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Tim Burton: The idea of running away to join the circus has always stuck with me

Almost 80 years after the animated film Dumbo charmed audiences round the world, a new live-action version is here. Director Tim Burton and stars Colin Farrell and Eva Green talk to Laura Harding


Star performers: Colin Farrell and Eva Green in Dumbo

Star performers: Colin Farrell and Eva Green in Dumbo


Star performers: Colin Farrell and Eva Green in Dumbo

When Dumbo, the baby elephant with oversized ears, first flew on to screens it was 1941. The animated film was a critical and commercial hit, winning an Oscar and being nominated for another, and has remained beloved for almost 80 years.

And now a new version is here, but this time it's a live-action adventure starring Colin Farrell, Danny DeVito, Michael Keaton and Eva Green.

In addition, the story is expanded and Tim Burton, the filmmaker behind Edward Scissorhands, The Nightmare Before Christmas and Beetlejuice is in the director's chair.

"Tim was trying to embed the story in reality, as much as you possibly could in relation to a flying baby elephant," says Farrell, who plays the former circus star Holt Farrier, who is enlisted along with his children to care for the newborn elephant.

"He brought to it, I think, an insider's understanding of what it is to be an outsider.

"Dumbo is the quintessential outsider who from his birth - as a result of things that are beyond his control, a physical anomaly that he's born with - is ostracised, he's excluded, he's pilloried and maligned and just treated cruelly and separated from his mother against both of their wills.

"I think Tim understands what it is to be the outsider - all the films he's explored, whether it's Pee-wee Herman, Edward Scissorhands, they all do have a look at the life of someone who's deemed odd or not worthy of having the communal experience.

"And it's not only Dumbo in this film, but every other character is like that too.

"Danny's character is running a circus that's going out of business and they're going to be moribund soon, and mine doesn't fit in in his life.

"He came back from fighting in the First World War and his wife has died while he was gone - and that left our two children raised by the circus so he doesn't know how to relate to them.

"I think everyone is at odds with the existence they feel they could be having and they're not having."

And while 42-year-old Farrell might be a Hollywood star, that was a sense he could relate to.

"It's tricky being human, no matter how fortunate you are.

"I am very grateful for many things in my life but there are times, of course, where you just don't feel like you can fit in with yourself, never mind somebody else.

"We pre-judge ourselves before society can ever judge us and that's why society judging us sometimes hurts so much, because they seem to be in tandem with the judgment we've made already - when all of it is based on illusion."

Feeling some kind of isolation is certainly a theme of Burton's other films, including Alice In Wonderland, Big Fish, Charlie And The Chocolate Factory and Corpse Bride, and it's what drew the veteran American filmmaker to Dumbo.

"The idea of running away to join the circus is a feeling that has always stuck with me," he says.

"I never really liked the circus with the captive animals, the clowns, the uncomfortable death-defying acts and - did I mention? - the clowns!

"But I understood the idea of it, joining a weird family of outcasts who don't fit in with normal society - people, who are treated differently.


Tim Burton

Tim Burton

Getty Images

Tim Burton

"That's what Dumbo is about and this film offered a way to tell that story in a framework that expanded it, but without redoing the original.

"I just liked the take on it. It was simple, with an emotional simplicity, and didn't interfere with what the basic through line of the original is about."

Green, who is reuniting with Burton for a third time after collaborations on Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children and Dark Shadows and who plays high-flying aerialist Colette Marchant, first saw the original film when she was a small child and still remembers the huge impact it had on her.

"It's the perfect movie for Tim," she says, "because he always understands the heart of the misunderstood and he knows how to celebrate them - and Dumbo is just the perfect story.

"In a world when people are told, 'You have to fit into the norm to be loved', it's kind of nice to have a message that says, 'It's OK to be a bit different. It makes you special'.

"I still feel a bit strange - and it's more interesting to be a bit different, rather than to be like everybody, which is just boring."

In fact, Farrell was so keen to work with Burton on a movie about misfits that he was not afraid to give the director the hard sell.

"I just heard 'Tim Burton Dumbo' and with those three words I thought, 'Oh, that'll be tasty' - and then I wrote Tim a big long email about how brilliant I thought he was and how much I wanted to work with him and that was it."

And after a long career short on child-friendly fare, with films such as The Lobster, In Bruges, S.W.A.T., Horrible Bosses and The Killing Of A Sacred Deer, he was relieved to have something to show sons Henry and James.

"I've only done two jobs in 20 years that both my boys could see.

"My sons are 15 and nine and they could see Fantastic Beasts (And Where To Find Them).

"James can see other stuff now, but not quite Sacred Deer or anything, I don't want to traumatise him.

"But this, more than anything, is orientated towards families and towards kids and their parents, and so it's really lovely to be part of something that has such a communal spirit as this does.

"But my kids are good critics. They're not impressed at all, it's a tough audience at home."

Dumbo is in cinemas now

Belfast Telegraph