Colin Farrell has starred in his fair share of remakes. Some of these have been good (like the underrated “Fright Night”), some of them bad (the less said about “Total Recall,” the better), but none of them have had the weight of expectation like the upcoming, reimagined version of Walt Disney’s immortal classic “Dumbo.” As directed by Tim Burton, himself no stranger to the art of the remake (including his live-action riff on “Alice in Wonderland” that brought in more than $1 billion worldwide), this new “Dumbo” promises to be an entirely new take on the material -- and not just because it’s live-action. In the film, Farrell plays Holt Farrier, a circus stunt performer who returns from World War I a changed man, and finds himself the guardian of a small, very special elephant with giant ears …
We were on the London set of “Dumbo” a couple of years ago, and while most of that visit has to be kept under wraps, we can say that Farrell’s enthusiasm and passion about the project was absolutely infectious. He was clearly relishing the opportunity to bring this beloved property to an entirely new audience, working alongside a bona fide genius and a murderer’s row of creative talent both in front of and behind the camera. Behold, here is everything (that we’re allowed to talk about) that we learned from Farrell on the set of “Dumbo:”
1. It Was His “Dream Gig”
When Farrell found out that Tim Burton was doing a new take on “Dumbo,” his reaction, he said, was, “Honestly, please can I do it? Can I? Can I be any part of it?” Farrell explained: “I’ve just been such a fan of Tim’s work for the longest time. I think “Edward Scissorhands” is probably the first thing of his I saw, and it’s still one of my favorite films of all time, probably. And everything since then. So yeah, just the idea of something as sweet and fantastical and almost otherworldly while being grounded in some recognizable world that we can relate to under the directorship of him was, yeah, kind of a dream.” Even doing this type of movie held special appeal to the actor. “There’s things I’ve read through the years that are somewhat fantastical or supernatural and have kind of a fairytale element to them, and some things that I read that never got made. So I’ve always been looking for something of that ilk,” Farrell said. And keep in mind all of this excitement is building before he read the script: “Then I read the script and it’s so sweet. Tim is really good at figuring out the balancing act between honoring the sweetness of the original story or the intent of the kind of allegorical element of what a baby flying elephant represents with kind of real world emotional concerns of families and friendships and damages of war without getting into it too much and stuff like that.” Sounds like the dream gig became a dream come true.
2. The Physicality of the Production Was Part of the Allure
While we can’t talk about the sets that we saw (yet), they were huge and immaculately detailed. And you can tell that Farrell didn’t take any of it for granted. “I come to work every day and I see all this sh*t, you know? It’s amazing, really. It really, really is,” Farrell said. “In 20 years of doing this job, it’s one of the greatest pleasures I’ve had, to arrive on the set every day and just see the kind of beauty of the craftsmanship.” Farrell continued: “Sometimes, you go to work on things that are just so kind of bewitching in how you see the imagination of some very talented, very imaginative people made manifest in a physical sense. And that’s what this is. I mean, you just see the imagination of the production designer. You see the imagination of Colleen Atwood. You see the imagination obviously of Tim at every turn, and it’s extraordinary to be around.” It really was a thrill to be around, even for a few hours on a grey London day.
3. It’s Not ‘The Lion King’
“They didn’t have time to get their hands on a flying elephant. They couldn’t seem to locate some of those, so there is the old look at the tennis ball as it flies through the tent thing, and which is fine,” Farrell said, as a way of beginning the conversation of visual effects on the film. Again, the actor stressed how much was actually built for “Dumbo,” going so far as to compare the movie to another high-profile Disney redo out this year. “I was talking to somebody and they said they were on the set of ‘The Lion King,’ and there’s no human character in ‘The Lion King.’ I’m sure the film, Favreau’s directing, and he’s so clever, he’s so bright, and I’m sure the film will be extraordinary and I’m sure it will look beautiful,” Farrell said. “But there’s nothing on the set. There’s nothing. There’s a f*cking cameraman. I don’t even know if there’s a cameraman. And just blue or green, whatever their color of choice is.” Not so with “Dumbo.” Farrell continued: “We arrive on the set, and as you can see, it’s all practically built. But I feel like I’m existing in a practical world, that it’s not asking me too imagine too many things that aren’t there, save that flying pachyderm.” And what a flying pachyderm it is!
4. Working With Burton Exceeded Expectations
Back to Burton, the topic of whether or not the experience of working with the filmmaker exceeded Farrell’s expectations. “Honestly, I didn’t expect anything. There have been times where I’ve expected things to work and they didn’t work and you learn over time that expectation are not really your ally. Hope is your ally, but yeah, expectation’s tricky,” Farrell said, in a very matter-of-fact way. He then sounded genuinely inspired. “He’s just really wonderful to work with. He’s so invested, so like, emotionally and intellectually, obviously, but physically invested in the making of the film. To watch him on the set and how engaged he is and how frenetic at times his energy can be, and how he moves and it’s just a joy and he’s just really kind to everyone,” Farrell said. “I think any of the crew would jump through hoops for him. I certainly know I would, and the cast would.” And after a moment, Farrell returned to his original thought. “As I say, expectations are to stay outside in the cold and in the wind.”
5. There’s a Childhood Photo of Burton That Speaks to Farrell
At one point, while discussing Burton and his brilliance, he asked the journalists gathered on set if they’d seen a photo of the director as a little kid. This photo seemed to really speak to Farrell, and to the artist Burton would one day become. “There’s a picture online. I don’t know what age he is because he’s hidden underneath this thing, this creation that he and his mother made. He must be about 10, I would say,” Farrell said. “I assume it’s in Burbank, where he was raised. And it’s a prototype for the character in ‘Nightmare Before Christmas,’ Jack Skellington. It’s such a testament to what happens in childhood and the freedom your imagination either is given or is compelled to exist within, how that manifests itself later in life. It’s so touching, that as a kid, it’s a big, long thing and it has the ribs and the head. And the idea that 20, 30 years later, that child was still trying to figure out stuff and creating a story that would enter the world and affected so many people.” You could tell that the creative infectiousness Farrell was so in awe of is all over this new “Dumbo.” And that is really exciting.
6. Meet Holt Ferrier
While we didn’t get any huge secrets out of Farrell (and even if we did, we wouldn’t be allowed to spill them here), Farrell did go into some detail about his character, the rugged Holt Ferrier. (You can see him briefly in the trailer.) “He’s a dad of two young children that he loves, but he’s been on the front lines for years. He’s seen men die to his left and to his right in some horrific things. And he comes back to a world that he knew a certain way, and that world has changed. His family dynamic has changed,” Farrell said. In the time that he was away, his wife and horse-riding partner has passed away. “You know, he’s gotten to, as we do, adapt to an environment that was very violent and very different and very harsh, and maybe he’s become a little bit cynical. But I mean, it’s all treated gently. We don’t get into it. It’s not like he has PTSD. It’s not that kind of gig.” (It should be noted that Farrell is very real and very funny.) One aspect of his character that hasn’t been touched on in any of the marketing is that he’s an amputee – he lost his arm in the war. A fact that the actor had to be reminded of (“Yeah, yeah, excellent. I forgot,” he admitted). “So even that, just the loss of a limb alone and the kind of awkwardness or that or the embarrassment of that is something that he carries with him. And also, obviously being a horseman and being someone who was involved in roping a lot and that that was a part of his show,” Farrell explained. He noted that Danny DeVito’s character ”sold all my horses while I was away, because the circus has been struggling.” Farrell then summed up his character (and his character’s experiences) thusly: “You know, the world is changing. It’s a struggle. It’s a struggle just to try and figure out his place, mostly his struggle is to try and figure out his place in the lives of his children, you know?” Oh we know.
7. Not the Biggest Fan of the Original
Somewhat surprisingly, Farrell admitted that he wasn’t the biggest fan of the original animated classic. Instead, he said that “The Jungle Book” and “Lady and the Tramp” were “the two films that I kind of remembered being incredibly affected by, and films that I still, as a grown man, take a peep at every now and then.” But “Dumbo” the flying elephant? “I don’t remember much of,” he said, rather honestly.
8. What it Shares with the Original Film Might Surprise You
Sure, “Dumbo” is a live action version of an animated film, but Farrell was quick to point out that “it’s a completely new narrative.” But where the two movies mirror one another is in their thematic core. “The one central thing that holds true in both the original animation and this is the flying elephant and the story of believing in yourself and finding something inside you that allows you to become the best version of what you never thought you could even be.” Farrell, quite warmly, went on: “We’re all, regardless of the things that sometimes society says should arrive us at being outcasts, they are the things that make us all individual and special and beautiful, regardless of how crippling a certain thing may be or how polarizing a certain physical attribute even may be. But they wrote a really gorgeous narrative, a really beautiful story that’s very kind of archetypical.” If that doesn’t make your heart melt just as much as that adorable, floppy-eared elephant, I’m not sure what will.
"Dumbo” flies into theaters on March 29th.