The whimsical story of a flying baby elephant melted hearts when it hit the big screen in 1941, and has been a family favourite ever since.
Now, 78 years on, a whole new generation of children are set to fall in love with the tiny elephant with the big ears with Disney’s live-action remake of Dumbo.
And thanks to an array of technical wizardry, the computer- animated junior jumbo looks just as real as his human co-stars.
So just what did it take to bring this £90 million epic to our screens?
From actors in purple suits covered in tennis balls to an RAF hangar and rumours of an on-set romance, Alison Boshoff reveals the secrets of how Dumbo took flight — and all without a single real elephant . . .
The live-action remake of Disney’s Dumbo, which stars Colin Farrell, Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Eva Green, Nico Parker and Finley Hobbin, is set for release on March 29
Based on 1941 animated classic (pictured), the storyline faces some changes including Timothy Mouse, who originally hlps Dumbo, being dropped
The British Boffins who made magic
Like Disney’s 2016 remake of The Jungle Book, the computer-generated animals in Dumbo are hyper-realistic, but have been given human expressions. With his large, liquid, blue-green eyes, the adorable Dumbo has reduced preview audiences to tears.
But bringing Dumbo to life took some doing, with British visual effects firm Moving Picture Company — who won an Oscar for The Jungle Book and are working on this year’s Lion King remake — adding in all the CGI elements after the scenes had been shot.
For the actual takes, the cast came face to face with a range of models and human stand-ins.
Bringing Dumbo to life took some doing, with the British visual effects firm Moving Picture Company behind Oscar-winner The Jungle Book adding in all the CGI elements after the scenes had been shot
Colin Farrell, who stars as former circus performer Holt Farrier, explained: ‘We have a couple of people in green suits, and a couple in aluminium outlines of how big an elephant would be with eyes represented by little tennis balls.
‘The baby was green and the mama was purple, and I guess when they draw it, that’s how they separate it.’
In one scene where the elephants are seen walking off a train, the ramps were pulled down by a hydraulic pump to make it look as if they were bending under the beasts’ weight.
Other special effects included making the straw from which Dumbo first emerges move as if a real elephant was wriggling out.
Danny DeVito, who plays circus owner Max Medici, said: ‘There’s a fake trunk coming out, and the special effects people have little filaments that move the hay. And that’s really cool to watch.’
There’s an animal rights agenda
The original film was a simple fable about an elephant who could fly, if only he believed in himself.
In the new film, the human storylines have been vastly expanded. Set in 1919, just after World War I, much of it is about the men who run rival circuses.
The question of whether it is right to exploit animals is also answered in a way that will appeal to modern sensibilities.
Originally set as a fable about an elephant who can fly, the new version looks at animal rights abuses and whether it should be legal to exploit any animal
Farrell’s character is a war veteran who has lost an arm. ‘He was away for five years, and by the time he comes back, the two children have been raised by the circus and his wife has died,’ says Farrell. ‘So he is a single father ill-equipped to deal with parenthood or the changes in the circus.’
Holt’s friend Medici, in financial trouble, buys an elephant to try to bring in the crowds. Mrs Jumbo has baby Dumbo — and when it’s discovered he can fly, Medici thinks his troubles are over. However, the villainous V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), wants Dumbo for his amusement park, Dreamland.
Farrell adds: ‘It’s a new narrative . . .There’s the shyster type of circus leader with a heart of gold, that’s Danny. Then there’s the evil, megalomaniacal owner of the really big fantastical circus.’
…But Timothy Mouse is dropped
After losing his mother in the original, Dumbo is helped by Timothy Mouse, who persuades him he can fly with the help of a ‘magic feather’.
Yet Timothy doesn’t feature in this version. Instead it is Milly and Joe, the children of Holt Farrier, who discover that Dumbo can fly after he inhales a feather and, while sneezing it out of his trunk, becomes airborne.
Finley Hobbin and Nico Parker star as the children of Holt Farrier to replace Timothy Mouse. They realise that Dumbo can fly when he inhales a magical feather
Roles for Batman and the penguin
Dumbo is directed by Tim Burton, who revamped Alice In Wonderland into a billion-pound blockbuster in 2010; critics say he is about to repeat the trick.
Though Burton has a reputation for the Gothic and phantasmagorical, many of his films have scenes that touch the tear ducts.
Who can forget the magical moment in 1990’s Edward Scissor-hands where Johnny Depp, as Edward, carves an ice sculpture and creates a blizzard under which Winona Ryder dances?
Describing his attraction to the Dumbo project, Burton said: ‘It’s symbolic of things that don’t fit in, and trying to find your place in the world.
‘Also, circuses always seemed to have that kind of . . . you know, just weirdos from all over the world, and that was always appealing.’
Child star with a ‘lioness’ Mum
Nico Parker, the 14-year-old daughter of British actress Thandie Newton and director Oliver Parker, makes her acting debut playing Milly Farrier. Finley Hobbins plays her brother, Joe.
‘At first it was nerve-racking remaking such a classic story,’ said Nico. ‘In the end, though, I got swept up in the magic of it all — the costumes, stunts, effects.’
As Nico was 12, a tutor provided her with lessons on set. But this wasn’t the only person watching over her.
Nico Parker, the 14-year-old daughter of British actress Thandie Newton and director Oliver Parker, makes her acting debut playing Milly Farrier
Mum Thandie said: ‘Having a mother and father in the industry . . . she’s been on endless sets. It’s not that she takes it for granted, but it’s not a world she feels she’s not entitled to be in.
‘She has her mum right there like a lioness checking that everything is looked after.’
Romance on the flying trapeze
Neither cares to confirm it, but director Burton, 60, appears to be enjoying a romance with 38-year-old French actress Eva Green — who is also his muse.
She appears in Dumbo as trapeze artist Colette Marchant.
They met when she starred in his 2012 film Dark Shadows and seem to have started dating in late 2015, about a year after he and actress Helena Bonham Carter announced their 13-year relationship was over.
Did Walt mock his striking staff?
At only 64 minutes long, the 1941 original was the shortest Disney feature ever made. The new version is 130 minutes.
Walt Disney declined to write more for the first movie, saying: ‘You can stretch a story so far, and after that it won’t hold together.’ It was based on 1938 book Dumbo The Flying Elephant, by Helen Aberson and Harold Pearl.
Following on from Pinocchio and Fantasia — both costly and relative flops — Walt instructed animators to keep the film inexpensive.
Veteran filmmaker Tim Burton (right) is in the director’s chair for the first time since 2016’s Alice Through the Looking Glass. Colin Farrell (left) stars as Holt Farrier
The characters are simpler and backgrounds less detailed, with the film costing just £715,000 (£12.2million today) to make — half what Snow White had in 1938.
Yet it became an instant hit and was the most successful Disney film of the 1940s, grossing £1.2 million (equivalent to £20.5 million) during its original release.
Time magazine even had plans to honour Dumbo as ‘Mammal of the Year’. But then the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and they opted for a more serious cover.
Dumbo’s beautiful animations took some time. A scene where the clowns decide to ‘hit the big boss for a raise’ seems to be Walt mocking the animators who went on a five-week strike during production.
Hankies out…the song is back
One of the most poignant moments in the 1941 film is the lullaby Baby Mine, sung to Dumbo by his mother during a brief reunion.
It has been re-worked by the band Arcade Fire for the new film, where it is sung by Glaswegian actress Sharon Rooney — made famous by E4 TV drama My Mad Fat Diary — who plays circus performer Miss Atlantis.
A behemoth in Bedfordshire
The 2019 Dumbo was mostly shot in Shed 2 at Cardington, Bedfordshire — a behemoth originally built by the RAF during World War I to hold airships.
Movies shot there include Batman Begins, Inception and Fantastic Beasts. The total amount of floor space is 223,000 sq ft — or five acres — making it five times the size of the largest sound stage available in Hollywood.
The sheds fell out of service after an experimental hydrogen-filled airship, the R101, crashed during its maiden voyage in 1930, killing 48 of the 54 people on board.
Cardington became a storage station and the RAF ended its association with it in 2000. Warner Brothers started using it in 2005 and the hangars became available for renting by other film studios in 2012.
Sets created in Shed 2 for Dumbo included a full-size circus big top. Farrell said: ‘Cardington, the stage is like nothing I’ve ever seen.
‘I’ve been lucky enough in the past 20 years to be around some extraordinary sets. But I’ve never seen anything like the boulevard.’
Oscar winners’ artful outlook
Production designer Rick Heinrichs, who won an Oscar for Burton’s Sleepy Hollow, is behind the look of the film.
He wanted it to look like a painting by American Depression-era master Edward Hopper. Period circus costumes are by Colleen Atwood, who has won four Oscars.
The sequel that never happened
After the millennium, plans were made for a Dumbo II, with him and his circus friends stranded in the city. There were to be twin bears, Claude and Lolly, a zebra, an ostrich and a hippo.
Announced in 2001, it was cancelled in 2006 by the new chief creative officer of Disney Animation Studios, John Lasseter.
DUMBO arrives in cinemas on March 29.