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Dumbo stars explain how the remake is more grounded than The Lion King

By Jacob Oller
dumbo tim burton

Disney’s live-action remake of Dumbo has a cast jam-packed with talent, with stars Colin Farrell, Danny DeVito, and Michael Keaton stealing the circus spotlight from a flying elephant. As the Tim Burton-helmed film nears release, fans are learning more and more about what to expect from the reimagination of the animated classic, which means understanding the approach of both actors and director.

The cast, speaking in an extensive bunch of set visit interviews by Slashfilm, explained some of the less fantastical elements in the flying elephant flick. That subject includes everything from acting against a tennis ball, acting like Darth Vader, and a naked DeVito.

DeVito plays the kind ringmaster Max Medici, which is the third time he’s done circus work for Burton — the actor was werewolf ringmaster Amos Calloway in Big Fish and circus gang leader Oswald Cobblepot in Batman Returns. “This is the completion of the circus trilogy,” DeVito told multiple outlets at a roundtable discussion. “When he called, he said exactly that. ‘We’ve got to complete the circus, the trilogy.’ And I was so excited because I’m a big fan of Dumbo and I love Tim and I would do anything to be in a movie with him … I don’t know why he thinks of me with circuses.”

The actor goes on to explain how his character is more realistic — which makes sense for the film  and makes economic decisions “obvious for a guy whose back is up against the wall.” He also has a nude scene (don’t worry, he’s just in a bathtub). But all the actors had something to say about the film’s grounded nature.

Farrell explained that the set itself was mostly practical, and drew comparisons to another Disney reboot to make his point clear. “I was talking to somebody and they said they were on the set of The Lion King,” the actor said “And there’s no human characters in The Lion King. [Jon] Favreau is directing and he’s so clever, he’s so bright, and I’m sure the film will be mind-blowing and beautiful, but there’s nothing on set. Nothing. Just the f***ing cameraman, and just blue or green or whatever their color of choice is.”

“And this set, as you can see is all practically built,” Farrell said. “The stage is like nothing I’ve ever seen. And I’ve been lucky enough in the last 20 years to have been on some extraordinary sets like Alexander. But I’ve never seen anything like [Dumbo’s]. We haven’t shot any exterior shots — it’s all stage. But there’ll be skies and there’ll be sunrises and sunsets, birds flying, clouds, I’m sure. But I feel like I’m existing in a practical world and it’s not asking me to imagine too many things that aren’t there to save that flying elephant.”

Farrell’s character, a former horseback showman, returned from war with a missing arm and a wife who’d passed away. “I’m half the man I used to be,” Farrell said, though he clarified that the tragedy of it all is “treated very gently.” It is a Disney film, after all — even if the human elements in the film are new.

One of those elements is Neils Skellig (Joseph Gatt) who acts as the villainous number two. “If you imagine Michael Keaton’s character is the Emperor, I’m Darth Vader,” the actor said. Even with that genre touchstone, Gatt explained that “everything is played very real, very down to earth and grounded.”

Gatt also chimed in on the CGI fare, saying, “To be quite honest, apart from so far Dumbo himself, the sets are incredible. And Tim really does like to have as much physically there for the actors as possible. Because there are certain other directors that would do this completely green screen and we’d have to imagine everything.” It seems like Burton went out of his way to not only make his set feel good for his actors, but differentiate himself from other “live-action” remakes — even if the cast had to act against a green screen actor or a tennis ball.

Dumbo hits theaters on March 29.