Tim Burton has specialized in movies about social misfits like Pee-Wee Herman and outsiders like Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood. Often those characters find family in a world of other misfits like they are. Dumbo was ripe for the Tim Burton treatment.
Everyone remembers the original animated film about the flying element. That film also had tragedy, emotion and more.
“The reason I wanted to do it was the old Disney movies had all these elements,” Burton said. “They had joy, they had humor, death, everything. Certainly there were taboo subjects.”
Death is present in a lot of Tim Burton classics. Frankenweenie is about a dead pet brought back to life. Big Fish addresses mortality, and so on.
“Did I emphasize that one too much?” Burton laughed. “Those movies always had a mixture of those things. We try to present these things without overdoing it in a fable-like way, but let it present itself and not dictate it and just show these people for what they’re going through and who they are.”
Dumbo elaborates on the human characters in the circus. There’s ringleader Max Medici (Danny DeVito) and war veteran Holt (Colin Farrell) whose children (Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins) become close to Dumbo.
V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton) buys the Medici circus to get Dumbo, but his acrobat Colette Merchant (Eva Green) becomes closer to the Medici family. Many of these actors are part of Burton’s familial cast.
“Because it’s a weird story about a weird family, it was very special to me to work with people that I’ve worked with like Michael, Eva, Danny,” Burton said. “I feel like I’ve worked with Colin for many years because he’s got the same kind of spirit. And meeting Nico and Finley, having a weird dysfunctional family like a film is and like the movie’s circus is was just very beautiful and important.”
The connections between Burton’s past films were unintentional. He just frequently deals with the same themes.
“The theme comes up because I can’t help it,” Burton said. “It’s part of your DNA so it’s not that I consciously think about that, but once your branded that way, no matter how you feel, that’s the themes that keep reoccurring to you.”
At the center of the family is Dumbo himself.
“I just liked the idea of it, the idea of a flying elephant, a character who doesn’t quite fit into the world and how somebody with a disadvantage makes it an advantage,” Burton said. “So it just felt very close to the way I felt about things. It was just a very pure simple image, like all the great old Disney fables.”
Everyone in the circus has something to overcome.
“Holt comes back from the war, doesn’t have an arm, doesn’t have a wife, doesn’t have a job,” Burton said. “He’s trying to find his place in the world and all the characters actually are that way. Nico’s character, they want her to be something, she wants to be something else.”
Dumbo is in theaters March 29.