Tim Burton’s Live-Action/CG “Dumbo”: Don’t Be A Dumbo, Tim!

By on March 10, 2015

The Hollywood Reporter and other online sources are noting today that director Tim Burton will soon be lensing a live-action remake of the 1941 animated Disney classic Dumbo.

Let’s think about that for a moment — our first thought was how poorly-timed this Disney announcement seems to feel, coming on the heels of another recent announcement, this one by Feld Entertainment, the parent company of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus, who said that they will be retiring their own elephants — real ones, 53 of them according to one source — and sending them off to a conservation center in Florida.

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Feld Entertainment said they are “adapting” to the changing climate and “mood shift” among their customers. Unfortunately, Ringling won’t retire all of its elephants until 2018.

We can’t imagine Burton using any real elephants in his movie — which will actually include both CG effect along with live-action, according to what we’re reading — but of course there’s no way to know what’s being planned as the movie is still in development. We sure hope that the heart-wrenching scene where Dumbo is being cradled by his mother, who is chained inside a boxcar, will not actually involve a real elephant.

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When they are not performing, of course, the real Ringling Bros. elephants have been chained and shipped around the country in real boxcars.

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Here is vintage collectible toy from Lionel, a 9663 Dumbo Hi-cube Boxcar, circa 1977-78, part of the extremely popular and hard to find Mickey Mouse set dating back to the late 70s. This boxcar features sliding doors, plastic trucks, operating knuckle couplers, metal wheels and axles. The toy seems rather cruel now, or at least clueness, no?

There is a deep history of use and exploitation of elephants in circuses. In 1882, P.T. Barnum, a showman and businessman, purchased Jumbo, a 12-foot-tall African elephant, from a London zoo for $10,000. Jumbo was then shipped across the Atlantic to New York to be featured in the Barnum and Bailey Circus, which later merged with Ringling Bros. Circus.

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On September 15, 1885, the circus was loading onto their train in St. Thomas, Ontario, Canada. Jumbo and a baby elephant named Tom Thumb were on their way to their car when an unscheduled freight train rolled into the station. The little elephant caught a glancing blow that broke his leg; Jumbo got hit full on, his skull crushed. In his final moments, his trainer sunk down to his knees and cried like a baby, holding Jumbo’s trunk until he died. Jumbo’s stomach was found to be littered with English coins, keys, rivets, even a bobbie’s whistle.

Burton, of course, included a circus scene in his Batman Returns movie, so perhaps he is anxious to slip under the bigtop tent again. Let’s just hope the actual elephant Dumbo is going to be part of the CG and not part of the live-action.

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The expanded Dumbo storyline, with a screenplay by Ehren Kruger (pictured here, he’s the writer who has been responsible for scripts in the Transformers franchise), apparently will introduce a human family to join Dumbo’s journey. Kruger will produce with Justin Springer, who produced Oblivion and Tron: Legacy.

Walt Disney Pictures president of production Sean Bailey has said that the story takes place in a “big world,” and that fans should expect to see a lot more than the single storyline of Dumbo learning to fly.

The 1941 movie, by the way, produced several classic songs, notably “When I See an Elephant Fly,” “Baby Mine,” which was nominated for a best song Oscar, and “Pink Elephants on Parade” so we have remakes of those songs to look forward to as well, I guess.

Dumbo (not sure what the actual title is just yet) is just one of the many live-action remakes that Disney have in the hopper, after the mega-success of Maleficent, which is only the most recent example, a re-imagining of the 1959 movie Sleeping Beauty. It grossed more than $630 million worldwide since its May 30, 2014 release. Even better, if that’s the word (probably not), was Burton’s 2010 re-imagined Alice in Wonderland, starring Johnny Depp, which grossed more than $1 billion worldwide (and its success has also spawned an upcoming sequel, Alice in Wonderland: Through the Looking Glass, which Burton is producing).

There will also be a live-action fairy tale Cinderella, opening on March 13th, and next year’s The Jungle Book, directed by Jon Favreau, and in 2017, a new remake of Beauty and the Beast, starring Emma Watson. We believe she will be playing the “beauty,” not the beast.

There’s no release date for Dumbo yet, but we’ll have to wait for Burton to finish Miss Peregerine’s Home For Peculiar Children first, which is currently in production over at 20th Century Fox. But until then, we’ve got just this one suggestion: don’t be a Dumbo, Tim.

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UPDATE: In an open letter to the Hollywood Reporter, the people from PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) were quick to point out that they would like to see Burton’s film come to a different conclusion. PETA senior VP Lisa Lange writes to Burton: “we’re hopeful that in your adaptation of Dumbo, the young elephant and his mother can have a truly happy ending by living out their lives at a sanctuary instead of continuing to be imprisoned and abused in the entertainment industry.”

About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.
  • David Fullam

    Please Burton, just go away.