In Disney’s Dumbo, the iconic character of a baby elephant that can fly gets a live-action makeover by visionary director, Tim Burton (Alice in Wonderland, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory).
Expanding on the original animated movie’s story, which premiered on October 23, 1941, this feature spotlights the struggling Medici Circus, owned by Max Medici (Danny DeVito, Batman Returns). He entrusts Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell), who has just returned from fighting in World War I, and his children Milly and Joe (Nico Parker, Finley Hobbins), to care for the circus’ new arrival. It’s a newborn elephant whose oversized ears have made him a laughingstock. However, when they discover that he can fly, the circus financially takes off. This draws the interest of entrepreneur VA Vandevere (Michael Keaton), who wants to bring the attraction to his entertainment park, Dreamland.
Tim Burton, Colin Farrell, Danny DeVito, and Michael Keaton attended the press conference for the movie to talk about bringing Dumbo to life.

Tim, why Dumbo?

Dumbo - Tim Burton
Dumbo – Visionary filmmaker Tim Burton helms the live-action reimagining of Disney’s 1941 animated classic © 2017 Disney Enterprises

Tim Burton: (It was) the idea of a flying elephant, and a character 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 a very pure simple image. All the old Disney fables had that kind of simple symbolism for real emotions.

What I liked about it was the human parallel story. (Colin’s) character, who comes back from a war, 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. Every character in it is trying to find their place in the world. Like Dumbo, using disadvantage to advantage. So (there were) lots of nice themes, but in a very simple framework.

What draws you to a performer, because you often work with the same actors?

Tim: They all look weird. (he laughs) It was very special to me to work with people that I’ve worked with. Michael, Danny, and Colin, I feel like I’ve worked with (Colin) for many years because he’s got the same kind of spirit. Having a weird dysfunctional family, like a film and like the movie circus is, is very beautiful and important. And 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. I had one thing in the back of my mind. All the people had to look kind of weird. Naturally, in a good way.

Can you talk about what it’s like to work with Tim Burton on a project?

Dumbo - Danny DeVito, Nico Parker and Colin Farrell
Dumbo – Circus owner Max Medici (Danny DeVito) © 2018 Disney Enterprises

Danny DeVito: I think he’s brilliant. He’s a genius. His artistry is just astounding. You give a talented person like Tim a subject like Dumbo with all the great 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. 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.

Colin, tell us a little about your role?

Dumbo - Colin Farrell and Eva Green
Dumbo – Former circus star Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) is tapped to care for a newborn elephant alongside charming and spectacular aerial artist Colette Marchant (Eva Green) © 2018 Disney Enterprises, photo by Jay Maidment

Colin Farrell: I think every character is at odds with either their past or what’s going on in the present, or both. 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 (World) War.

He’s physically a different man. He’s lost his left arm. He’s seen a lot of brutalities. We don’t get into all of that psychological stuff so heavily. 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.

Danny, as the ringmaster of the circus, was any of your performance based on Mr Burton?

Danny: Everything I do in the movie is basically fed to me through the insane mind of Mr. Burton. I felt really great to be Max Medici and 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 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. So I feel like he’s an inspiration when we’re on the set, and it pushes you to new heights.

Michael, your character for some reason very much reminded me of Beetlejuice. Were you inspired by Beetlejuice for this character?

Dumbo - Michael Keaton and Danny DeVito
Dumbo – VA Vandevere (Michael Keaton) convinces struggling circus owner Max Medici (Danny DeVito) that they can make a star out of Medici’s flying elephant ©2018 Disney Enterprises

Michael: No. That’s lightning in a bottle. That’s unique. Danny would probably feel the same way since we’ve worked with Tim before. There are probably certain things that you click into immediately just in terms of sensibilities. I do like going to extremes and so any time you’re with Tim, there is always that likelihood that you’re going to go to some kind of an extreme in a look or something like that.

Which performer do you look forward to the most in a circus?

Tim: None of it. It’s funny. I’ve made circus movies. But I never really liked the circus. But I like the idea of it. I like the idea of that concept when you’re a child of running away to the circus. It’s just a phrase that 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.

Dumbo - Michael Keaton, Colin Farrell, Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins
Dumbo – Persuasive entrepreneur VA Vandevere (Michael Keaton), alongside a stunning aerial artist, Colette Marchant (Eva Green). But Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell), who was originally enlisted to care for Dumbo with his kids (Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins), soon discovers that beneath its shiny veneer, Dreamland is full of dark secrets ©2018 Disney Enterprises

Colin: I’ve never seen the circus, except in the world of Tim Burton’s imagination coming to a cinema near you. Maybe a seal (act), because I used to play football.

Danny: I love the aerialists, the tightrope walkers. They really astound me. It’s balance, grace and daring – all of the things that I lack.

Michael: I’m with him, the aerialists. First of all, more than anything, what I wanted to do is fly. That would be it for me. I have those flying dreams. I say that I like everybody has a flying dream. But the aerialists do knock me out.

Dumbo - Michael Keaton
Dumbo – VA Vandevere (Michael Keaton), a persuasive entrepreneur. He sets his sights on Max Medici’s circus and its newest, miraculous member—a flying elephant named Dumbo © 2019 Disney Enterprises,

Dumbo Soundbytes

Tim and Colin were asked what they hoped kids would take away from seeing the movie – click here to listen to their replies, with a little help from the moderator.
After playing Batman and the Penguin in Tim Burton’s Batman Returns, Michael and Danny were asked about working together again?

Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter.