For Tim Burton’s live-action re-imagining of “Dumbo,” his Oscar-winning, go-to production designer, Rick Heinrichs (“Sleepy Hollow”), had a field day with Dreamland, the Coney Island-inspired theme park. It appropriately serves as a symbol of Burton’s fixation with nostalgia and the dark forces of greed that squashes artistic imagination. In the movie, Michael Keaton plays ruthless entrepreneur, V. A. Vandevere, who exploits the flying elephant to elevate the commercial prospects for his wondrous Dreamland.
“I had a conversation with Tim about the traveling circuses of the day and a destination amusement park and it becomes a land unto itself,” said Heinrichs, who started at Disney with Burton in the ’80s and produced “Vincent,” his breakout, Goth-driven, stop-motion short. “Then it became a question of designing a Tim Burton park as a compendium of period-appropriate research and fantasy.”
While the original Disney animated “Dumbo” (1941) took place during the Depression, Burton’s version (scripted by Ehren Kruger of “Transformers” fame) switched to post World War I, allowing Heinrichs to combine creative influences from both periods. He began with Brooklyn’s actual Coney Island Dreamland (which opened in 1904 but burned down in 1911): an ambitious, elegant-looking park devoted to education and spectacle with a railway that ran through Swiss alpines, a simulated submarine ride, a human zoo with hundreds of little people, and an incubator invention exhibit. Then Heinrichs added some Worlds Fair touches to expand the concept.
“Tim was looking for an Oz-like contrast between the heartland and the Medici circus [run by Danny DeVito’s Max Medici] and Dreamland,” Heinrichs added. “Dreamland was a Victorian take on the pleasure park, a combination of architectural aspiration and lurid hucksterism [courtesy of Vandevere]. We started in the historically correct period and kept pushing the stylization and forward-looking design so that we ended up with something that was right for the purposes of the story.”
Dreamland was constructed on Cardington Airfield in England and the production designer made a complete blueprint that covered nearly half a mile, though only a small portion was actually built as a set. While there were definite nods to Disneyland (including the Main Street-like entrance and a touch of Tomorrowland), the centerpiece was the circus with its large coliseum tent. “We were allowing ourselves the license to say that Vandevere had the resources to afford the most elaborate and innovative building techniques,” Heinrichs said. “They could suspend huge pieces of concrete and iron cantilevered over elements just to get that sense of ambition and all of the visual elements that would underline what this park was about and the soaring nature of this flying elephant.”
Of course, Dreamland wouldn’t be Burtonized without a dark side as well. This could be found on Nightmare Island, where animals are caged, dressed as monsters, and cruelly beaten with medieval-like torture devices. “We wanted it to feel like a little land unto itself, so you go through a gate and cross a bridge in a water environment that looks like a skull volcano,” Heinrichs said. “It’s a sinister counterpoint that gave us an opportunity to do scary stuff, which is always fun to do.”
But, with the Wonders of Science exhibit, they returned to a World’s Fair vibe crossed with Tomorrowland. “You’ve got automation and leisure and, for someone who’s lost a limb [such as Colin Farrell’s World War I vet], there will be mechanical devices to replace that,” said Heinrichs. “And for Milly [his daughter played by Nico Parker], there’s Marie Curie doing an experiment in front of a bunch of men looking up at her. It was important for Milly to have a role model.”
And while there have been inevitable comparisons between Vandevere and Disney, Heinrichs countered with a crucial difference: “During the golden age of animation, Disney got down in the trenches with his story men and his artists and he put his finances on the line and was a true believer in what he did,” he said. “That’s completely unlike Vandevere, who’s a complete snake.”