Disney’s live-action 'Dumbo' remake brings the animated classic to life, Tim Burton-style: creepy but cute

The movie features rising stars Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins, and also veterans including Colin Farrell and Michael Keaton

Veronica Lin |

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Bringing Dumbo to life was a challenging task.

Seven decades after the release of the original animated film, the live-action feature Dumbo, whose title character is well-known as the elephant with big ears that help him fly, is set to flap its way into cinemas across Hong Kong this Thursday.

The highly-anticipated remake of this Disney classic is headed by Hollywood director Tim Burton, and veteran actors Colin Farrell, Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Eva Green, and Alan Arkin.

Unlike the animated version, the world that this Dumbo lives in is a live-action one, and the goal for the people behind the film was to make the cute pachyderm look as realistic as possible – without sacrificing any of the original film’s charm.

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That’s why the creatives behind the remake decided to blur the lines between imagination and reality with a combination of CG animals and practical sets.

Bringing Dumbo, with his unmistakably oversized ears and eyes, to life was one of, if not the most challenging part of the creative process.

“The problem is, you can’t just take a realistic baby elephant and make his ears huge; it just feels wrong,” said character designer Michael Kutsche. “We looked at the original model sheets from the Disney films for inspiration and had to inject a little magic, so to speak, to sell the idea of a flying elephant.”

Hayley Williams, who spearheaded the special effects team’s mission to merge CG animals with practical sets, revealed the amount of effort it takes to ensure the seamless integration between sets and CGI technology.

“We had a huge scene in which elephants were unloaded from their train carriage as they arrived to the circus,” said Williams. “When an elephant unloads down a wooden ramp, you would expect the ramp to move and bend because of the weight of the elephant.”

“But since the elephants were produced in post[-production], we had to build a ramp that flexed and then put a hydraulic rig underneath it to pull it down,” he said. “We programmed a control system and worked with the animators, who could tell us if they wanted the elephant to step a bit faster or slower, or if we wanted the steps to be a bit further apart.”

The remake sees its title character sharing the spotlight with human actors, whose stories unfold in a way that mirrors Dumbo’s journey.
Photo: The Walt Disney Company (Hong Kong) Limited

Two years before the release date, Golden Globe winner Colin Farrell did an interview with entertainment website Collider.com whilst filming on the set of Dumbo.

“To be honest with you, it’s all practical sets, [except] they didn’t have time to get their hands on a flying elephant – they couldn’t seem to locate one of those,” he said. “I feel like I’m existing in a practical world. It’s not asking me to imagine too many things that aren’t there, [except] that flying pachyderm.”

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Unlike its predecessor, the remake sees the elephant sharing the spotlight with human actors, whose stories unfold in a way that mirrors Dumbo’s journey. Farrell plays Holt, a former circus star and recent widower who’s been tasked with caring for Dumbo – who has been separated from his mother.

“As this baby elephant tries to reconnect with his mother, Holt and his children are trying to put the pieces of their family back together to find a happy life,” said producer Justin Springer.

Edited by Ginny Wong