In this version of Dumbo, set in 1919, DeVito plays Max Medici, the ringmaster and owner of a humble circus who finds himself desperate to keep his business — and his livelihood — afloat. In a last-ditch effort to attract more ticket-buyers, he decides to purchase an elephant for his new act, not realizing that she’s pregnant, or that her baby will change everything. “He has a big pressure, in the beginning, to keep the circus alive, because it was a very, very tough time. They were fading, the little circuses, because all the big ones were taking over. We get a windfall when I buy Mrs. Jumbo.”
According to DeVito, when Burton called him up to ask him to be in the film, he referred to it as “the completion of the circus trilogy.” Direct lines connect Medici and Big Fish‘s ringmaster Amos Calloway, and even the Penguin to some extent. But DeVito told us that Medici is still different than the other circus-themed characters he’s played for Burton in the past. “He’s a showman. He’s like a Barnum. He’s not as slick and maybe not as savvy, but he’s a showman. He’s a barker. He’s a guy who wants to get people in and have a good time and enjoy themselves.”
Burton wasn’t the only person DeVito’s reunited with for this project, however. Dumbo also gave him the opportunity to act against his former Batman Returns co-star Michael Keaton, albeit with the roles largely reversed this time around: it’s a fact DeVito couldn’t help but note with some personal relish when asked about it. “It’s really fun that Michael’s here and it’s also very interesting. We’ve done a couple of movies together, Michael and I, but the last movie with Tim and Michael and I, of course, we were both in suits, right? 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. So it’s a little bit of an evolution here.”
Ultimately, it was clear from our conversation with DeVito that whenever Burton asks him to lend his talents to another project, he’ll say yes without hesitation. “I love Tim and I would do anything to be in a movie with him. But what are we going to do next? Who knows? Something really weird. Really. That’s an understatement.”
Dumbo is currently slated for a U.S. release on March 29.