Jumbo, If He Only Had a Heart

Jeanne is a bit of an odd duck. More than a bit shy, when she’s not working the night shift alone, cleaning up a local amusement park, her favorite pastime is building replicas of the rides in her room out of scraps of wire and Christmas lights. They’re pretty impressive actually, but her mother, Margarette, a raucous, loving bartender, wishes her daughter would meet a man, that she’d grow up, in a sense, though the two seem at their best and their most compatible when they both skew younger than they are.

And then he shows up. Marc, Jeanne’s sympathetic new boss? No. Hubert, who puts a light in Margarette’s eye? No. 

No, he is Move-It, the new Tilt-a-Whirl at the park, a handsome and thrilling stranger who gives Jeanne feelings she’s never felt before. Even before they meet, she’s been experiencing ecstatic dreams of being engulfed in colorful lights. And now, here he is. The one. She nicknames him Jumbo. 

For a while, things are good. Jeanne and Jumbo spend time chatting, getting to know each other. They experiment a little. But, naturally, Jeanne doesn’t want to hide their love. She wants her mother, her guide and model in such things, to meet him, even though she knows it’s a little weird, a little different, that this relationship might be hard for some people to accept.

Jumbo is a bit of a tonal mish mash. This is not necessarily a problem, but here the pastiche maybe confuses a bit too much. The film doesn’t fully embrace the concept of human-machine romance, as we might expect in science fiction or posthuman fantasy. Let’s face it, Jumbo is a brute, a simple machine not an android. And yet the film does allow for some interesting thinking and imagery around new erotic mechanics, as it were. Jumbo is male, but his performance with Jeanne involve no piston-like agitation. They are unique, both terrifying and innovative. 

But he is also a manifestation of the man her mother wants for Jeanne and the mystery of the love Margarette says she felt for Jeanne’s father, a man who left them and that Jeanne seems not to have known. The machine is the magnification of her hobby, a simpler love, and a stand-in for the real, human complications of Marc. But the possibility of Jumbo’s sentience is such a dominant visual reality that we may not be quite inclined to read his activity as fantasy, a psychic projection, or, more troublingly, the result of mental illness. This is, unsurprisingly, how some in Jeanne’s life view the attachment, showing themselves deeply inadequate to care for her. If she is indeed ill, the pathos of that reading is beyond the capacity of the current film.

Or we might read Jumbo as a semi-comic allegory about cross-cultural love. We might imagine Jeanne’s same arguments for acceptance if Jumbo were a human woman, or trans, or nonwhite, etc. But this doesn’t seem to be what the film is after either. Its success really depends upon Jumbo’s machine-ness. So it’s really hard not to argue that this is a movie about anything but a woman who loves a Tilt-a-Whirl who loves her back. That is the only reality presented with sufficient depth. And yet, the traces of other possible readings, including the reality of a fairy tale, trouble the surface reality of human-machine love enough that we’re left wishing the film had been invested more in any one of its possibilities. Nevertheless, there’s enough pleasure and promise in Jumbo‘s images, performances, and light show to enjoy the watch and then dream about what else might have been.

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Michael Mejia
Michael Mejiahttp://www.saltlakemagazine.com
Novelist and University of Utah professor Michael Mejia is a veteran crew member of such Hollywood classics as Carnasaur, Love, Cheat, and Steal, and The Day My Parents Ran Away.

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