From visionary director Tim Burton, the live-action telling of the beloved classic Dumbo celebrates differences while also exploring the importance of family, both by blood and by circumstance. When circus owner Max Medici (Danny DeVito) appoints former horse-riding star Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) and his children (Nico Parker, Finley Hobbins) as the caretakers for the newborn elephant with the oversized ears, he has no idea that what initially makes him a laughingstock to audiences will also change their lives forever.
During a conference at the film’s Los Angeles press junket, co-stars Colin Farrell, Danny DeVito and Michael Keaton (who plays entertainment entrepreneur V.A. Vandevere), along with filmmaker Tim Burton, talked about telling a simple story with real emotions, expanding on the original 60-minute story, being a part of Burton’s Island of Misfit Toys, how Dumbo was represented on set, their favorite performers in the circus, and what they hope audiences get from the film.
Question: Tim, why Dumbo? What do you love about the story of Dumbo?
TIM BURTON: I just liked the idea of a flying elephant that doesn’t quite fit into the world, and how somebody with a disadvantage makes it an advantage. It just felt very close to the way I felt about things. It was just a very pure, simple image. Like all of the old Disney fables, it has that simple symbolism for real emotions.
What were the specific things in the 60-minute original film that you wanted to expand on?
BURTON: I just like the fact that it’s obviously a very simple fable and story. At its heart, it’s about family. What I liked about it was the human parallel story. This character comes back from war, and he doesn’t have an arm, he doesn’t have a wife, and he doesn’t have a job. He’s trying to find his place in the world. It’s like that for all of the characters. Every character in it wants to be something. They’re like Dumbo, using disadvantage to advantage. So, there are lots of nice themes, but in a very simple framework.
What’s it like to work with Tim Burton on a project?
DANNY DEVITO: I think he’s brilliant. He’s just a genius. His artistry is just astounding. You give a talented person like Tim a subject like Dumbo, with all of the great meeting and messages and metaphors, and what does he do? He sends it off into the stratosphere. He’s one of a kind. He’s just amazing, and we love him so much.
MICHAEL KEATON: It’s true. It’s a rare thing to work with an original, and to be in the thick of it, right in the middle of a piece of art. It’s absolutely true.
Colin, what was your experience like on this film?
COLIN FARRELL: Everyone in this story is at odds, either with their past, or what’s going on in the present, or both. I was playing a father who was disenfranchised from his kids, and from a life that he left behind, that is completely different, by the time he comes back from fighting in the war. He’s physically a different man. He’s lost his left arm. He’s seen a lot of brutality. We don’t get into all of that psychological stuff so heavily because we want the film to be able to be received with the importance of the messages that are in it, rather than hitting people over the head. But my character’s journey is one of just accepting his position, as a father, and how that means that all he really has to do is get out of the way of his children and let them be who they are.
Tim, you often work with the same actors, so what draws you to a performer or an artist? What qualities do you look for?
BURTON: Look at them all. They all look weird. It’s very simple. Dumbo is a heightened reality. It’s a weird story about a weird family. It was very special to me, to work with people that I’ve worked with, like Michael, Danny and Eva [Green]. With Colin, it feels like I’ve worked with him for many years because he’s got the same kind of spirit. Same with Nico [Parker] and Finley [Hobbins], and Alan Arkin. Having a weird dysfunctional family, like a film is and like the movie circus is, is very beautiful and important. The spirit of all of them really meant the world to me, in terms of what the movie is and the spirit that they all put into it. Because it’s like a weird elephant, all of the people naturally had to look weird, in a good way.
FARRELL: And coming from an actual dysfunctional family, I felt like I fit right in. It was like Thanksgiving dinner.
Michael and Danny, what was it like for you to perform together again?
DEVITO: It was great. It was really terrific. When Tim called a year ago, or whenever it was, and said that he was making the movie, I was really thrilled to be able to be a part of it. And then, the joy factor went through the roof, when I heard that Michael was in it with me.
KEATON: He reminded me that he got to be the hero, and I got to be the bad guy. He was just thrilled with that.
DEVITO: It’s just getting to be too much for me, to be the bad guy. Last time, I was this gross penguin, grunting and groaning, and stuff. It was really so nice to be with him in the movie, and for all of us to be together. It’s a great family that Tim creates. We’re all weirdos, but there’s one really weird daddy who’s pulling all of the strings.
BURTON: Welcome to the Island of Misfit Toys.
Danny, as the ringleader of a circus, was any of your performance inspired by Tim Burton?
DEVITO: Everything I do in the movie is basically fed to me through the insane mind of Tim Burton. It felt really great to be Max Medici, and to be a part of this insane family. The great thing is that it is a family, and Max is trying to keep everything together and keep all of the elements up in the air. Tim works 24/7, when he’s making a movie, keeping everything going, keeping the plates spinning, keeping all of the balls in the air, and keeping everything moving. So, I feel like he’s an inspiration when we’re on the set, and it pushes you to new heights.
Tim, considering her fear of heights, how much of what Eva Green does in the film was actually her doing the stunts, and how much was it CGI or a stunt double?
BURTON: She did mostly everything. There were a couple of times when her person that she works with did things. Nobody really knows how hard she worked at it, except for the people who worked on the movie. She could do everything. That’s the amazing thing about her. She did it. There were only a couple of times that she couldn’t do it, for safety reasons.