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Thanks to this Kansan, Disney’s new live-action ‘Dumbo’ takes flight

Dumbo (Official Trailer)

A young elephant, whose oversized ears enable him to fly, helps save a struggling circus, but when the circus plans a new venture, Dumbo and his friends discover dark secrets beneath its shiny veneer.
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A young elephant, whose oversized ears enable him to fly, helps save a struggling circus, but when the circus plans a new venture, Dumbo and his friends discover dark secrets beneath its shiny veneer.

A flying elephant.

It seemed a rather kooky premise when Disney released “Dumbo” in 1941. But the animated tale earned an Academy Award and became a beloved classic.

Now, the airborne pachyderm returns in a live-action tale. This equally kooky idea of bringing back the character can be credited to Justin Springer.

A Leavenworth native and Kansas State University grad, Springer produced the new blockbuster-sized “Dumbo,” which arrives in theaters Friday.

“Our film honors the original, but it’s quite distinctive in its emotionality,” Springer says. “It carries a certain weight that distinguishes it from other stuff out there.”

Directed by Oscar-nominated filmmaker Tim Burton (“Beetlejuice,” “Ed Wood”), “Dumbo” stars Colin Farrell, Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Eva Green and Alan Arkin.

It’s part of Disney’s lucrative spate of live-action remakes of its classics, following such multiplex hits as “Cinderella,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Jungle Book” and Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland.” Coming soon: “Aladdin” on May 24, “The Lion King” on July 19 and “Mulan” next March.

Yet Springer says the idea for reviving “Dumbo” was “entirely organic” and began six years ago while he was having lunch with screenwriter Ehren Kruger (who penned “The Ring” remake).

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The 1941 “Dumbo” won an Academy Award for best original score. Walt Disney Pictures

“I had worked with Ehren on another project at Disney – it wasn’t a movie that got made – but we were talking about other things we might want to do. It was prior to even ‘Cinderella’ coming out. So the concept of remaking these Disney classics was quite new,” he recalls.

“The original was Ehren’s favorite Disney film and the first one he showed his kids. And it was a movie I liked quite a bit. It’s beautiful and emotionally poignant. But it’s really contained and just focuses on the animal characters. We felt in live action we could expand that out.”

Believing technology had gotten to a place where he could convincingly pull off the fantasy elements, Springer sprung into conceiving a human-centric story about a struggling circus that embraces the titular elephant and his oversized ears. But dark forces conspire to exploit the beast.

Because he has a deal developing new ideas at Disney, Springer could pitch Kruger’s screenplay (based on the Helen Aberson and Harold Pearl children’s book) to Burton.

The director signed on, but they had to wait until Burton finished making 2016’s “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” before production could start.

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Justin Springer, who grew up in Leavenworth, produced the new live-action “Dumbo.” Leah Gallo Disney Enterprises

“I grew up loving his films,” the 38-year-old Springer says of Burton.

“I was really inspired by everything from ‘Pee-wee’s Big Adventure’ and ‘Batman’ to ‘Beetlejuice’ and ‘Edward Scissorhands.’ It was amazing for me to come into that sphere. He’s just a true auteur in so many ways. You see how quickly he can take something and both honor the original and bring his creativity to that title.”

Filming took place at Cardington Studios, near London. The location originated as an airplane hangar during World War I, where giant airships were constructed. Springer says the primary set of Dreamland – the film’s nod to 1910-era Coney Island – became the largest continuous stage ever built for a movie.

“I couldn’t believe the scale they were able to achieve,” says Springer, who was on set every day during the shoot.

So how is London like Leavenworth?

“I can’t think of a single way other than they both start with an L,” he says.

Born in Topeka, Springer grew up 15 miles north of Leavenworth. He attended Pleasant Ridge High School (in Easton) before heading off to K-State.

“I grew up loving film and television. I just didn’t realize it was a job when I went to college,” he says. “Honestly, I probably would have gone to KU if I knew I was going to try to be in film.”

He graduated K-State in 2002 with a degree in communication studies and minors in business and leadership studies. After a gap year, he relocated to Los Angeles.

“I didn’t know anyone in the industry,” he says, his only foot in the door coming from a summer spent in L.A. doing internships.

Fortunately, he found a slot at Outlaw Productions (of “Training Day” fame) as a producer’s assistant.

“Prior to moving here, I didn’t know what a producer did,” he says. “But as soon as I got a sense of it, it felt like the job I wanted. It was an interesting intersection of business and art: the business of trying to produce something that would ultimately be profitable for a big company, yet at the same time, making a nice piece of art.”

From there he settled at another production company, LivePlanet, whose founders include Ben Affleck and Matt Damon. Eventually, he established his own: Secret Machine Entertainment. His recent producing roles include the sci-fi films “Tron: Legacy” and “Oblivion.”

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Former circus star Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) is tapped to care for a newborn elephant with oversized ears. But when everyone learns that the elephant can fly, Holt finds himself — and Dumbo — in the middle of a huge entertainment venture, alongside aerial artist Colette Marchant (Eva Green). JAY MAIDMENT Walt Disney Pictures

“Justin is a positive energy to work around. He’s enthusiastic and really cares,” says fellow “Dumbo” producer Derek Frey, whose frequent collaborations with Burton began with 1996’s “Mars Attacks!”

“Justin had the vision to see that the time was ripe for ‘Dumbo’ to be re-imagined. He was able to use his relationship with Disney and passion for the project to get them behind it. Justin was then incredibly trusting and supportive of Tim’s artistic process.”

Despite the hundreds (thousands?) of people involved with the production, Springer didn’t run into any other person from Kansas.

“It would have come up. We tend to gravitate to one another,” he says. “Actually, I’d take anyone in a four- or five-state area.”

Married and a father of a 2-year-old and 5-year-old, Springer admits he now feels fully adjusted to L.A. – even though he often misses the wide-open spaces of his home state.

He says, “I know my way around. I know the best parts, and I know how to avoid the worst parts. I have a nice little business that’s centered at Disney. I feel really supported. It’s comfortable.”

Currently, he counts 10 pictures at the studio in various stages of production, although nothing is green-lit yet.

“I like films of all different kinds, but what I like about fantasy is it gives you the latitude to explore stories and themes you couldn’t explore without the pushed reality,” he says.

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Circus owner Max Medici (Danny DeVito) is disappointed to learn that a newborn elephant has enormous ears. But when Medici realizes that the elephant can fly, the circus’s return to prosperity suddenly becomes a real possibility. . JAY MAIDMENT Walt Disney Pictures

That applies to “Dumbo,” the most ambitious project of his career.

“It’s the movie we set out to make,” Springer says. “This is the exciting time. I’ve been talking about this movie since 2014. It’s nice to be able to send it out into the world.”

Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”
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