STACK speaks with the visionary director about his live action remake of the animated Disney classic. 

At 60 years old, Tim Burton remains Disney’s enfant terrible, a filmmaker who always follows his own path, refusing to tow the line.

Best known for directing films about ghoulish misfits and outsiders, demonstrated in his movies Corpse Bride, Edward Scissorhands or Beetlejuice, one wonders if Disney had any last-minute jitters in handing over Dumbo, their adorable flying baby elephant, to Burton? A cherished animated icon for 78 years, what might he do with the little fella in live action?

Turns out they didn’t need to worry. Burton had Dumbo’s back all along.

“I didn’t realise until now that this was my story… strange misshapen character goes to work at a big-family entertainment company,” he laughs when STACK meets with him in Beverly Hills, dressed in his signature black, crazy hair sticking in every direction.

As an introverted child, Burton identified with Dumbo growing up. “Of course, definitely,” he says. “Because people get categorised very early on in life – it didn’t have to be race but the second tier in that is: You’re weird; you’re adorable, etc. Even when I went to Disney I always felt like that. I mean, incredible, I got accepted and got to do things but at the same time it was like: ‘Well, he’s a bit strange.’ It’s a very odd dynamic when you keep getting told that your whole life. Oh, we love you, but we don’t really get you.

“So, in that sense, I always try to make it personal and use parallels in my life and try to identify with the main character,” says the filmmaker who has enjoyed a long and chequered history with Disney.

“But who doesn’t, right? But that’s life, it’s fine. The entrance and the exit, I know very well. Keeps you moving along,” says Burton, who, fresh out of art school, launched his career at Disney, making his 1982 directorial debut with animated movie Vincent, later directing Alice in Wonderland and two versions of Frankenweenie, 1984 and 2012.

Learning early on to embrace his misfit persona, he reflects, “I do remember a certain time when I kept thinking: I’m not weird; I don’t feel weird. I got tired of it. OK, whatever, you think I’m weird? And then I began not caring about what I wore and dressed like.”

Originally in discussions with Disney for a live action remake of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, he’s glad he made Dumbo instead – even though he couldn‘t quite believe it was possible to turn the flying baby elephant into a live action film.

“With all the other remakes, you kinda know what everybody likes about it, but Dumbo was a different animal. The things I liked about it, in getting wasted and hallucinating, you can’t really do that. So, those kind of things that you grew up liking; it’s a different world so you just try and give the spirit of it, so that was the deal with this. I connected to the material; connected to the image of this, and then thought: well there’s a bit of freedom to explore it in a different way; not making a remake or a thing like that,” he says.

“And I love Dumbo. I’ve always loved the idea of a weird little flying elephant. Basically it’s a symbol for a lot of feelings I have about life and how people are perceived and what you can do with people perceiving mental or physical weirdness and how you can use that to your advantage.

“You take a flying elephant and it conjures up a spirit of creativity and imagination and being who you are. Those themes, to me, are very simple but important.”

Dumbo features Burton favourites Danny DeVito, Michael Keaton and Eva Green, with the director delighted to work with Colin Farrell for the first time. Casting the Irish actor as former circus star Holt Farrier, who returns from WWI with one arm, Dumbo also serves to introduce Finley Hobbins and Thandie Newton’s daughter, Nico Parker, as Farrier’s children.

Even with his stellar cast, he struggled sometimes. “It was a weird challenge because you’re trying to take the flying elephant and make it like a fable; make it kind of real but give it its own reality.”

Nor did he feel compelled to deliver a weepie. “I might have held back on certain emotional things just because oftentimes these movies are pretty simple and obvious – so I try not to hit anybody over the head with it. The messages about family and dysfunctional families and stuff are all there, but I tried to pull back a little bit.”

One of the early directors to see the full potential of the comic book universe, his 1989 Batman remains known forevermore as “Tim Burton’s Batman”, something few directors have since achieved.

He smiles at the notion of returning to the superhero world. “I do feel grateful for being there at a time when it felt new. Nobody can take that away from me. That was exciting, no matter what they think about the movie I did and all that sh–t they talk about. I know how it felt and it was exciting.

“But I don’t know if I could get that excitement going back, saying ‘I’m going to do ‘Squirrel Boy’ for Marvel?’”

So what’s next for Burton?

“I’ve been dying to do a remake of The Cat from Outer Space – seriously,” he says of the 1978 Disney sci-fi comedy. We think his tongue is firmly in cheek, but you never know…

Dumbo is in cinemas March 28