Sundance Review: JUMBO - You Must Be This Tall To Ride

Keep this lady away from those new STAR WARS rides.

Jumbo is one of those films doomed to be defined by its premise when said premise is clearly just a novel way to explore something deeper. It’s the film where a girl falls in love with an amusement park ride. There is, of course, a whole lot more going on here. But with a synopsis like that, it’s easy to feel like you already know what the film is before actually seeing it, the same way people like to simplify The Shape of Water as the film where the lady fucks the fish.

And yes, Jumbo definitely is about a lady who falls for and does somehow manage (the film is purposefully vague about how this works) to have sex with a very big machine. And yes, you do have to bring a sense of whimsy to accept the film’s presentation of a reality where this two-way relationship is even possible. And yes, you are also expected to fold some rather high drama into that fantastic/whimsical context with a straight face. If you can handle all that, you will likely love Jumbo. Everyone I’ve been talking to certainly did. I’m a little more mixed on the film, but I see their point.

Jumbo stars Portrait of a Lady on Fire’s Noémie Merlant as Jeanne, a painfully shy and awkward girl who lives with her single mother and adores the local amusement park. We are introduced to her naked, which is appropriate because she spends more of this film nude than you might expect. I bring this up because it’s a quick way to illustrate how this film veers away from the whimsical indie cutie you might expect.

Jeanne begins a job working alone and overnight cleaning the amusement park, which has a big new ride that is sort of like a four-armed Scrambler thing. While Jeanne can barely speak to other humans and recoils at the possibility of even brushing against someone while walking around, she has an immediate connection with the ride. Then the ride wakes up and communicates with her via lights, movement and noises. They, you know, fall in love.

Filmmaker Zoé Wittock does what she can to make this machine come to life. It is at times beautiful, at other times similar to a roaring Transformer. At no time does it really have any personality. We’re not bonding with the machine, so the film relies on us bonding with Jeanne as she bonds with the machine. I struggled with this. Merlant is great in the role, but her character is challenging. At turns closed off, highly dramatic, even surprisingly violent, Jeanne occasionally seems mentally unwell in a way that throws the entire premise into confusion I suspect was not intentional.

Jeanne’s love is forbidden by all those around her. As the film delves into this part of its story, things get dark and dramatic to an extent that felt out of place, even when tracking this as a metaphor for non-traditional sexual relationships. This does not ruin the film, but presents a definite rough patch the conclusion must overcome. Luckily, it does. Things come together for a near-perfect ending that washes away most reservations brought up by the previous half hour, and everyone can leave the theater feeling positive vibes all over the place. Against all odds, Jumbo is a crowd pleaser.

Not every film is perfect. Good ones are worth the trouble spots. Jumbo stands among their number. It’s a small film saying something big through somewhat ludicrous themes (although this is at least somewhat based on a true story so perhaps I shouldn’t say that). You may love it or you may be a little mixed, but I doubt you’ll regret taking the ride.