Updated: Oct 29, 2020
Imagine, if you will, sitting in a dim room. The seats are comfortable with a worn in type feel. With your favorite sweets in hand and your family by your side, you eagerly wait for the light to completely escape the room. Suddenly, your eyes are flooded with color. The peak of a spire rapidly enlarges until a majestic castle stands before you. The chill up your spine is beautifully interrupted by the unmistakable melody of “When You Wish Upon a Star” as one man’s name materializes on screen: Walt Disney. Regardless of what follows that iconic intro, whether you’re in the theater or at home in your living room, you know that you’re in store for something magical.
For over 83 years, The House of Mouse has touched the hearts of generations past, present, and future. Appealing to kids and adults alike, the studio’s devotion to top-of-the-line storytelling coupled with iconic music is second to none. Naturally, the majority of the general public can identify with at least one part of the Disney pantheon that they hold dear. These feelings of nostalgia are a force to be reckoned with, and for an entertainment company that has the eyes of the world upon them at all times, their legacy walks the line of greatest strength and greatest challenge.
Let’s trace this legacy back to 1938 when Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was released. As the first full-length animated feature film (in color and with sound) to ever be released, the company marked itself as a formidable industry leader from the beginning. Years of innovation through animation have kept the company high on the food chain all the way until today. With endless resources and experience at hand, Disney’s place as an entertainment mogul seemingly leaves every force at their command. That is until Hollywood took a heavy left turn, creating an environment that even Disney had not encountered before.
It’s no secret that original movies are few and far between these days. The likes of reboots, remakes, sequels, and spinoffs dominate the box office regardless of critical appeal, leaving the majority of the market entries tied to some sort of preexisting material. Of course a huge part of this goes back to the power of nostalgia, which is especially accentuated today through the easy access to the internet and technology.
On one front, Disney’s many subsidiaries, including but not limited to Marvel, Lucasfilm, and Pixar kept them well equipped for this shift in the market. On the other hand, a newfound focus on live action remakes of animated classics is a whole new ball game. While many would jump the gun to call this unoriginal, there is definitely more to unpack here. Classics logically provide the most opportunity for profits and visual specticality, but they can also prove to be the most dangerous to revisit. Has Disney really found a way to recapture the magic? How have they succeeded? How can they improve? Let’s take a look.
Out of the Vault
The live action remake strategy began in 2010 with the release of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. While not exactly a success in the eyes of critics nor a direct remake of the original 1951 classic, the film managed to make over a billion dollars worldwide. From there on, the new projects began to take a more direct remake approach (ex: Aladdin, The Lion King), which is arguably much more controversial. Yet the 11 live action remakes and spinoffs released thus far have grossed over $7 billion worldwide. Clearly, the multigenerational brand recognition isn’t going anywhere, but the critical responses do pose some food for thought.
It’s not like a re-release strategy is unprecedented for Disney. For years and years before take-home options were available, the company would capitalize on its brand recognition power by utilizing what’s known as the Disney Vault. Essentially, after a film was initially released, Disney would withhold the film from the public access, locking it in “the vault” for seven years. Hoping that this would build a sense of urgency while tapping into new markets of viewers, certain films would then be rereleased in theaters for a short period of time before returning back to their shelf in the vault. This strategy soon updated to reflect VHS and DVD release. This way, breakout hits like Bambi only became more popular while initial disappointments like Dumbo became beloved and much more appreciated.
Naturally, when VOD (video on demand) and streaming came along, it rendered the Disney Vault program an ineffective relic of the past, yet the core principles never left. With CGI (computer generated imaging) reaching its prime capabilities and a wealth of special effects experience from Lucasfilm and Marvel under their belt, live action remakes seemed to be the next evolutionary step for Disney.
The main concern of this seemingly endless strategy is that remakes are arguably never completely necessary. For lesser known franchises, a remake or two certainly could be welcomed and refreshed. But when it comes to something as beloved as the Disney catalogue, it seems like thin ice ahead. Financially and technologically it makes sense; but what does this bode for them creatively? Obviously there are two sides to everything, but in Disney’s case, they’ve equipped themselves with a double edged sword.
It’s tough to completely turn a blind eye to the possibilities that remakes pose for Disney movies. The idea of making fantasy all the more real is something Walt Disney himself worked hard to support all his life. Then again, the word remake in itself implies that the original has something wrong with it and needs to be redone. Therefore, by pursuing remakes of your best work, you’re essentially wrestling with yourself over something that quite possibly cannot be changed in the eyes of your consumers. Is this implying that CGI is an improvement to animation? Certainly people have an affinity for it, and when it’s done well, it can be truly amazing. However, much like the nostalgia that comes with these movies, CGI can bite back.
The Lion King (2019) and Aladdin (2019) often come to mind when discussing these dangers. After the financial and critical success of Jon Favreu’s The Jungle Book (2016), fans were ecstatic to hear of his “live action” remake of The Lion King in the works. What we got in the end was an awe-inspiring computer-generated African Sahara that definitely lives up to Disney’s reputation to push the boundaries of animation. However, the magic was lost in translation along with the facial emotions of the now realistic looking animals. What’s especially apparent with Disney movies is that they not only run the risk of upsetting beloved story elements, but they also gamble the iconic music which is undoubtedly just as important. A moment of silence for Scar’s beloved anthem “Be Prepared”. The main lesson from The Lion King, however, is that CGI can’t be trusted as the sole source of magic. This becomes all the more difficult when all of your classic movies fall into the fantasy genre, which potentially could require a lot of CGI by nature.
Aladdin dealt with a similar danger when it came to the genie. Whether you’re a fan of the movie or not, you cannot deny that Robin Williams’ genie is as much of a national treasure as Williams himself. Will Smith stepped up and did the character as much justice as he could competing with an iconic portrayal. Now, this is not to say that a new actor can never try their hand at playing a cherished character. Respectfully, however, it makes the movie that much harder to charm audiences with a genie shaped shadow is cast over the whole production. Furthermore, CGI played its part in this film by recreating the genie in a fashion met with mixed reviews. Proving even more so that at a certain point, CGI has its limitations. The same can be said with creative liberties in plot and script.
There’s no doubt that certain elements of Disney classics are in need of a refresh to update outdated material. However, the cemented nostalgia with each story doesn’t allow for much creative freedom. Considering the previously mentioned dangers, it’s easy to see how a filmmaker could unintentionally back themselves into a corner without said freedom. Nevertheless, sometimes it works. The strong and independent update to Jasmine’s character was much needed and a welcome addition to the story. However, other additions such as a genie love interest and comic relief Prince Anders can come off as unnecessary.
It really only takes one change for it to become too much; which is especially apparent in Angelina Jolie’s prequel/remake hybrid Maleficent (2014). In this case, the original material 1959’s Sleeping Beauty is spun into a character study focusing on the iconic villain Maleficent. As it happens, deconstructing a popular villain provides a lot of opportunities that can turn out to be really compelling. On the other hand, having fundamentally changed the backbone of a tale that is centuries old did not sit well with many fans. The fact of the matter is that depending on how you explore a villain, you run the risk of changing what makes them so wickedly beloved. There’s always a chance changes like this could turn out to be a hit, but again how many of those risks are worth taking before the line is crossed?
Overall, each of these films mentioned were financial successes. The same cannot be said for their critical appeal though. While these are some huge factors at play working against Disney, there is a silver lining.
When it comes down to brass tax, all strategic decisions in entertainment come down to profitability. The live action strategy has continued to prove itself a success to Disney’s bottom line. As many skeptics as these films have, plenty of people show up to the theater for each release. A great deal of this success comes not only from domestic ticket sales but international as well. Beauty and the Beast (2017), for example, produced $504 million domestically but a worldwide total of $1.26 billion.
Let’s compare once again to the original Disney Vault strategy. Both this and the remake strategy aim to either connect new generations with hit material or to help a film with modest box office numbers reach its full potential. The difference is that years ago, movies were not as widely accessible. Many countries, especially in Asia, did not have access to Disney classics when they were first released. Plus, these markets respond particularly well to 3D, IMAX, and technological innovations such as motion capture. Thus, the live action strategy provides an opportunity to easily spread to new markets, expanding Disney’s trademark brand loyalty worldwide.
While these opportunities all make sense from a corporate standpoint, this discussion continues to dance around the idea of creativity. In truth, by deciding to produce more than just a scene-by-scene translation of animation to live action presents a lot more possibilities. There’s opportunity for character studies, prequels, and general world expansion. It’s here where Disney could spread their creative wings and let this strategy shine.
Call it what you want, but there is something to be said about successfully being able to reinvigorate the wonder of a beloved story, especially when that story does not have as much meat to begin with. Examples such as Pete’s Dragon (2016), The Jungle Book (2016), and Christopher Robin (2018) either reimagined the plot, expanded the original to new territory, or took adored characters and created an original story. While not as profitable as some of the previously mentioned remakes, these each earned a respectable amount of money in addition to amounting to creative and strategic triumphs. It’s clear that if remakes are going to continue to be Disney’s strategy of choice, then the real gold mine may be focusing on authentic reimagining rather than remaking.
Regardless of everything that has been previously stated, there is never one clear guideline for how this strategy works best. Faithful remakes like Cinderella (2015) or Beauty and the Beast (2017) were successful, while reimagined plots such as Dumbo (2019) did not perform as well. Yet it’s clear that the dangers and opportunities in this discussion hold some truth to understanding the decision to focus on remakes of classic animated features. On a holistic industry level, Vassar Professor of Behavioral Economics Ben Ho summarizes the Hollywood movement well by stating “we haven’t run out of ideas, but the old ideas are just safer money-making gambles.” Be that as it may, but now Disney needs to examine the past and decide which path is more worth travelling: sacrificing critical appeal for pure remake specticality, or finding a way to adapt and reinvent the game the Disney way.
The future will certainly hold for some interesting further discussion regarding Disney’s live action strategy. Bumps in the road have not stopped the media giant from announcing numerous projects in the works. Will they be able to find the balance between the dangers and the opportunities of revisiting old favorites?
Mulan: The reimagining of Disney’s Mulan was originally scheduled to come out on March 27th, 2020 until the COVID-19 pandemic delayed its release to July 24th. From the start, this project seemed to be dancing around the territories of promise and risk. The announcement that General Li Shang and fan favorite Mushu would not be included in favor of a Phoenix surely raised some eyebrows in suspicion. Further skepticism came about when it was announced that the film would not be a musical. On the other hand, trailers seem to showcase a shift in focus towards Mulan as a warrior, all encased in an action-packed war story featuring an impressive all Asian cast. The idea of foregoing the silliness in favor of being faithful to the Chinese legend is exciting. The potential is there and the changes do appear justified. Only time will tell if these changes turn sour or sweet.
Lilo & Stitch: Recently announced as a Disney+ exclusive, this remake is perhaps the most worrisome. No word has surfaced on how faithful this adaption will be to the original. And although Sci-Fi genres lend themselves well to CGI, some live action Stitch designs (which were revealed to be fake) raise the question of whether this is something that could quickly turn the loveable cuddly character of Stitch into a nightmare. The question stands, how will live action improve upon the original?
Robin Hood: Another under-appreciated gem of the Disney catalogue, Robin Hood retells the classic story of the self titled character along with his sidekick Little John who steal from the greedy Prince John to give to the poor. This could definitely be a fun story to expand upon in a similar vein to The Jungle Book (given that the 1973 animated Robin Hood is only 83 minutes long). While it is exciting to see underrepresented Disney properties getting some love, the CGI of an all-animal cast immediately draws some uneasy parallels. Will the designs be more in line with The Lion King’s ultra-realism or The Lady and The Tramp’s (2019) charm? Without any human characters, this will be a tough one. However, the idea of saving some cult classics for Disney+ does show that Disney has some interesting ideas of how to maintain exclusivity and increase anticipation.
Hercules: The most recent live action adaptation was announced to be the 1997 musical Hercules. Similar to Lilo & Stitch, the original contains a lot of aspects that will be daunting to recreate. Mythological creatures, intricate action sequences and beloved musical numbers stack up to be quite a challenge. But who better to tackle a project like this than Anthony and Joe Russo, fresh off their six years of success at Marvel Studios. Nearly nothing has been revealed about this remake other than it does not plan to be a direct retelling. The brothers have stated to Collider Magazine, “Well, I think you always have to bring something new to the table because from our perspective as storytellers, it’s not compelling for us to do a literal translation. We’ve already done that with our Marvel films. We don’t do literal translations of the comics because we feel like if you want that story you can go read that story. We’re going to give you a different story. I think we’ll do something that’s in the vein of the original and inspired by it, but we also bring some new elements to the table.” To say the least, it’s promising so far.
No matter the critical acclaim, financial success, cult following, etc., Hollywood remakes will always be a controversial topic. What does this new trend mean for creativity and the art of filmmaking? What truly defines whether a remake is necessary? Does critical acclaim really determine what will stand the test of time? It also may be unnerving to think about how the desire for profit is strengthening its grip over the industry, but this isn’t changing anytime soon. Technology has fundamentally changed the possibilities of filmmaking as much as it has changed how we as a society desire, seek out, and obtain new forms of entertainment. But there will always be a silver lining within the vast criticism, and that is potential, opportunity, and possibility. Sure, I too have mixed feelings about the whole movement, but if there’s any company I know that can unearth that potential, it’s Disney.
Five Recommendations for Remake Projects
It turns out the Pochahontas animated film is actually wildly different from the Native American legend. Similar to Mulan, it would be interesting to see them reinvent the film by blending elements of the real story of Pochahontas and John Smith along with the Disney classic. Plus, just imagine how mesmerizing Colors of the Wind would look in live action.
Peter and the Starcatchers
Disney has already hinted at plans for a live action Peter Pan remake. While people love the original story, it has been told many times by different studios. Adapting the four-part best selling prequel series to Peter Pan, “Peter and the Starcatchers” instead would absolutely breathe new life into the franchise. The story is delightfully unique and was even adapted into a Broadway musical for a short run. With a substantial budget, a big name to play Captain Hook, and a roundtable team of directors similar to The Mandalorian, this would make for an incredibly action-packed and suspenseful Disney+ series.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Disney has also mentioned plans for a live action Hunchback movie. Although Quasimodo would prove to be a challenge to nail visually, with careful curation the outcome would be well worth it. The animated version is highly underrated not only in story terms but also visual and musical beauty. Perhaps toning down the goofy gargoyles as well as expanding on the conflict between the French government and gypsies would make for an exciting gothic political blockbuster distinctive from Disney’s previous remakes.
The Sword in the Stone
Another film that Disney has also mentioned to be in the works, The Sword in the Stone could prove to be a hidden gem for a live action remake. Underrated in its own right but also considered a classic by many, this would provide a lot of wiggle room for creative reimagining. Plus, invoking some fantasy elements and medieval politics akin to Game of Thrones could tap into a huge market that consumers already love.
Big Thunder Mountain Railroad/Expedition Everest
This last recommendation is a bit different, but not out of the ordinary. With the success of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, Disney has proven they can take a concept from their theme parks and turn it into something unique and exciting. For those who are unfamiliar, the level of research, story curation, and immersive theming that Disney Imagineers (Engineering and Designers for their theme parks) employ in creating a Disney ride is mind boggling. Essentially, it provides a perfect mini-world for filmmakers to play in. Next year, they’ll even have a Jungle Cruise movie on the way, so it seems like a great opportunity to adapt another theme park property, maybe even to Disney+ this time. The streaming service is in need of a high budget adventure series outside of Marvel and Lucasfilm. Imagine a classic Western based off of Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, complete with runaway train action sequences, or a supernatural thriller series detailing the search for the fabled Yeti based on the Expedition Everest: Legend of the Forbidden Mountain.
Written by Jake Zall
Edited by Nick Mandala