Why 'Dumbo' is the ultimate Tim Burton movie and other secrets from the set

Tom Butler
Senior Editor
Dumbo peeks inside the big top in concept art from Tim Burton’s live-action film. (Image courtesy of Disney)

Disney’s live-action Dumbo is Tim Burton’s new take on the animated 1941 classic, and while the gothic stylings of the director of Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, and Batman may not seem like a natural fit for the primary-hued children’s romp about a flying elephant, the film’s producers say Burton is the perfect man for job.

“You’re looking at the ultimate outsider: Dumbo is an outsider. He’s a freakish character,” Burton’s long-time producer Derek Frey explained when we visited the set of the film back in September 2017.

“So it becomes very evident why Tim [Burton] was drawn to this subject matter, and why he is the perfect person to direct it. People maybe go, ‘Oh, Tim Burton’s Dumbo? I don’t understand that’, but it’s actually right there in front of you.”

The film, set in American post-World War I, uses the story of the 64-minute cartoon as its leaping-off point. “When the world sees Dumbo fly, the question in the movie that’s exciting for a live-action reimagining is ‘how will the world react?’” added Frey.

On set, Burton seemed as though he was wrestling a big beast, literally and figuratively. “It’s hard for me to talk right now,” the wild-haired director apologized, “because I don’t know if it’s a comedy or a drama, so I’ll let you know when I’m done with it.”

Here’s everything you need to know about Disney’s latest live action adventure…

It’s a tale of two circuses … and two Danny DeVitos

Dumbo is very much the star of the film, but in this version, the animals don’t talk. Although the film is largely told from the flying elephant’s perspective, screenwriter Ehren Kruger has built out the human world of the circus, which does the narrative heavy lifting.

To play Max Medici, the down-on-luck ringmaster of Dumbo’s Medici Brothers Circus, Burton turned to Danny DeVito. Following Batman Returns and Big Fish, this this completes the pair’s “Circus Trilogy”, with DeVito playing a circus barker, with a twist.

Medici is “like a Barnum”, explains DeVito. “Not like as slick, and maybe not as savvy, but he’s a showman, he’s a barker, he’s a guy who wants to get people in and have a good time and enjoy themselves.” (Disney)

Rather than having a side hustle as a supervillain (Batman Returns), or being a secret werewolf, this ringmaster’s surprise is his nonexistent twin brother.

“We do this gag, because I have a brother — it’s the Medici Brothers Circus — but there’s no other brother,” laughs DeVito. “So we wanted to make the other brother 8 inches taller.”

“We had some fun will the tall one,” says Oscar-winning costume designer Colleen Atwood, “because we made these boots with stilts.”

‘I wish I had a picture of me as the brother, because it’s really crazy,” adds DeVito.

Michael Keaton’s character may seem familiar

Completing the Batman Returns reunion is Michael Keaton. His character, V. A. Vandevere, is a ruthless entrepreneur and showman hellbent on dragging the entertainment industry into the future at all costs.

He’s the owner of Dreamland, inspired in part by an amusement park of the same name built in Coney Island in 1904. Vandevere acquires Medici’s circus to take ownership of — and eventually exploit — Dumbo. The retro-future design of the mega-circus is clearly inspired by Walt Disney’s vision for Disneyland, which opened in 1955.

The Dreamland circus, seen here in concept art, was inspired by Walt Disney’s ideas for Disneyland. (Image courtesy of Disney)

Opening in the year that Disney’s future empire completes the acquisition of a smaller outfit (20th Century Fox), ostensibly to exploit its assets, it would be obvious to draw parallels between Vandevere and Walt, but the producer insist it’s not a straight analog.

“It’s easy to draw that comparison because of what [Vandevere’s] created, and why he would want Dumbo,” agrees producer Justin Springer.

“I would say he’s more like the moguls of that period,” countered Frey. “Whether it’s Howard Hughes or all these larger than life people with money, like P.T. Barnum.”

Keaton’s Vandevere “wears a grey toupee, which is quite fetching”, explains costume designer Sandy Powell. “He’s an impresario, he’s a showman. So he’s a little bit flashy.” (Disney)

“In a time where circuses are the entertainment venue that travels to you, he’s constructed a world where people come to him. It’s just natural to make that comparison. I’m sure it’s something that even subconsciously is in [the writer’s] mind, you know?”

The circus performers are real

There are four circuses in total in Dumbo. Medici’s pre-war circus which appears in a flashback for Colin Farrell’s character Holt Farrier, the current one where Dumbo is born, Dreamland, and one that appears in an epilogue.

Eva Green’s trapeze artist Collette befriends Dumbo, the flying elephant (Disney)

Farrier’s act, before he lost an arm in the Great War, was as one half of husband and wife cowboy horse duo the Stallion Stars. Returning from the War a widower, the story sees Farrier looking after Dumbo, along with his two young children (Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins), as he struggles to cope with his post-war life. He befriends Eva Green’s French trapeze artist Colette Marchant.

As in the animation, Dumbo joins the clown act for a firefighter routine, and the production cast real circus performers from around the world to add some authenticity to their acts.

“They have the talents, but they also look and feel like people from that world,” explained Springer. “At the beginning of February the production brought in performers and they put on a show for Tim, and Tim was able to look and see, and get to know the different performers, and we cast out of that group.

“There’s four Chinese contortionists… the four girls that are playing them that are from Mongolia,” says costume designer Colleen Atwood. “They’ve learned a little bit of English, but they’re totally Chinese speaking, and lovely girls.” (Disney)

“It gives you this kind of amazing diversity when you cast people from around the globe like that.”

It’s heavily influenced by the cartoon

Unlike Burton’s previous live-action Disney remake, Alice in Wonderland, Dumbo draws deeply from the animated original. From the bright red steam train Casey Jr. to the mice that live in Dumbo’s tent, the cartoon has been heavily mined for references by Burton.

“There ended up being a lot more references to the original than I think we thought there would be going into the film,” shares Frey.

The “Pink Elephants on Parade” sequence has been teased in trailers. (Disney)

“There’s nods to the original, but I wouldn’t say they’re blatant. And they’ll surprise you — Tim’s finding ways to bring those elements into this film I think that will surprise a lot of people, and it kind of puts a twist on it.”

One of the most memorable parts of the original is set to be referenced in a big way: the trippy Pink Elephants on Parade are back, but apparently they were a late addition.

“You’ll get Tim Burton’s take on it,” admits Frey. “That’s something that he incorporated into the film rather last minute. And it something that’s going to be really visually run, and a surprise. As long as 3D isn’t dead in 2019, it’s something that I look forward to in 3D!

Dumbo takes flight on March 29. Watch the latest trailer below.

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