‘Dumbo’ Set Visit: 10 Things You Need to Know About Disney’s Live-Action Remake
When Disney reimagines their animated classics in live-action form, the result can go a few different ways. There’s the prequel approach, a la Maleficent, the faithful rendition, in the case of Beauty and the Beast, and now we’re about to see what’s essentially an extended adaptation with Dumbo. The upcoming movie partly remakes the 1941 animated feature as its first act and then moves beyond the original for a sort of in-film sequel.
Tim Burton (Alice in Wonderland) is the director of Dumbo, which stars Colin Farrell, Danny DeVito, Eva Green and Michael Keaton alongside the computer-generated titular flying elephant, and it’s going to be everything we love about the classic Dumbo and so much more. Find out all there is to look forward to with the new version, according to what we learned on the London set back in the fall of 2017, below. And don’t forget to get your tickets now!
1) Dumbo isn’t quite the main character
Dumbo is still certainly the lead character in a titular sense and also in the way the new movie follows his story from birth through the discovery of his special talent and the adventure he goes on as a circus star. But the live-action effort also has some human protagonists, including Farrell’s World War I veteran father and his two children, one of whom is a 12-year-old science wiz with a complete story arc of her own.
“The emotional core of the story is twofold,” explained producer Justin Springer. “It’s still Dumbo’s story and him sort of coming into this world and being different and being looked down upon and then finding this gift and then using that gift to create a better situation for him and his mom, very much in the way the original film was. You still have to honor that in the storytelling and in the way you shoot it so you can get that emotionality.”
Yet because this is a live-action movie, there needs to be some significant human characters, which the original didn’t really have. That human point of view begins with Farrell’s character, who is a former star of Medici’s (Danny Devito) traveling circus whose only job now is to take care of the elephants, and his son and daughter.
“The two kids are the first to discover Dumbo’s secret,” Springer continued, “and so you’re kind of in this human perspective simultaneously. It’s their story of discovery and it’s this family that’s putting together the pieces of their life again through their experiences with Dumbo. You kind of have this dual perspective which is nice because I think it really opens up the movie to a broader audience and feels like why you’d want to do it in live-action.“
Production designer Rick Heinrichs also commented on this dual perspective. “One of the themes I wanted to make sure we hit was the idea of family,” he said, “because that’s really what this movie is about. Yes, it’s also about Dumbo and the ugly duckling story — that’s there — but Dumbo is kind of the main motivator for our other main characters. Everybody’s reacting to Dumbo. Some people respond with love and welcomeness and want him to succeed and be loved by audiences and others see him as a meal ticket and seek to exploit him.”
“That’s kind of the inspiration for a live-action version is [the original] movie was just about the animals. There were no human characters that had a real story, but by bringing in live-action we felt there was this huge opportunity to go different with the film. You could say how would this affect all the people in the context of the whole world but also this circus and these children and the father and so how do you really go about the human cast in a way. That sort of emphasizes that fantastic element.”
2) There are no talking animals
While he could eventually talk in Disney’s 1980s series Dumbo’s Circus, the title character never speaks once in the 1941 animated movie. But there are plenty of talking animals around him in the original to make up for the silence, including Timothy Q. Mouse, Mr. Stork, Mrs. Jumbo, the other elephants and the crows. To maintain the live-action version’s commitment to a certain level of realism, though, there are no talking animals in the new movie. There are other animals, most of them computer-generated, and some have personality and costumes and such, but none of them utter a word.
“Of all the animals that were created, Dumbo is the only one that has any magical quality,” admitted Springer. “There are no talking animals in the film. No singing animals. All of the other animals are meant to be in a real world. Real world re-creations of animals that actually exist. It’s just easier to work with them that way, to create them in CG for what we’re doing. But it’s not because they have some magical attribute that they would need to be in CG.”
Producer Derek Frey added that there aren’t a ton of animals in the movie, though, real or CG. “We want to focus on the elephant. And our circus, when we meet them, is kind of on hard times so they’ve had to shed a lot of their animals, which plays into the story. But we have got poodles, horses, a dove, some reptiles, small stuff that’s easier to work with. The [other] elephants will be computer generated.” Also, there’s a python in the movie that is a mix of real and CG, we learned.
“We have a monkey that’s a visual effect. We have little mice that are visual effects. We have Dumbo… I made clothes for all of them,” costume designer Colleen Atwood revealed about her work for these CG animals.
“We’re making a kind of shredded kind of blanket for [Mrs. Jumbo]. We made [Dumbo’s] baby bonnet and there’s a blanket in an action sequence that we made and harnesses and everything.”
3) Dumbo still had to be somewhat cartoonish
While the goal was to create a mostly realistic and practical world in Dumbo, the title character himself had to be a bit more fanciful. And not just because he can fly. In fact, the flight still had to be believable in some way. But because he had to be familiar specifically as Dumbo, not just any baby elephant with larger-than-normal ears.
“We did have one version that was going too real,” Heinrich said of early character designs. “It just wasn’t working, so we actually went back to square one as if it were an animated cartoon and start with a ball for a head and how big are the ears compared to that, and we just went through it all proportion-first and pretty much came up with what would have been a really nice, cute little animated model for it. Then we started to bring in more of the elements that felt real.”
Heinrich added that they wanted to keep the emotional core of Dumbo and how he looks in the original as much as they could. “Baby elephants can look like ugly old men, or they can look adorable and cute,” he noted. “We wanted to make sure that he was very adorable, partly so your heart was with him and partly so when his mother is banished and he becomes part of the clown brigade, you really get a feel for the danger that he’s in with the burning building and why it’s such a big moment when he’s pushed off the edge and takes flight.”
The challenge was keeping Dumbo recognizable but also realistic while also realizing the original animated version already got baby elephants right anyway. “If you look at actual real baby elephants, they’re not far off from that,” Frey recognized. “They almost seem like they’re out of an animated world, just how cute they are and expressive they are. I think the reference for our Dumbo, it is kind of a cross between the original animated and a real baby infant elephant.”
Springer added, “He has to feel like he fits and exists in the real world but maybe be just slightly cuter and expressive than even a very cute real elephant.”
Having Dumbo be a little more fanciful in his look and personality also goes along with his place in the movie as the fantastical entity in the otherwise realistic world. “It’s finding a balance, because it’s still a movie where there’s an elephant that’s born that has the ability to fly, and so you want that fantastical element, it just has to exist in the real context,” Springer explained. “The circus itself is quite beautiful and magical and joyful and great to look at, but one version of the movie would just be a period circus movie. We’re infusing that with this magical character affecting the lives of everyone he comes into contact with.”
“The idea is that we’re in a storybook,” Heinrich said of the fantasy element and its relationship to this grounded reality. “Elephants don’t really fly, so we’ve got the license to hit specific notes here. The things that you do need to sell is that when we do have our elephant, or any of our virtual characters, with our actors, you want to believe they’re really there, so there are just a certain amount of things you have to do, they have to move correctly.”
Basically, he looks real enough when he needs to be, especially as a physical being. “When Dumbo flies, he’s like Superman. You have to believe he flies,” Heinrich continued. “And so you do need to take physics into consideration and how things really look, but at the same time if you get too hung up with the reality of it, then you’re almost not doing it properly, as well. It’s a fine line, you have to keep going back and forth until you feel like you’re getting into the groove, and I think we did.“
Frey explained that they tried to keep Dumbo grounded as a real animal for the most part except for when he takes flight. “It’s not something that’s going to come easy to him,” he said. “He’s not going to be, ‘Hey I just nailed this flight thing!’ There’s going to be a bit of learning curve on flight. To try to make that as real as if an elephant was born with big ears and could fly. I think one of the challenges has been how to actually design an elephant with ears that are big enough that aren’t ridiculous but that if he had control over them makes it look real that this elephant could carry that weight and have flight. I feel like they’re cracking it. You’ll believe.”
4) None of the movie was filmed outdoors
Shooting a movie entirely on a sound stage is both old fashioned and a contemporary trend. Yet, Dumbo won’t look as artificial as early Hollywood movies, nor did it use the amount of green screen you expect from today’s blockbusters. This production managed to stay as practical and tactile as it could while still being confined to interior stages, and having stood on the dirt and grass of outdoor scenes, we can say it felt exterior enough.
“One of the decisions we made early on was that we were going to do this entire film on stage instead of outside,” Heinrichs acknowledged. “And the importance of that is, instead of dealing with daylight and the kind of lighting and feel and spread-out-ness of that, being on stage allows you to focus things much more and to light expressively and focus the audience’s attention in a much more specific way.”
“It really comes down to the fact that Dumbo is going to be computer generated element and obviously the centerpiece of the film,” Frey noted. “So it was a very conscious decision for Tim to take a very practical route with the sets and the vehicles and everything really.” Truly, the only thing that looked in need of digital effects while we were on set was the sky. Frey confirmed, “For the most part, we’re filling in skies and the background, the horizon, but our characters completely interact in a real set.”
5) It’s about the Heartland vs. Dreamland
One of the big themes of the new Dumbo is a kind of country mouse and city mouse dynamic. There’s the old-fashioned American Heartland mentality of the traveling circus clashing with the fancy progress of Dreamland, a destination spot that’s part Big Top and part amusement park run by Michael Keaton’s bigwig character, V.A. Vandevere.
“Medici’s world is [specifically] Missouri, but basically it’s the Heartland,” said Heinrich of DeVito’s character’s circus, “and it’s kind of the Heartland versus the Dreamland. The Heartland wants to feel like your own family, where Dreamland is the big city, more Oz, more glittery and spires and surface spectacle. It’s this idea of one of the first destination resort circuses. It’s both Coney Island amusement park as well as a circus and spectacle. It’s just fun to make up a park.”
6) The movie’s dual aesthetic plays with time
Going with the theme of Heartland versus Dreamland is a conflict between past and future. Medici’s circus is struggling in part because it’s behind the times, while Vandevere’s Dreamland represents progress in a way that’s altogether anachronistic, as if it’s too advanced too soon. The look of Dreamland and its inhabitants are definitely inspired by design ideas that didn’t exist in the 1919 time period of the movie.
“The correct period stuff at Coney Island is much more post-Victorian looking, lots of twinkling lights on things, and we wanted it to feel period but we also bent the rules a little bit and brought in a little bit ’30s Deco and Hollywood Deco and more futuristic shapes from the world’s fairs from the ’30s as well,” explained Heinrich. “The point being that this is supposed to feel like Oz for these yokels from the Heartland and it’s quite over the top, as well.”
From what we could see of Eva Green’s character, a Hollywood movie star and trapeze talent named Colette, she is also representative of a later time’s influence. Posters of her fake screen credits, including those for “The Curtain Falls,” ”Temptress,” “Femme Fatale,” and “Canary in a Coal Mine,” fit into a post-World War II film noir style mixed with the more authentic-to-the-period concept of the “vamp” archetype. Colette is a part of Vandevere’s world, so she fits Heinrich’s acknowledgment that Dreamland is an “element that is almost from the future.”
Costume designer Colleen Atwood also admitted to playing a bit loose with the clothing seen in Dumbo. “Well, it’s not a documentary,” she defended, explaining that at least the crowd costumes are “90% real” mixed with reproductions. “It’s a combination of the feeling that Tim wanted of the costumes with the patina of time. The guards there are kinda based on world’s fair uniforms from a couple years later, so it’s pretty close but it’s not precious, let’s put it that way. It’s not that kind of movie.”
7) This Dumbo will have plenty of nods to the original
If the new Dumbo seems like it’s diverging a lot from the 1941 animated version, keep in mind that the original ends before the story really gets going, so its events will be mostly faithfully redone in the first act. Minus the crows and the accidental alcohol consumption and other exemptions. Only the best and most memorable parts from the earlier classic will be worked in, some of it in the form of subtle nods and Easter eggs.
“There are nods to the original, but I wouldn’t say they are blatant,” Frey said. “They’ll surprise you. Tim is finding ways to bring those elements into this film that will surprise a lot of people, and it puts a kind of twist on it. I think that’s one of the most exciting parts for me is to see how he’s put those in without hitting it on the nose but creating something new.”
Springer added, when specifically asked about the iconic “Pink Elephants on Parade” sequence, “The fun thing is looking back at the original and thinking about what people most remember and trying to figure out a way to make an homage to that or use that to your advantage in a way that works for your story. So, without giving too much away, there are lots of specific things from the original, from music to certain sequences that we do try to find to reprise, but in our own way that works for us.”
“There are just some elements from the original that we have to have in our film, and the ‘Baby Mine’ sequence is one of the favorites,” Heinrich revealed, recognizing one of the songs from the 1941 movie.
The nods continue into Atwood’s costuming, too. “The cartoon is really important to me as far as the telling of the story,” she told us. “In the sense of the graphic of the cartoon and the sort of color palette of the original cartoon. There are nods to the cartoon all the way along. When you work with a director like Tim, he came from animation so you have to kind of get in that headset of how an animator sees movement costume and how he plays with it. Which is really interesting. When you look at Tim’s movie, the camera angles and a lot of that is very, very based in animation and I think as a designer you have to anticipate that. I’ve tried to do that and I’ve tried to give it a wink to the original.”
8) The clowns are not bad guys
One faithful adaptation we saw on set was the clowns in Medici’s circus with their firefighter uniforms, as iconically recalled from the original movie. However, the live-action version does have a twist: these clowns aren’t as negatively portrayed. They’re not mean. That would make sense since this version of the story introduces its own villains.
Asked about whether Dumbo will make people love clowns again, Springer said: “After It? I hope so. Everyone has their own opinion about them. You see the ones here, obviously they’re very much in the style of the ones from the original feature in the way they play, and they’re quite silly. They don’t play that [mean] role in this story. They don’t have the villainous or antagonistic role.”
9) The villain is not based on Walt Disney
Could you imagine Disney making a movie in which their iconic namesake and founder was the inspiration for the bad guy? Due to fact that the antagonist Vandevere runs a destination theme park, though, the parallel between him and Walt Disney did come up on set. Even if viewers will see a little of the man behind Mickey Mouse in there, however, the character is clearly inspired by a number of the era’s entertainment businessmen and showman, from Thomas Edison to Hollywood producers to circus legends.
“I’d say he’s more like the moguls of that period,” Frey stated. “Whether it’s Howard Hughes or P.T. Barnum, all these kind of larger than life people with money. But the fact that he’s built a world where at a time when 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’s even subconsciously in their minds.”
Of course, the Dreamland amusement park itself, from the concept art designs we saw, somewhat resembles Walt Disney World if it were much darker and colder and flashier rather than the family-friendly reality of Disney’s parks. The distinct lands drawn up were named “the Coliseum,” “Solar Odyssey,” “Jollyopolis,” “Land of Lore,” “Midway Mania,” and “Mysterioso.” Again, there are parallels that can be made, but there are also other comparisons to draw.
“Maybe some of the park-specific stuff is intentional,” Springer explained, “while the other part is the creation of a modern amusement park concept in the early 1900s, which was before Walt Disney was doing it but you can’t help but but be influenced by some of those ideas and also the notion of looking forward into the future. So, something like the Carousel of Progress as a concept fits our story specifically in ways that you’ll have to see the film to understand, but it’s sort of a necessary element.”
Of course, if some of the attractions from Dreamland made their way into the actual Disney parks, that would be a fun full-circle idea. “I hope some of the [Disney] imagineers take some of this stuff and build a new Dumbo world because we’ve kind of gifted them a whole world that they can build,” Frey added. “[Or], just update their Dumbo ride.”
10) This is a different kind of Tim Burton movie
When Tim Burton was announced as the director of Dumbo, fans might have wondered how dark this live-action version would be. Or, would it be full of CG visuals like his live-action adaptation of Alice in Wonderland? As it turns out, none of the preconceived expectations of Burton based on his reputation and past work were worthy of concern.
“It’s a question that’s come up because obviously it’s Tim and you know he’d probably be the first to say he’s judged wrong,” said Frey. “He’s chosen a palette that’s brighter. Tonally, it’s brighter and warmer. It’s more inviting. I don’t know if that’s a conscious thing, but I think he looks to the palette of the animated film for the foundations of this. Obviously there are heavy and sad moments in the original, as there are in a lot of early Disney films, that does provide for a foundation for some of the emotional points in this film but I wouldn’t say we’re bedded in darkness or murkiness or fogginess.”
Is there any Burton movie that Dumbo is best compared with? “I know it sounds cliche, but I feel like there’s a piece of everything he’s ever done — that I know him to have worked on — fused into this,” Frey continued. “It’s just creating something new. That has a lot to do with the actors he’s working with, going back to Beetlejuice. It is kind of a fusion of all these things, Big Fish and Batman and Frankenweenie. You’re looking at the ultimate outsider. Dumbo is an outsider, a freakish character. It becomes very evident why Tim was drawn to this subject matter and why he is the perfect person to direct it. I think people go Tim Burton Dumbo? I don’t understand that. But it’s right there in front of you.”
Atwood also helped distance Dumbo from what we expect with Burton movies. ”I changed it up a bit. I don’t have a black and white stripe anywhere,” she said of the costume design. “Because it’s so predictably Tim. But like if you look at those guys, they’re period shapes and the swirls the bullseye swirl, that’s my moment. That’s sort of my nod to the Tim that we expect. It’s a combination of a skeleton and a swirl, so that was kind of my check off that and a wink for the Tim fans and for Tim, too.”
“With Tim, you kind of pay homage to Tim,” Atwood continued. “He’s definitely a singular vision and a true artist in his own way. So, there are things that I know about him that I know he’ll like and there are things that I’ve done before that I try to not do. In this show, I think we’ve had a really good collaborative experience in the sense of him being really happy with the colors and the things I came up with, kind of stepping outside of a lot of parameters. There’s more color in it. There are stronger colors in it. The colors evolve…I think Tim’s very conscious of color. He’s a painter, really, and a really good artist, so it’s always fun to push it a little bit with him.”
Frey pointed out as much as people already love working on Burton’s movies, it’s the change and going against expectations that made Dumbo really special. “There’s this understanding or perception of Tim as this artiste and kind of a mad scientist, but actually when you work with him, you realize he’s incredibly focused and he is the artist, but he’s really caring about the people he works with and he trusts everyone incredibly to contribute and to carry out their task, but at the same time he’s so hands on.
“After you work with him, you kind of get infected with that and you want to do it again and you hope that you’re asked again to be a part of that team. It is like family, everybody works incredibly hard over a long period and I think when you feel that kind of sense of pride in your work and commitment and family it makes you want to work harder and then do it again on the next one.
“And each film has its own sense of vibe and feel to it, each one is different in a lot of ways. He approaches each film differently. I think it’s quick for people to think it’s going to be a lot of CG and green screen, but actually when you see a little bit of it here, it’s very practical and tactile and attention to detail. That’s exciting in this day and age as big films are going the route of walking into a green room. Tim’s done that before, and now he’s choosing to do this in a more traditional way. I think people who’ve worked in the industry as long as our people have kind of appreciate that.”