Why Disney and Tim Burton made some big changes in their Dumbo remake

Tim Burton’s longtime producer Derek Frey reveals exactly what they added to the classic Disney tale – and what they had to cut out…

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Tim Burton’s Dumbo is just the latest in a long line of Disney remakes, as the House of Mouse continues to dust off its animated back catalogue for live-action versions of the likes of The Jungle Book, Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast and (in the upcoming months) Aladdin, The Lion King and Mulan.

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And just like its fellow films in the remade Disney canon, the filmmakers behind Dumbo were faced with plenty of difficult choices as to what to keep, what to change and what to completely discard from the original animated story.

Though apparently, one of the biggest challenges was the fact that we may not actually remember the original Dumbo as well as we think…

“A question I get a lot of the time is ‘oh does Dumbo talk, who’s the voice of Dumbo?’” producer Derek Frey told RadioTimes.com.

“You kind of have to remind people that in the original film Dumbo doesn’t talk. Some of the peripheral characters do – Timothy Mouse and the crows talk. But Dumbo himself doesn’t speak. I think Mrs Jumbo maybe has a line or two.”

So Dumbo will remain mute in the new film – a similarity we can all get behind– but there will be plenty of changes for fans to spot, too.

The original 1941 Dumbo is, after all, a mere 64 minutes long and focused almost entirely on a small elephant, while the longer 2019 edition of the story adds a significant storyline about a family (played by Colin Farrell, Finley Hobbins and Thandie Newton’s daughter Nico Parker) who look after Dumbo at the circus and who face off with a ruthless entrepreneur (Michael Keaton) keen to exploit Dumbo’s flying abilities.

“I think the original very much revolves around the perspective of Dumbo, and that’s very true in our film as well, but we felt you couldn’t sustain an hour and 50 minute-long film solely on Dumbo’s perspective,” Frey explained. “That’s already been done.”

Nico Parker with Finley Hobbins and Colin Farrell in Dumbo (Disney)
Nico Parker with Finley Hobbins and Colin Farrell in Dumbo (Disney)

“Ehren Kruger, the screenwriter, it was his idea to tell a human story that parallels Dumbo’s trajectory as well. We have human characters, and there’s a whole family story – Holt and his two children.

“Although it’s a heightened reality and its very much a fantasy to a degree, we wanted to at least ground Dumbo and the other animals in a realistic world that we know. So that the flying element is really the biggest fantastical element.”

Adding in a human story isn’t the only change Burton and his team made to the story, however, transplanting the action from 1941 (the first film was set in the year of its release) to the period after World War I, and also removing some well-known, albeit slightly controversial, parts from the storyline.

“Obviously it probably wouldn’t have been appropriate to show Dumbo drinking and getting intoxicated, which in the original I think leads into the iconic pink elephant sequence,” Frey told us.

“But we do have a little joke, a little nod to it in our film. I think Tim covered a lot of ground and the screenplay covered a lot of ground where we at least have nods to the things people remember from the original film. For the pink elephant, the bubble sequence – we have a sequence that kind of parallels that.

“And the music, you know the Baby Mine sequence,” he continued, referencing the film’s famous heart-breaking separation between Dumbo and his mother, who sings to him. “There’s things that people who love the original will be able to appreciate in this new film.”

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Though Frey did note that one part of the original film had proved a little too dicey for 2019, with the talking crows – a part of the film that many now consider racially insensitive – excised from the new movie.

“It’s funny, you hear people like, ‘Oh, I hope the crows are in it!’” Frey said.

“But the screenplay that we received didn’t have it in there, and while I’ve never heard anything officially from Disney on it, probably any which way you’d try to represent that it wouldn’t work.

“It may have been something that Disney felt wasn’t necessary to include,” he concluded.

The location of Timothy Mouse, however, remains an open question.

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Dumbo is in UK cinemas now