You’ve got to say this for Disney: when they have a winning formula, they go long. Apparently there are 17 live action reboots and remakes in the works at the time of writing. 11 of those remakes have been announced and are at various stages of production. No doubt the remaining half dozen will be released to glorious applause at some ComicCon or other.
By contrast there is only one listed upcoming Disney animation film known to the public: Frozen 2. That’s it. Of course Pixar has two listed upcoming films, with Toy Story 4 (another sequel) and Onward - the only original animation film on the slate from the two industry behemoths.
Perhaps I am alone here, but I find it incredibly depressing that these live action remakes are such an easy win for Disney. I find it creatively moribund in the extreme as well as being deeply cynical. I know why it happens. That’s straightforward: it’s money. It’s always money. Beauty and the Beast (2017) had a whopping budget of $255m, making it one of the most expensive films ever made, but the gamble paid off with a worldwide box office return of over $1.2bn. It was a similar story with Cinderella (2015) and The Jungle Book (2015). Both made many times their budget back at the box office, to say nothing of the flood of merchandise that would have accompanied both releases.
Beauty and the Beast (2017)
The real problem I have with Disney’s current strategy is that it’s so lazy. After a string of high-profile acquisitions of major studios and major franchises, Disney has taken a strategic decision to milk its established stable of classics. Rather than make some chump change on a Blu-Ray release (I mean, physical media? How very 2000s) the powers-that-be are exploiting their new magical formula: replace animation with extravagant sets and famous lead actors, recreate practically shot-by-shot the successful animations, profit immensely.
Of course it’s going to work for them. The originals had plots, characters, set pieces and songs that have already stood the test of time. They are classics. All the live action remakes need to do is stand on those broad shoulders and entrance a new generation of children. There’s very little that’s new here, essentially making these films a creative touch-up for something we’ve already seen. It shows all the creative thinking of a peat bog; all the ambition of a cart horse. It’s lazier than Jabba the Hut’s pilates regime.
Worse than that, though, is the loss of uniqueness that follows every remake. Now you don’t just have the animation. Now there is a more modern version to watch. The animated characters have a human face, and there’s no going back from that. Cinderella is now Lily James. Luke Evans is now Gaston. One of the advantages of reading a book is that it is down to the reader to create the universe described. As soon as any version of that world is put onto a screen, that version becomes the canon version and the concept you held in your head is challenged. At least with animation that version is stylised. With live action there’s no room for ambiguity. It’s all laid out there.
The compounding problem is that something is lost in live action that can only be achieved in animation. The magic, the wonder and the classic Disney physical comedy shine brighter in the animated originals. The areas where Disney animation has traditionally excelled, such as presenting an acceptable face of fear and menace in stories, does not translate so well into live action. The wolves in Beauty and the Beast are almost demonic in animated form but just… well… wolves in the remake.
One of the reasons for Disney’s early success as a studio was that it respected the magic. It spent far more on animations than anyone else, developing new techniques to make rich and engaging multi-paned shots and it delivered a high quality product that took audiences by storm. Snow White (1937) was hailed as a masterpiece and made a fortune for Disney. It remains one of the top ten film money-makers of all time, once you account for inflation. By the time of Walt Disney’s death in 1966, his studio had profited tremendously from his attention to detail and care which showed right up to the final animated film he had a personal hand in: The Jungle Book (1967) .
Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937)
Whatever else the modern version of The Walt Disney Company is, it seems less concerned now with respect for the magic than respect for the shareholders. These remakes are a real low-point in the creative history of the company; a creative roadblock that spills over into other films like Solo (2018). That film had to swap directors and hire an acting coach for the lead. It was clearly not in a good place but it was released anyway because the production schedule said so. It is also symptomatic of the attitude of the modern media conglomerate: bombard the audience with content. That is why we now have the dubious pleasure of a Star Wars film every year. That is why we have 17 remakes on the Disney slate. Hit ‘em hard and hit ‘em often.
It’s hard to have any confidence in the film industry when the lack of vision is so obvious and our viewing habits are so easy to predict. I have no doubt that this year’s Aladdin will be a big hit for Disney. The little that is new looks fresh and the large amount that’s rebadged is as good as ever. But I hope it flops. I hope that audiences’ viewing habits change and we start forcing the studios to work a little harder via the only medium that they respond to: ticket sales.