I remember a time when there had been no live-action remakes of classic Disney movies. Yes, that’s how old I am. 😉 Heh, it actually wasn’t so long ago, really. Even now, there have only been, what, half a dozen remakes released?
Not counting the Peter Pan movie of 2003, as that was not related to Disney in any way, there was 101 Dalmatians in 1996, Alice in Wonderland in 2010, Maleficent (which I would classify more as an alternate telling of the story, in the same vein of Wicked, than a remake) in 2014, Cinderella in 2015, The Jungle Book in 2016, and Beauty and the Beast in 2017. Oh, and Christopher Robin of 2018 is a debatable addition, but I haven’t seen it so I’ll have to leave it out of this discussion. Pete’s Dragon, of 2016, is also debatable, as that one was never animated to begin with, so it may not really count, but I’ll include it for the sake of argument.
Now, this year, we are getting at least three such remakes, including Aladdin, The Lion King, and the impending Dumbo, with plans for Mulan and several others to follow in later years, not to mention a sequel for Maleficent. It does not take much to imagine that the future holds probably remakes for all of the animated features of bygone years, from Pocahantas and Hercules, to Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and Peter Pan, right down to Oliver and Company and The Black Cauldron. I shudder to contemplate that last one.
So, we’ve gone from having none, to have a couple, to being imminently buried beneath all these remakes as Disney pumps them out as quickly as they can.
This has inspired a good deal of… lively discussion, we shall say. We love them, we hate them, we hate that we love them, we wish they were more like the originals, we wish they were more different, we wish they were this way, we wish they were that way… so on and so forth. About the only thing I think we can agree on is we wish they were better. The question is how so?
Well, looking to the future always involves learning from the past. What have they done right, and what have they done wrong?
Cinderella took the original story and fleshed it out more, added depth and detail, improving both the characters and the narrative around them. The worst complaint I recall hearing about it has to do with an opinion that Cinderella herself should have screamed and fought more, like when she she nearly went over a cliff (because screaming would have been so helpful there) or when she knew someone was downstairs and she could have called for help (possible, but she likely would have been easily explained away). True, it wasn’t a perfect tale, but it seemed far stronger and more believable for a modern audience than the original, yet every bit as enchanting.
Much the same can be said for 101 Dalmatians, though that was a child-friendly stapstick comedy which did not take itself at all too seriously, and we loved it.
Pete’s Dragon, by contrast, tried very hard to be an enchanting tale about a boy finding a new family after being saved by a dragon, but it all came out very bland. They kept the bare bones of the original, namely Pete and his dragon Elliot, and being found and taken in by a woman, but nothing else was the same. It made little coherent sense, tried to have tension without having a villain, and it even lacked anything we could sing along with. All in all, a huge letdown.
Beauty and the Beast, on the other hand, may well have both tried too hard and not hard enough. They copy-pasted most of the original animated classic, and slapped on some alterations and additions. The soundtrack was more jarring than magical, the details they addded in were mostly useless and senseless, and while they attempted to make the romance between Belle and the Beast more sensible, this was overshadowed by both the nonsense and the disturbing horror of the rest of the movie. Seriously, that enchantress was the true villain, and her psychotic actions were never even properly addressed.
As for The Jungle Book, that was a masterful work, in my opinion. I can’t recall any complaints about it, outside how it’s not really meant for children this time around. It skillfully used both the animated and the written source materials and combined them into a new, original tale that was gripping and entertaining from start to finish.
But, then again, Maleficent and Alice in Wonderland both told original stories, and I’ve heard plenty of critiques both for and against them.
Maleficent revamped the story to one that barely included true love in it at all, and it had a what felt like a bit of man-hating throughout the movie. Meanwhile, Alice in Wonderland may have been an improvement, telling a coherent story with some meaning to it, but I think the drastic changes may have taken some of us very off-guard, you know? And the whole blithe labeling of people as mad felt a bit worn and shallow.
So, the quality of the remakes ranges from The Jungle Book at one end of the spectrum to Beauty and Beast at the other, with 101 Dalmatians and Cinderella leaning more towards the former, Pete’s Dragon towards the latter, while Maleficent and Alice in Wonderland fill out the middle. I can’t speak for Christopher Robin, as I haven’t seen it.
That’s three in favor, two against, two neutral, and one abstention. Not the best record, but they’re not down and out either. From that perspective, it makes sense for Disney to keep doing something that is generally working for them. And as long as we keep buying it, Disney will keep selling it.
The question remains, then: how to improve these remakes?
Well, the favorable remakes were of older classics, which they updated effectively for a wider, modern audience, fleshing them out with original stories while remaining true to the spirit, not the letter, of the source material.
The neutral remakes were also of older classics, and had original stories, yes, but they did not really stay true to the spirit of the source material.
And the less-favored? One suffered from a severely lacking story and one was a more recent classic which they copy-pasted and added very little to, with said additions being, at best, a distraction and, at worst, a disruption.
So, we have three boxes to check off: 1) older classics, 2) new, updated stories, and 3) true to the spirit of the original. The successes had all three of these checked off (heck, even Peter Pan did), and the failures did not.
This does not bode well for the remakes we’re about to get.
Aladdin, The Lion King, and Mulan are all newer classics and beloved masterpieces.
That’s one box left unchecked already.
It bodes even less well, considering how the trailers for Aladdin and The Lion King seem to be advertising exactly the same sort of movies we got with Beauty and the Beast. That is, they seem to be copy-pasted imitations, regurgitating what we already got, with perhaps a few tweaks and additions that will probably be ill-advised.
For example, it is obvious that anyone cast as the Genie in Aladdin would be so completely in the shadow of Robin Williams that a truly successful and appreciated performance would be all but impossible. As such, I was determined to try and be gentle in my inevitable judgment. Even so, when they unveiled Will Smith as the Genie, my reaction was a stupefied, “…what?” Whose idea was it to change “comic genius” to “‘tude from da hood?” Is it even possible to have picked a worse voice for this most iconic role?
And then there’s the songs. If the latest trailer is any indication, they are not at all going to hold a candle to the original, exactly like Beauty and the Beast.
As for The Lion King, not only is it going exactly the same way, but I have two other complaints already.
Firstly, why are they even bothering to call it “live-action” when there is no such thing in the entire movie?! Jungle Book had more actual live action than this! What they need to call it is a modern CGI adaptation.
And secondly, I am ticked off that they actually decided that they had to cast black people for the entire cast in the name of political correctness. It’s an animated film, so race, or, rather, how the voice actors look should have no bearing whatsoever on it. Thank goodness James Earl Jones is black, or they wouldn’t even have their headliner!
Heck, I heard that Mulan is/was intended to be different, and the fans flipped out, demanding that the songs from the original be repeated in live format, which, considering how terribly that’s already worked out, one would think they’d actually be demanding the opposite.
That’s a second box left decidedly unchecked in all three cases, making three points against these next remakes, and the remakes in general, even before they get out the gate.
As for Dumbo, I obviously cannot say anything for certain, but I’m getting a Pete’s Dragon vibe off the trailers. It’s an older classic, which checks off the first box, and clearly with a different story, which might check off another, though the original was lacking much in story anyway. But what about the third, remaining true to the spirit of the story?
That, I’m afraid, we’ll just have to find out by seeing it. Now, however, while I am still not excited for Dumbo, I am suddenly more hopeful for it than for the rest.