Review by Sean Boelman
One of the most bizarre (but also one of the most intriguing) films to be a part of the lineup of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, the fantasy-romance Jumbo is the ambitious feature debut of writer-director Zoé Wittock. Unabashedly and unforgettably weird, this movie truly is one hell of a ride.
Inspired by a true story, the film follows a young amusement park worker as she falls in love with the park’s new attraction — a tilt-a-whirl ride. Wittock takes this creative premise and runs with it, creating a surreal romantic comedy that is alternatingly hilarious and heartfelt. Even though the movie’s message is nothing revolutionary, Wittock’s film is so entertaining and compelling that it ultimately doesn’t matter.
Unlike most movies with similarly ambitious premises, Jumbo has a very clear identity thanks to Wittock’s skilled juggling of the script’s multiple tones. While there is an absurdity to the film’s conflict, Wittock handles it in a way that is humorous but not ridiculous, making the movie feel surprisingly earnest.
One of the film’s biggest strengths is its nuanced character development. Despite the fact that the plot is not something that will be directly empathetic to most viewers, Wittock does an excellent job of highlighting the emotion in the character’s arc and grounding an otherwise fantastical story.
The lead actress of the movie, Noémie Merlant, does a phenomenal job in the lead role. Having burst into the global spotlight with last year’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Merlant has established herself as a tremendous talent to watch. She brings so much emotion and humanity to her character in a way that elevates the role from being quirky to being quite charming.
Wittock also does an excellent job of building a very clear atmosphere for the film. Much of the movie is shot in a dreamlike way to transport the viewer into the fantasies of the protagonist. Wittock’s whimsical visual style goes a long way in making the film a lot more immersive and effective.
On a technical level, Wittock’s movie is very accomplished, largely thanks to excellent cinematography from Thomas Buelens. The use of color in the film is brilliant, the carnival lights illuminating scenes in a way that successfully conveys mood. There is also something nostalgic and aesthetically appealing about this color scheme that helps it stand out.
With Jumbo, filmmaker Zoé Wittock takes a wonderfully peculiar premise and infuses it with offbeat humor and a stunning visual style to deliver a captivating romantic fantasy. Visions like Wittock’s are what the movie industry so desperately needs right now.
Jumbo debuted at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, which runs January 23 through February 2 in Park City, UT.