OPERATION DUMBO DROP (1995) ** 1/2
When the North Vietnamese kill the star elephant of some Montagnards as a reprisal for their cooperating with the American forces, two Green Berets Captains ( Danny Glover and Ray Liotta) feel honor-bound to replace the pachyderm in time for a crucial village ceremony. They persuade their superiors of the public relations need for this, get permission to purchase another elephant and go through a 200-mile Odyssey to take it to the village.
The movie is done colorfully, with some humor (but never as affecting as in that other Vietnam War comedy "Good Morning Vietnam"), in a feel-good spirit and with fine special effects. The adventure involves helicopters, a cargo plane, a truck, a town, river boats and plenty of countryside.
Three more Green Berets, all reluctant, are commandeered: Lt. Denis Leary, a requisitions officer who knows all the tricks; Doug E. Doug who is about to leave for home; Corin Nemec, a midwestern farm boy who claims animals don't like him. More important still is the native member of the team, young Dinh Thien Le who is the "mahout" (trainer) of Bo-Tat the elephant.
The boy also adds a small amount of suspense element about his loyalty. A prelude to the film shows his also "mahout" father being killed in a 1962 ambush, but it is not clear whether Americans or VC were responsible for this.
Much of the action entertains. Almost all of it is unbelievable. A Viet Cong fluvial attack is like the formula westerns where the good guys are unscathed by the rain of bullets or arrows but the enemy is hit every time. The difference here is that the the VC are played down as enemies and played up as mere antagonists. Well, why not? It is PC -- political correct.
There's a lot more PC than VC in this picture but it goes with cliches, like initially mild antagonism between laid-back Glover and uptight, by-the-book Liotta. Predictably, cooperation and friendship are not far behind.
Canny Leary is your formulaic con artist. While he does not have the scope of Tony Curtis in the war comedy "Operation Petticoat," he is amusing and, of course, like every American involved, he turns brave when push comes to shove.
All this is expected, but what is surprising is that when Doug E. Doug, who is black, was introduced, it was in a sort of Stepin Fetchit way. Annoying, though less so, was the stress on cheap comedy of bodily functions in men and beast, with especially massive doses of elephant vomit and defecation. This makes the word "drop" in the title acquire a second, nudge-nudge reference.
The film has very good production values. It was shot in Thailand, uses gorgeous landscapes and has a nice score of period pop music. Special effects include animatronics, substitute Asian elephants, the reconstruction of a cargo plane's inside, a convincing jungle temple. The star elephant (real name Tai) is an American citizen imported from California and quite a skilled actor. But nothing is made of the mystique of elephants, as in John Huston's "The Roots of Heaven" (1958).
The title is of course an in-house reference to the 1941 Disney animation "Dumbo" about the tiny elephant who could fly by flapping its huge ears.