'Dumbo' Director Tim Burton on Flying Elephants, Fear and Fables
Tim Burton has made a career out of stories about the loveable oddities and misfits. His films set in the “real world”, such as Ed Wood and Big Eyes, remind adults that things and people are not always what they seem. His fantasy classics, such as Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, and Batman, resonate with children and adults alike. Burton’s affinity for those so-called monsters and the misbegotten has always been a touchstone of his directing style and choice of projects. His lengthy career working with Disney includes films like Frankenweenie, James and the Giant Peach, Alice in Wonderland and, now, a new live-action reimagining of the 1941 Disney classic, Dumbo
With tickets now officially on sale for Dumbo here at Fandango (the film hits theaters March 29), we spoke exclusively with the passionate and witty Burton for a fun and enlightening chat about the film, fables, and how scary things in kids movies aren’t necessarily a bad thing.
Fandango: Dumbo is visually gorgeous. Was there a particular inspiration for the look and the feel of the film?
Tim Burton: I guess the inspiration, ultimately, was to try to make a movie that felt like the way I used to feel about Disney films, which were like fables beautifully brought to life. So, I think that was sort of the idea of taking a story that had its roots in animation, but kind of try to bring it to life and make it into like a live-action fable.
Fandango: You said the way Disney films used to feel to you.
Tim Burton: Yeah.
Fandango: What was your favorite Disney film as a child?
Tim Burton: Well, I didn’t really, I don’t think I had a favorite. I think what all of those early ones did is that they were like fables which were the first kind of things that taught you, as a child, about happiness, joy, sadness, loss, you know? Even scariness. They always had something very scary in the movies. Or a sense of melancholy, and a sense of joy, you know, the mixture of things. That’s something that I always got from Disney films.
Fandango: I remember crying a lot when I saw the original Dumbo as a kid, and I cried again watching your version, too. But when I was a kid, it didn’t seem like a big deal for a kid to cry or be frightened at something in a movie.
Tim Burton: Yeah, I know. Well, here, I’ll give you a good example of that. Many years ago, when I did Frankenweenie, actually, they were going to release it with the re-release of Pinocchio. So, they didn’t release it with Pinocchio because they thought it was too weird. But then during the screening of Pinocchio, during certain scary sequences, children, like they did when we were children, got scared. And so therefore you’re absolutely right. There was this weird panic of parents to protect their children.
And that’s the interesting thing. That’s something that I kind of just fundamentally disagree with, because I was glad I had those kinds of experiences as a child. For me, Disney movies were the first things, besides monster movies, that showed you those scary things, but in a safe, fairy tale/fable-like way. So, it was quite interesting that it’s the same movie that was released in 1940 whatever, and probably had the same response, but when it was re-released, perhaps the response of the parents was different, which is to try to overprotect the children from, you know, a very safe way of learning about these kinds of things.
Fandango: So, if you were talking to a parent who was thinking, “Should I let her see Dumbo? I don’t want to scare her”, what would you say to that parent.
Tim Burton: I’ve had this kind of resistance my whole life and career, where it was said, Nightmare Before Christmas was too scary for kids, and this and that. And all I know is what I feel myself which is, these things helped me, you know what I mean? They helped me explore those weird feelings I was having in a safe way rather than letting it build up, or being overly protected from things. It’s like reading books or things like that which were always the safest way to explore those feelings.
Fandango: The visual effects in the film are stunning and so believable. How much of the actual elephants in the film were real and what was CGI? Were they all CGI?
Tim Burton: Yeah. Yeah. I’ve worked with animals over the years in movies, and to be honest, I think that’s one of the things I never really liked about the circus, you know? It was either death defying acts, which were always uncomfortable, or animals, or clowns, which is always scary sh*t. So, it was a triple whammy of horror, you know?
So, though I have worked with animals over the years, I prefer not to because it’s just not right. Dogs maybe, and sometimes cats and horses. But beyond that, I try to minimize it because I think, especially with wild animals and things, it’s a positive move to not do that.
Fandango: The original film was strictly about Dumbo, but this reimagining expands the story to include the lives of people around him. Why was it important to add in the story of his circus family instead of focusing exclusively on Dumbo?
Tim Burton: When I was presented with this, what I liked about it was this was a parallel story. It wasn’t a big thing. It was just a weird sort of parallel story about people having trouble finding their place. Dumbo at its root is a very simple movie. It was one of Disney’s shortest animated features, and it’s one of the less story-pointed movies, in terms of the way it was structured. So, I liked the fact that this story just was a kind of a parallel kind of mirroring, in a different way, people not knowing their place, finding who they are, having disabilities, whether it’s mental, physical, spiritual, whatever.
And then with Dumbo as that kind of a symbol of all that, the sort of “flying elephant in the room,” it just felt like a nice fable. It felt like it was part of that Dumbo symbolism in the universe of somebody who doesn’t quite fit into where he is. And, you know, Dumbo, the circus…me, Disney. You know, it’s a very personal story.
Fandango: In your films, you have always managed to perfectly blend the macabre with this lovely tenderness and child-like love. Was there something in particular in your childhood or your upbringing that made you want to bring those things together?
Burton: Well, I mean, how long is our therapy session? (laughs) No, but I think growing up, everybody is a chemistry of their makeup. Their time, place, parents. So, for me, monster movies, well, I always saw them from a different perspective, where I loved them and I felt for them, even though in the movies they were being tortured and not looked upon that way. So, I really responded to that from the very beginning, whatever my cultural circumstances were, I saw people categorizing everybody from the get go, and I didn’t like it. And that’s why I think I gravitate toward monsters and I gravitate to those kinds of things because that’s how I felt. I think that it’s just, you know, it’s a combination of all those elements, and those are the things that inspired me.
Dumbo opens March 29. Get your tickets right now here at Fandango.
DaVette See is a freelance writer and filmmaker living in Los Angeles, CA. She loves movies, old TV shows, books, and music. She is also a wife, daughter, and mom to eight (yes, eight) cats. When not writing while covered in fur, she is working on her upcoming web-based talk show, Afro Bites! Follow her on Twitter and IG @mariavah.