‘Dumbo’: Danny DeVito on Completing His “Circus Trilogy” with Tim Burton

All the way back in 2017, Disney invited Collider and a few other journalists to the U.K. set of its live-action Dumbo remake to see what a flying elephant directed by Tim Burton would look like. To the surprise of no one, Burton and a soaring pachyderm plus massive circus sets plus Danny DeVito wearing yet another top hat results in something so fantastical you could overdose on all that whimsy. Folks, if nothing else, this is gonna’ be a delightful film.

While most of the specifics of what we saw on set are still under embargo, we did get to talk to DeVito, who plays Max Medici, the small-time circus owner who discovers Dumbo and his mother. In this group interview, the actor discusses why Tim Burton keeps casting him as a circus owner, his memories of the original animated film, why a bathtub scene got him to sign on to Dumbo, and much more.

Image via Disney

DANNY DEVITO: Which is the trick chair? I heard all about it.

Question: What is it about you that makes Tim think of circus ringleaders?

DEVITO: I believe this is the completion of the Circus Trilogy. I don’t know, when he called, he said exactly that. He said, “We got to complete the Circus Trilogy.” I was so excited because I’m a big fan of Dumbo. I love Tim, and I would do anything to be in a movie with him. I don’t know why he thinks of me like that, though. But what are we gonna’ do next, who knows? Something really weird.

Is there a specific note about the character that Tim gave you that sticks out in your mind?

DEVITO: In our movie, it’s different from the Dumbo that we all know and love. Medici, my character, or if you’re from England you say Meh-dee-ci, or from New Jersey, probably, but I call it Medici…the thing is, he has a big pressure, in the beginning, to keep the circus alive. It’s a very, very tough time. It’s 1919, that’s when it takes place. They were fading, the circuses, the little circuses. Because all the big ones were taking over. Contrary to what it was in the movie where the mouse gives the head of the circus all the ideas, this is kind of like life itself in a modern world. It puts us in a spot where, for some reason, we’re having a difficult time getting people in the seats. We get a windfall when I buy Mrs. Jumbo. To answer you’re question, it’s more of a guy who is under a lot of pressure and makes a couple of decisions during the movie that are obvious for a guy whose back is up against the wall but then, thank goodness, everything works out okay, Medici gets rid of Donald Trump and the world is a better place. [laughs]

Image via Disney

Has Tim changed much since you worked on Batman Returns?

DEVITO: Not a bit. I’ll get emotional thinking about how much I care about him. Always spirited, always an artist, always thinking about the craft. Always just painting with his mind. I feel like I’m part of a pallet, a color scheme in Kandinsky’s world. You see him work, and right from the very beginning, with Batman, I remember the first meeting we had was so great. He had a painting of circus stripes, red and white, just beautiful, just a big canvas. And on a circus ball was this creature, and there was a caption that said, “My name is Jimmy, but they call me The Hideous Penguin Boy.” It was so moving. He’s never changed. When you talk about things, when you discuss what’s going on, like with Big Fish and even Mars Attacks!. Mars Attacks!, I went to Vegas for four nights. What’s bad about that? That was a lot of fun, too. And you know he’s in [DeVito’s directorial debut] Hoffa. People didn’t know that in the beginning but he was in the coffin. It was really a cool moment. But it’s always the same. We don’t see each other for a really long time and then we just pick up, it’s that kind of friend.

And Michael Keaton is here as well.

DEVITO: It’s really fun that Michael is here, and it’s also very interesting…we’ve done a couple movies together, Michael and I, but the last movie with Tim, Michael, and I, of course we were both in suits, I was in the Penguin suit, he was in the Batman suit. He was playing the good guy in that movie, I’m the good guy in this movie. There’s a little bit of an evolution here.

Image via Disney

We saw one of your more interesting costumes over here, with the stilts in the boots…

DEVITO: Oh, with the feet? That was kind of really weird because we tried to do this gag, because I have this brother, it’s the Medici Brothers Circus, but there’s no other brother, so we wanted to make the other brother eight inches taller. This is like before we even started, we were doing some tests, because he comes out of a box, they bring a box into the middle of the circus, and it explodes and there’s Medici. But I’m the brother. Now, the brother was Italian and I did an Italian accent, like a real New Jersey Italian accent. The first time Tim saw me, I was standing there with the boots on and said, “When did you become a member of KISS?” It was an interesting idea. That’s the great thing about him, inventive and off-the-charts. But they were kind of hard to walk in. Oh man. I had a tough time with the boots I had on today. I’m not good with high heels, I’m like a flats person.

You said you loved the original, what was your relationship with it?

DEVITO: When I was a kid, watching Dumbo was very emotional. The beautiful colors and everything. When I was a kid, we didn’t have all the stuff that you guys have. We had to walk to school. No, I’m kidding [laughs], but in the early days in New Jersey, I had Million Dollar Movie, and every once in a while you’d get to see some cool Disney movie or whatever. Probably when it first came out, I probably didn’t see it as much as I did after I had three kids. I started with them really early, 33 years ago, looking at Dumbo over and over again. So I have a long history with it. I just watched it again, of course, before we started. I wanted to see things after I read the script. It’s 63 minutes long, and I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the thing about Timothy in it. The mouse. There’s a special edition on the Blu-ray where they put an excised scene that was actually written, the whole scenario is written, and they got someone to read it that sounded like Timothy. And there’s also storyboards. But they took it out because it’s really dark. What it was, was Timothy explaining to people why elephants are afraid of mice. I don’t know if you’ve seen it but you should check it out…it’s really scary. Mice were ten times bigger than elephants years ago and they would play with the elephants and they would make them their slaves and string them around their neck. Disney was really whacked. [Note: The scene is, in fact, really whacked.]