As befits a movie that celebrates the circus, creating a live-action version of the animated classic “Dumbo” proved a high-wire balancing act.
Take the title character of director Tim Burton’s update, which reaches theaters March 29. Unlike the other, realistically rendered CGI animals in the new “Dumbo,” the eponymous elephant with outsized ears he flaps to fly is mostly natural-looking except for the eyes — big blue pools of emotion that maybe aren’t quite the stuff of the Keane paintings in Burton’s 2014 “Big Eyes” but aren’t “National Geographic” either.
“Dumbo had to feel like he existed in the world, and then rather than being slavish to exactly what an actual baby elephant looked like, we wanted to create the most appealing version of the character,” says Justin Springer, 38, one of the producers, speaking by phone from Los Angeles. “So there was a lot of discovering what was necessary to find that line. And I think it results in something interesting, where you don’t feel like you’re beholden to reality but at the same time you’ve created a character that does feel like he’s in this space.”
That space includes new human characters facing as much emotional darkness as the anthropomorphic animals of the 1941 original. Replacing the animated feature’s Timothy Q. Mouse as Dumbo’s protector and champion are young siblings Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe Farrier (Finley Hobbins) — whose father, former trick horseman Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell), has just returned to the circus from World War I minus an arm and with the children’s mother having died from influenza.
That sounds like “Old Yeller” territory, but Farrell (“In Bruges,” “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them”) says he understood the balance needed between emotional reality and potential trauma. “If I was approaching that character in a $5 million film that was a kitchen-sink drama, it would have been a lot different from my approach to this,” the Dublin native, 42, reflects in his natural Irish brogue. “Not that you don’t treat this just as serious, but [such a drama] asks for a particular depth, I suppose, or a particular expression of uncertainties and pains and fears that maybe the tone of this film didn’t want to venture to.”
Indeed, the new film — also starring Danny DeVito as ringmaster Max Medici, Michael Keaton as conniving impresario V.A. Vandevere, Alan Arkin as banker J. Griffin Remington and Eva Green as aerialist Colette Marchant — reflects Burton’s penchant for meshing the ghastly and the giddy. That’s well evident here as in any of his works from “Beetlejuice” to “Big Fish.”
“It’s Tim Burton’s movie,” acknowledges Green (Bond girl Vesper Lynd in “Casino Royale,” Vanessa Ives in the Victorian-era horror series “Penny Dreadful”). “I can’t say no to Tim. I could play anything for him.” A star of the director’s “Dark Shadows” (2012) and “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” (2016), “I didn’t even read the script when he approached me for it,” the 38-year-old says. “You know with Tim that it’s always going to be visually very interesting. The characters that I’ve played before with him have always been quite diverse and bigger than life.”
The script, says Farrell, “was very sweet, in no way groundbreaking, but really lovely. It had some time-honored conventions, and I think that’s OK, too. We’re not reinventing the wheel. But with Tim’s guidance and with his imagination and his visual accouterments, it’s an astonishing world that’s created for this story to take place in.”
That world wisely does not revive the most problematic part of the original, the racist-stereotype birds led by Jim Crow — the name of a stock character from minstrel shows that has since become a shorthand for segregationist policies. Yet though the filmmakers did not include them, they also don’t want to talk about them: Producer-screenwriter Ehren Kruger, 46, maintains the choice was from nothing more than “scaling way back on the animals who had speaking parts.” Springer calls it simply a matter of retaining “the things that you remember most about” the original “that you feel like you really want to hold on to.” In the animated film, Jim Crow and buddies Fats, Deacon, Dopey and Specks introduce the popular song “When I See an Elephant Fly” and teach Dumbo how to take flight.
“I think the themes of that movie hold up beautifully, and it’s a beautifully animated film,” Kruger, when pressed, says gingerly of the original, adding that “with any movie from a different era, it’s an opportunity to reflect and have a conversation about how the world is different.”
Whether the original “Dumbo” can even be shown to kids today or is now fit only for animation scholarship and for viewing by adults with perspective is an open question. But the live-action remake is certainly fit for ladies, gentlemen and children of all ages, as the big-top saying goes. “I think one of the great sadnesses of being a human,” reflects Farrell, “is that there are many people out there who are judging their worth against a broken system.” In some ways, we’re all poor put-upon pachyderms that have to rise to heights of respect.
Despite a problematic sequence featuring racist African-American stereotypes of the time, Disney's "Dumbo” remains an animation classic, inducted into the Library of Congress' National Film Registry in 2017 for virtues including "its lovely drawing, original score (which would go on to win the Oscar that year) and enduring message of always believing in yourself."
Ironically, the 1941 film had been conceived of as something quick and cheap simply to help recoup losses from the expensive and experimental phantasmagoria "Fantasia" (1940), which had opened to disappointing box office. Made for an estimated $850,000 to $1 million — far less than each of Disney's three previous animated films — it is only 64 minutes long, making it one of the studio's shortest features.
Production was hampered by a five-week animators' strike in summer 1941, which ended when federal mediators, financiers and even brother Roy Disney persuaded studio chief Walt Disney to recognize the Screen Cartoonists Guild. Hollywood lore has it than in retaliation, some of the strikers were then caricatured among the "Dumbo" clowns that demand a raise, though Disney sources have denied this.
"Dumbo" proved profitable, earning an estimated $1.6 million and going on to periodic reissues. Reviews were positive, with The New York Times critic Bosley Crowther calling it "the most genial, the most endearing, the most completely precious cartoon feature" yet from Disney, "a picture which touches the very heart of sentiment," and he recognized the now-famed, surrealistic pink-elephants sequence as "truly brilliant."
Of course, he also mentions "Jim Crow, the loud and fancy sport who cackles, 'Well, hush mah beak!' and his raffish crew of dusky satellites," so keep in mind that "classic" doesn't necessarily mean "perfect." — FRANK LOVECE