When Disney first announced that they were making a live action version of their animated classic Dumbo, people were skeptical. And how could they not be? The character of Dumbo is an icon. How could they manage to replicate that same magic of seeing an elephant flying around a circus tent? But, they had Tim Burton as a director, so many fears were soothed. Now. Dumbo is being released on Blu-Ray, and ahead of it's release, Moms.com was able to talk to producer Derek Frey about what it was like to bring the iconic film back to the big screen in such a new way.
The original Dumbo was released in 1941, almost 80 years ago. It is still one of Disney's most simple and yet beautiful stories. Obviously, there are major differences between the original and this new version, but they all make sense to the story. One major change is moving the time period during which the movie takes place. The original seems to take place during the time it was made, in Post Great Depression, Pre-World War II. This new version is set in 1919, post World War I and after the Spanish Flu epidemic.
In the new version, humans get more focus for obvious reasons. Timothy Mouse, who was Dumbo's champion and cheerleader, has been replaced with the Farrier family. Father Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) returns from the war to the Medici Bros. Circus, run by Max Medici (Danny DeVito.) His children Milly and Joe have been cared for by other members of the circus after the death of their mother Annie. Max has sold the horses that were apart of Holt and Annie's act, and now that Holy has returned injured (he's lost an arm) and with no act, he's put in charge of the elephants, which includes the pregnant Mrs. Jumbo.
At its heart, Dumbo is a story about the discovery of self. From the first time we see Dumbo tumble out, his ears splayed all around him, we know he has a hard road ahead. He's different, and even in a circus full of misfits, he's still an outsider. But with a little time, and a "magic" feather, the Farrier kids able to turn what makes him different into what makes him a star. Their story is discovered by V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton,) a Barnum-esque character who runs 'Dreamland', a theme park for the people with money to spend. He decides to turn Dumbo into the star of the show, alongside aerialist Colette (Eva Green.)
Honestly, it's hard to imagine anyone but Tim Burton directing a live action version of Dumbo. "Throughout his career, he's [Burton] been a champion for the outsider character, and it has so many of those elements that Tim strives to incorporate in his films," Frey explains. "To be able to take something so iconic and bring it into a live action environment was an exciting opportunity." While the animated version isn't particularly fantastical, it is about a flying elephant. Burton really does a good job at blending those familiar elements of the original with the story of the new version. He keeps all of the emotional beats that make Dumbo such a wonderful movie. Dumbo's mother, Mrs. Jumbo still has the same plot, after accidentally killing a cruel handler, she is sold away from the Medici circus. While it's set up differently, "Baby Mine" is still a beautiful, tender moment between Dumbo and his mother.
Frey explains that he was most excited to see the 'Pink Elephants on Parade' sequence on the big screen. In the animated version, it's a drunken hallucination Dumbo has, which almost reads as a nightmare. But in the Burton film, the sequence is turned into an elaborate performance in Dreamland, complete with dozens of dancers. "When I first read the script, I was excited to see it there. I knew Tim Burton taking this scene and putting his touch on it, and Danny Elfman doing the music. And then it was in 3D so it just seemed wow. I know a lot of people were excited about it, and they weren't disappointed."
Dumbo himself was a unique challenge, but Burton and crew found the best way to make him come to life. He is 100 percent CGI animated, but instead of just having the actors interacting with air, they figured out a way to give him a presence. In the bonus features section of the Blu-Ray, we see that they used actor Edd Osmond as a stand-in for the baby elephant. Dressed in a green screen unitard, the cast was able to interact with Osmond in those scenes where they need to touch the elephant, like when they're giving him a bath.
Dumbo has other iconic moments and characters. Another is Casey Jr. the circus train. Casey Jr. has a ride at Disneyland, so there's no way they could leave it out. But obviously, they had the challenge of taking a cartoon train and making it real. When we asked Frey about balancing beloved moments of the original, he said "You don't want it to be too close to the original animated film, but you wanted it to feel real and have gravity to it. To see that train full scale was an exciting time and then to see it moving was amazing."
"Tim's imagination is endless. You had these two completely different worlds [Dreamland and the Medici Bros. Circus] and the way Tim felt he'd have the most control of it was to build sets. It was a tremendous challenge [to build Dreamland] but to see it all come together, every day was a new adventure and something to look forward to," Frey says of the challenges of bringing this new world to life.
If you haven't seen the film yet, you absolutely should. Dumbo soars home on Blu-Ray/DVD this Tuesday, June 25th.