Disney’s 1941 animated feature Dumbo did not have much of a script. The film, which saw the titular pachyderm go off an adventure of a lifetime after he was separated from his mother, explores themes of friendship, tolerance of differences, and self-confidence. So when it was announced that the studio would be releasing an updated version of that with a live-action retelling, they tasked writer Ehren Kruger with expanding upon the original while also making it fresh by adding new themes to it.
At the Dumbo press conference, Kruger spoke about some of the challenges that came with expanding the animated original, which was 60 minutes long, to an updated 100-plus-minute film.
Kruger doesn’t see Dumbo as just an ordinary Disney character, but rather as a mythological character that he wishes was real. “I wish I could have been in the audience of that circus in the golden age of the circus and observe his story,” he said.
He didn’t want audiences just to observe Dumbo’s story, but imagine what it was like to be him. According to the writer, that will lead the audience to “a place where you say, ‘What would Dumbo want and is the end of the 1941 film truly a satisfying end for Dumbo of that story?’ And so that just organically led to expanding the story past where the animated film ends.”
But what drew Kruger to take on this challenge were the parallel themes seen in the first Dumbo. “Everyone sees themselves in the story of a character who has self doubt, who has flaws, who is defined as one thing by someone else,” Kruger said. “And has this mouse inside them telling them, maybe you’re more than that. Or maybe that negative is a positive.”
These themes helped them to create a “menagerie of human characters.” “The circus family around Dumbo who all in some way were wrestling with uncertainty about themselves and their place in the world and in fact the circus’ place in the world,” Kruger said.
Of course, nods to the original comes with these new tellings. But it wasn’t hard for Kruger to find new ways to incorporate Casey Jr., the firefighting clowns, and pink elephants. In fact, those were just some of the things that he strongly associated with the film without having to refer back to the 1941 original.
But for Kruger, he wanted to get to the “core things” that he associated with Dumbo, and “simple things” that he associated with the story. And he found himself asking if these things had to be in the film.
Producer Justin Springer said it’s not as though they sat down to make a list of things they were “beholden to include.” According to him, it starts “from your own fandom and your own respect from the original” and then “derive a story out of the stuff that feels like it’s in the essence of the movie.” And for him, that could be anything from the “set pieces,” “visual imagery,” or “fun little Easter eggs.”
Kruger agreed. “These movies run on parallel train tracks,” Kruger said. “So that you can imagine that Dumbo’s conversations with Timothy Mouse are happening off screen in between scenes of this movie. Just wanted to honor the original.”
Dumbo opens in theaters on March 29, 2019.