Way back in 2017 we visited the set of Tim Burton's live action remake of the beloved Walt Disney animated classic "Dumbo." Now, what we saw there and what we did must remain, for now, under a circus tent of secrecy, but we can say that we were lucky enough to talk to Danny DeVito, a fairly regular Burton collaborator who in the new movie plays Max Medici, a smalltime circus owner who cares for the very special young elephant born into his care … Dumbo. Since I'm pretty sure the scene we saw DeVito shooting was towards the end of the movie, we'll just rundown everything else DeVito told us while on the London set of the absolutely gorgeous-looking reimagining of "Dumbo."
1. It's The Completion of the Burton/DeVito "Circus Trilogy"
Keep in mind that this is the third time DeVito has played a circus ringleader (of one form or another) for Burton -- first in "Batman Returns" and then in "Big Fish." (DeVito also appeared, fleetingly, in Burton's underrated disaster movie send-up "Mars Attacks!") In fact, DeVito admitted that it was the completion of a trilogy and that was how Burton pitched the character to him. "When he called, he said, 'We’ve got to complete the circus trilogy.'" DeVito, who admitted to being a "big fan" of the original film, went on: "I would do anything to be in a movie with him." Although, after a beat, he guessed that the next project he and Burton collaborate on will have to be "really weird."
2. His Character Exemplifies the Differences Between the Original and the Remake
When someone asked if Burton gave him any specific character notes that stood out, DeVito went on a fairly detailed about how his character typifies the differences between the original and this updated version. "Medici, my character, or if you’re from England you say Medici, or from New Jersey, probably, but I call it Medici," DeVito began by saying. (The Medici are a powerful Italian family that date back to the 15th century.) DeVito continued: "The thing is that he has a big pressure in the beginning to keep the circus afoot, alive, because it was a very, very tough time. It was 1919. And contrary to what it was in the movie, where the mouse gives the head of the circus all the ideas, this is kind of like life itself, in a kind of a modern world puts us in a spot, where for some reason, we’re having a very difficult time getting people in the seats." Of course, things change. "We get a windfall when I buy Mrs. Jumbo," DeVito said. "So to try to answer your question, it’s more of a guy who’s under a lot of pressure and makes a couple of decisions during the movie that are kind of like, obvious for a guy whose back is up against the wall. But then, thank goodness everything works out okay." Hey, it is a Disney movie, after all.
3. Burton Hasn't Changed At All
Someone asked whether nor not Burton has changed since DeVito began working with him, and DeVito paused and said "not a bit." "I’ll get emotional thinking about how much I care about him," DeVito said. "Always spirited, always an artist, always thinking about the craft, always just painting with his mind." DeVito then told a story about first meeting Burton for the role of The Penguin in "Batman Returns." "He had a painting of circus stripes, red and white, just beautiful, just a big canvas," DeVito explained. "And on a circus ball was this creature. And there was a caption that said, My name is Jimmy, but they call me the hideous penguin boy.” DeVito then did some quick fire remembrances, saying that he was "in Vegas for four nights" for his role in "Mars Attacks" ("What's about about that? You know what I mean?") He also said that Burton has a cameo in DeVito's "Hoffa," which was very much news to me. "People didn’t know that in the beginning, when he was in the coffin, so it’s really a cool moment," DeVito said. Most touchingly, he said that, with Burton, "it's always the same." "It feels like we don’t see each other for a really long time, and then you just pick up," the actor explained, in the most heartwarming way possible.
4. He Was Glad to Reunite With Keaton, Too
"Dumbo" also sees Burton reuniting with another high profile past collaborator: Michael Keaton, who starred in "Beetlejuice" and, of course, two Batman outings for Burton. Keaton plays V.A. Vandervere, a kind of evil Walt Disney type who has a futuristic theme park called Dreamland (as well as villainous designs on our favorite flying pachyderm). When the team-up was brought up, DeVito laughed, saying, "He was playing the good guy in that movie. I’m the good guy in this movie. So it’s a little bit of an evolution here."
5. DeVito's Relationship with 'Dumbo' Is Longer Than an Elephant's Trunk
At one point, DeVito described his "very emotional" connection to the original animated Disney classic. He suspects that he first saw the movie on television and then he showed his children, 30+ years ago. "I just watched it again, of course, before we started," DeVito said. He solidified his fandom by describing a deleted scene he had watched on the Blu-ray. "They took it out because it was really dark, because what it was was Timothy explaining to people why elephants are afraid of mice. I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but you should check it out," DeVito suggested. The sequence, dubbed "A Mouse's Tale" in the original draft of the screenplay, has Timothy outlining how, in prehistoric times ("There was no circuses and no big building and no automobiles"), elephants were smaller than mice, and they would hang tiny elephants on a string and wear them as necklaces. It's one of the few story elements that was actually removed from the svelte narrative. DeVito's conclusion? "Disney was really whacked, man. You know?"
6. There Is A Nude Scene (!)
When DeVito said that there was "no difference" between his character in "Dumbo" and his character in "Big Fish," he said, "I do have a nude scene." He quickly pointed out, though, that, "You don't see it. But in 'Big Fish' I get up and you got to see my tush." But even the possibility of nudity was a draw for DeVito. "[Burton] told me, he said, 'There's a scene in a bathtub.' I said, 'I'm in, baby.'" It's here that we pause and remind everyone that "Dumbo" is, of course, a family film.
7. Filming Without Actual Elephants Was Tough
DeVito admitted that working with computer-generated creatures was something that he'd "never done before," and that aspect was "cool." "We have a couple of people with green suits with these big aluminum outlines of how big an elephant would be, with eyes," DeVito said. One of his favorite things was a mechanism that was trotted out when the elephants were supposed to be exiting the side of a boxcar. So how'd they pull it off? "Oh there’s a guy with a big rig coming down the ramp and the ramp has got a hydraulic thingy that like, pulls it down. Man, it was deep. I thought that was the coolest thing." He also said that when they were filming sequences with Dumbo and his mother, "one of the elephants was purple and one of the elephants was green," the actor guesses, because, "when they wind up drawing it, you know how you separate, they separate the colors." Later, he talked about a scene where he shows the other characters Mrs. Jumbo, Dumbo's mother. "She’s not there," DeVito said. "And then, the special effects people do things like they have little filaments that move the hay. And it’s really cool, to watch all of that." The technical complexity, with the visual effects people having to shoot multiple plates, added to the workload. "So you do the scene like, they shoot the scene like at least four or five times over again," DeVito said, before joking, " And then people don’t remember their lines and added, makes it 10 or 12 times." Zing!
8. For DeVito, 'Dumbo' Has a Fairly Deep Message
Sure, "Dumbo" is a lavish, big budget live-action remake of a beloved animated classic, the kind of thing that Disney has gotten very good at over the past few years. But for DeVito, it's much more than that. "Well, I think it’s a very positive, hopeful, almost never give up kind of thing. There’s that kind of theme. I mean, I think that in life, you see all of the different things that infiltrate the good things in life," DeVito explained. "And things that surprise you come out of nowhere, like when you think you’re making a move with somebody, maybe somebody’s duplicitous or whatever. And I think in terms of a younger person or an older person looking at it, I mean, by now, you guys must’ve learned this lesson already, I hope, but the idea is that you can’t always believe what somebody tells you. And sometimes, it messes up all of your dreams and your hopes and dreams. But if you all stick together, possibly you can get out of it and there’ll be a happy ending. And dreams do come true." Sounds like a message we could really use these days.
"Dumbo" flies into theaters everywhere on March 29.