Remakes are nothing new. Some films that are viewed as classics by today’s standards are remakes, such as Scarface and The Wizard of Oz, so when Disney started their animated to live-action remake initiative in 2010, it wasn’t totally unexpected, especially when they already tried that in the 90s with 101 Dalmatians and The Jungle Book (1994). What was unexpected was the fervor behind their initiative that made people stop and tilt their heads at their decisions.
Within the past decade, Disney’s live action remakes have been hit or miss. Their storytelling has been both bold and boring as villains star in their own movies, as anti-heroes and big-budget CGI infests the screen as they recreate their animated predecessors. While they’ve had generally mixed to negative reviews, Disney still has made a butt load of money out of them. So naturally, the question is why do these live-action remakes make so much money when they’re rarely as good as the originals?
The turn of the decade was a dark place to be in cinema. Literally. When 2008’s The Dark Knight came out with its gritty and edgy approach, studios turned toward the sky and went “AHA!” And so, we had gritty serious remakes of all sorts of properties, and Disney leading the charge with Alice in Wonderland and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, which is a remake from the iconic Mickey magic-ing the brooms short from Fantasia.
Similarly, Disney started off their live action remake initiative with an Alice in Wonderland movie directed by Tim Burton. Now you may think that’s an interesting choice, and it certainly is even today, but the marketing of the film, and even after watching the film, audiences were left with bafflement. Was it a sequel to the animated movie and not a remake? Why was Alice a chosen-one? Why was the Mad Hatter treated as more of an important character? (Okay, that one is probably more obvious, but still). At the end of the day Disney released a dark (sometimes the screen being too dark to even see) and confusing take on a fairly all ages classic. Did I mention that this movie is rated PG and has decapitated heads in a moat? Yeah, mixed messages.
Disney did have the right idea though, because on paper it sounds interesting, and when crafting a remake it should be able to stand on its own while telling a similar story. One of their remakes that does this brilliantly is actually Pete’s Dragon. Both the original musical and the new feature have the same basic plot. An orphaned boy meets a dragon and they become a family, living off the land, and being reintroduced into a society and home that loves him. In the original, it was a fishing town, whereas the remake was in a lumber town. You can see how their stories are similar but each can stand on their own. The problem Disney has, however, is that they’re either too different, too similar, or when they do strike a good balance their story isn’t great.
Films like Maleficent and Alice in Wonderland really swung for the fences, and what fans got out of it was something barely resembling the original. In certain circumstances these remakes undo some of what made the classic characters so iconic. Maleficent rewrote the story of Sleeping Beauty so that the antagonist, one of the most evil characters to grace Disney’s silver screen, was now an anti-hero who was misunderstood all along.
Films such as The Lion King, Lady and the Tramp and Beauty and the Beast, were too close to the original that any deviations they added stuck out like a sore thumb. The Lion King is nearly a shot-for-shot recreation of the animated movie, though they did add new songs and more of a character role for Nala that stretches the story out unnecessarily and disrupted the pacing. Beauty and the Beast, similarly, added more than necessary to the story by adding to the curse and Belle’s mother as well as adding a magical map that allows you to be transported anywhere in the world. These diversions really stick out when the rest of the movie was really close to what Disney had already done. The point is, these films did the least amount of work (script-wise) and yet money was made. Reviews were mixed, but audiences liked them…well, most of them.
As a theater worker, I was blessed to see so many Disney fans come to my theater in droves to see Beauty and the Beast. Many women, young and old, dressed up. I saw young adults crying as they waited in line to get into the movie. Disney’s animated films are classics for a reason and many of their 90’s catalog has hit our generation, and many others after us, hard with the feels. These stories are powerful to have stuck around in our lives as we aged, and to be able to see it on the big screen again? Priceless.
Disney is no fool though. They’re an empire for a reason and the reason behind these live action remakes are simply that they’re easy IP (Intellectual Property). They know that their classic movies will rake in the money. They know the impact that these animated movies have had on their fans. So, even after the mixed and negative reviews that their live-action remakes have received, why do people still go out to see these remakes?
Partly, the reason why so many people come in droves to see these movies is to recapture their childhood. I was amazed at how many people who were standing in line to see Beauty and the Beast said that they haven’t seen the original since they were a kid. Why not? The animated movie is still good and readily available. Sadly, there is an animation bias when it comes to Americans.
For decades, cartoons were lauded as kid’s entertainment that we’re marketing for toys. It wasn’t until the 90’s that storytelling in an animated series had gotten more serious. Not The Dark Knight serious, but serious in the sense that the writers intended to tell a good story. They wanted to produce something that will stick with their audience and not create a disposable market. Some shows have surpassed this bias, Avatar: The Last Airbender being a prime example, but even to this day there are still a good portion of the population that sees animated series and movies as part of their disposable childhood.
It certainly doesn’t help that adult animation consists of Family Guy, Bob’s Burgers, Rick and Morty, and a slew of other series that provide shocking and gross jokes. Now, I’m not saying that any of these are bad shows, in fact each have had their moments from time to time, but when you look at what these prime adult animated series all have in common you start to notice something interesting: they’re all sitcoms.
Each of these shows prioritize comedy before going into drama and their comedy usually involves gross and adult jokes, sometimes for the pure experience to shock the viewer as if a cartoon swearing and doing disgusting things is the joke. When you look at cartoons on Disney, Nick, Cartoon Network, any of the streaming services, they have comedy series too but their big shows are not. Their most popular shows are dramas from fantasy worlds where they prioritize character and story. In some instances these all ages shows are far more mature than the adult animation listed.
However, because adult animation uses adult language and actions to validate their adult audiences so does these live action adaptations. Audiences are willing to settle for a product that validates revisiting their childhood.
The Lion King got a lot of flack for being intensely similar, with their marketing campaign lauding the “realistic” special effects and their nearly all Black cast. However, the director and writers on The Lion King are all white. Mulan has a similar situation, though it has the privilege of being the first woman-directed movie after 12 live-action adaptations. But, again, the creators behind the story are still all white. This makes a huge difference when Disney’s remakes are taking a turn and addressing diversity. Their marketing makes it out to be a movie that will be more relatable to the cultures of where these movies were set, and yet everyone on the story level do not come from these backgrounds. The sad part of this is that Disney knows the power of diversity and how people who haven’t seen themselves accurately on screen are starved to see that.
Not every Disney remake has been bad though. The Jungle Book has probably been their most successful movie with audiences and critics as it balances the old story with a new take. Christopher Robin, while severely depressing, was fairly good as it asked the question of what happens to your childhood imagination when you grow up? Even in their movies that are very similar to their animated features there are small divergences that are vastly more interesting than recreating iconic scenes beat for beat.
What Disney struggles with when it comes to these live-action adaptations is that more often than not they’re not understanding of their own product, these stories are not new takes, Disney is cultivating an animation bias mindset (especially with their work on The Lion King), and unfortunately, Disney is providing false inclusiveness by lauding diversity on screen but not hiring diversity behind the screen because they know how badly people want to see themselves in their stories. In these nostalgia-glorified times, audiences are starved to relive their childhoods, to a time that was far simpler than what we have known as adults. That is why no matter what the quality these films come out to being Disney’s live-action adaptations from their animated catalog will always make money.