Feature

Let Tim Burton and his 'Dumbo' cast take you inside their big screen big top

When the animated Dumbo first took flight in 1941, it was only Walt Disney‘s fourth animated feature, following Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio and Fantasia. This Friday, the high flying pachyderm returns with an all new live action take directed by the incomparable Tim Burton.

“It’s funny,” Burton recalls. “I’ve made circus movies, but I never really liked the circus. I like the idea of it. I like that concept when you’re a child of running away to the circus. It’s just a phrase that sort of stuck with a lot of people. I think that’s the idea of, not the circus per se, but of being with a bunch of other weird people from around the world that can’t get regular jobs. That kind of a person.”

“I think everybody has felt at some point kind of a bit strange or different,” says Eva Green, who previously worked with Burton on both Dark Shadows and Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children, “And yeah, it’s a big thing. It’s just such a wonderful movie because it has that message of, ‘No, it’s okay to be strange or different. It’s actually great. It makes you special.’ And we just have to embrace our uniqueness.”

Joined by his Dumbo cast, Burton is definitely not in short supply when it comes to like minded weirdos. The new film marks Burton’s fourth teaming with both Danny DeVito and Michael Keaton.

BEVERLY HILLS, CA - MARCH 10: Actors Danny DeVito (L) and Michael Keaton speak onstage during the "Dumbo" Global Press Conference at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on March 10, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Disney) *** Local Caption *** Danny DeVito; Michael Keaton“Everything I do in the movie is basically fed to me through the insane mind of Mr. Burton,” says DeVito, who also played a circus ringmaster in Burton’s 2003 Big Fish. “It felt really great to be Max Medici and to be part of this insane family. The great thing is that it is a family and it is Max trying to keep everything together and keep all the elements up in the air. Tim just works 24/7 when he’s making a movie, keeping everything going, keeping the plates spinning, keeping all the balls in the air, keeping everything moving. All the moving parts congealing. Everything going together. So I feel like he’s an inspiration when we’re on the set and it pushes you to new heights.”

“[He’s] going to get sick of this,” laughs Keaton, who himself faces off against DeVito’s Penguin in 1992’s Batman Returns, “But it’s a rare thing to work with an original. And to be in the thick of it. To be right in the middle of a piece of art.”

“You know, once in a while, how does it feel to be the bad guy?” DeVito lovingly chides his costar. “Him in the mask and the whole Batman thing. It’s just getting too much for me! And me always being the gross penguin grunting and groaning and stuff. It was really so nice to be with him in the movie and everybody who is in the movie with us all together. Like Tim says, this is a great family that he creates. We’re all the weirdos, but there is one really weird daddy down at the end. He’s pulling all the strings.”

“It’s a weird story about weird family,” Burton smiles. “It was very special to me to work with people that I’ve worked with. Michael, Eva, Danny, and Colin, I feel like I’ve worked with him for many years because he’s got the same kind of spirit… Having like a family, a weird dysfunctional family, like a film is and like the movie circus is, which 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.”

BEVERLY HILLS, CA - MARCH 10: Actor Eva Green speaks onstage during the "Dumbo" Global Press Conference at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on March 10, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Disney) *** Local Caption *** Eva GreenGreen, however, faced a significant challenge in preparing for her role. Playing master acrobat Colette Marchant meant overcoming her fear of heights.

“I had the most amazing circus people, who were very patient and very kind with me,” she says. “Because I was absolutely petrified. I thought I would never be able to do that. So, for two months, every day, I trained. You need a very strong core as well. Have very strong abs. Very strong arms. And then, little by little, I went higher and higher and higher.”

“Anybody who needs any help with any problems,” Burton jokes, “Fears or you don’t like clowns, heights, anything. I’m out in the lobby after the show.”

Despite it being his first time working with Burton, Farrell says that he instantly felt like a part of the troupe.

“I think everyone in the character is at odds with either their past or what’s going on in the present or both,” he explains. “And so I was playing a father who was disenfranchised from his kids, disenfranchised from a life that he left behind that is completely different by the time he comes back from fighting in the first 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 them all over the head. But my characters’ journey was one in just accepting his position as father and how that meant that all he had to do really was get out of his children’s way and let them be who they are.”

Director/executive producer Tim Burton (L) and actor Colin Farrell speak onstage during the "Dumbo" Global Press Conference at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on March 10, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Disney) *** Local Caption *** Tim Burton; Colin FarrellYoung stars Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins make their acting debuts as Milly and Joe, the children of Farrell’s Holt Farrier. Since they spend so much time with Dumbo, they made fast friends with Edd Osmond, a performance capture artist who played the baby elephant on set.

“He looked a weird insect,” Burton laughs, “But he had this green suit on. It was extended length. But Ed was amazing because he actually studied elephants and movements.”

“We were with him like the whole time,” says Parker. “I think midway through, we found out that he was in ‘Tarzan’ and could do like the ape walk. Oh my.”

“Oh, we took such advantage of that,” grins Hobbins.

“In my scenes, I didn’t use Ed,” Keaton deadpans. “I used Daniel Day-Lewis to come in and do the scenes for me.”

While the final film may not actually feature performance capture from the retired three-time Academy Award winner, Dumbo does boats a terrific assembly of talent telling a story with a message that is as powerful today as it was in 1941.

“I just like the fact that it’s obviously a very simple fable,” says Burton. “A very simple story. At its heart, it’s about family. What I liked about it was the human parallel story. This character, Holt,  comes back from a war. He doesn’t have an arm. He doesn’t have a wife. He doesn’t have a job. He’s trying to find his place in the world… Like Dumbo and using disadvantage to advantage.”

Catch Dumbo on the big screen beginning this Friday, March 29. Be sure to scan the poster with your Regal Cinemas app, too, to unlock a series of alternate poster designs!


Silas Lesnick is the Senior Editor of Moviebill. He has been covering entertainment news out of Los Angeles for more than a decade. You can reach him via e-mail or on Twitter.