jeanne, and if so does that suggest Jeanne has issues discerning reality, and if so does it even matter? Or, is Jumbo just shy around other people. Either way, it really doesn’t help Jeanne make a case for her relationship.

Taking the role seriously

Merlant has no inhibitions about the material. Jumbo requires her sincerity and Merlant brings it. Sometimes the film asks her to perform actions that would look absurd in the wrong hands, and were Merlant not committed to the emotion of the moment. In those moments, it is clear Jeanne is in love.

Now, whether it’s okay for Jeanne to be in love with an inanimate object could be open to interpretation. Wittock may run out of narrative ways to explore Jeanne’s relationship with Jumbo in the final 15 minutes, but up until then she answers any questions about how Jeanne could possibly feel love reciprocated, and what hurdles the business of a carnival could throw in her way. 

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Jumbo is on Jeanne’s side, whether her loved ones and society are or not. That may be enough. There is a case to be made that Jeanne is in an unhealthy relationship. The film may lack balance for favoring Jeanne’s side, but Jumbo isn’t interested in judgements. In that regard, it could be a metaphor for any harmless activity upon which society may frown. And, Disney should totally do an American remake where an American starlet falls in love with the Matterhorn.