Live-action reboots of famous animated titles are not a revolutionary idea in the Hollywood studio system, but mainstream audiences have recognized a significant increase in their production, which coincided with the rise of intellectual property (IP) remakes, reboots, and re-adaptations more generally. I have, in essence, given up complaining about Tinsel Town’s lack of artistic originality and insufferable attachment to established franchises, their pandering to recognizable brands; my exasperation with modern audiences’ refusal to explore new artists and major studios’ aversion to taking risks on films of even moderate ($20-50 million) budgets burned out some time ago, so I’ve relegated myself to being thankful for what few original IPs do earn theatrical releases (e.g. Overlord ) and the few remakes/reboots/re-imaginings that do have novel artistic merit.
This realistic, jaded outlook does not extend to my acceptance of the rosy-eyed nostalgia my generational cohorts have for the recent wave of Walt Disney’s live-action or 3-D animated remakes of their famous — some would say, classic — traditionally animated titles. Many of these current and future projects are based on titles from the “Disney Renaissance Era,” though some (e.g. Cinderella , The Jungle Book ) are much older. Having grown up with the bulk of the properties now being resold to my grown peers and I, yet hyper aware of the biases that turn audiences for or against films, often sight unseen, I feel I am well qualified to comment on Disney’s animation-remake binge. The phenomenon is notable more for how it continues existing Hollywood trends and reaffirms studio executive mindsets than for how it challenges them. Audiences, for their part, seem uninterested in testing uncharted waters barring an extreme exception once in a while (e.g. Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite , Tim Miller’s Deadpool , weird titles that somehow find life on streaming platforms like Netflix, etc.), so this predictable feedback loop of Hollywood feeding viewers’ what they expect is the most straightforward explanation for Disney’s ongoing “revitalization” of decades’ old cartoons.
As long as producers don’t mess with those catchy songs, most people will go along for the ride even if it costs them $15 per ticket for a movie they’ve already seen. I haven’t watched every single live-action or 3-D animated remake by the Mouse House, but I’ve seen enough to deduce what works and what doesn’t — from a marketing perspective, that is. If it ain’t broke (… i.e. if it makes enough money with minimal to no risk or creative effort), then don’t fix it. This is Hollywood we’re talking about, here, not the fucking Cannes Film Festival!
In any case, here are a few of my thoughts on this most recent “the-more-things-change-the-more-they-stay-the-same” trend by the most “family friendly” of contemporary Hollywood studios:
Table 1: Summary of theatrical live-action or 3-D animated remakes of traditionally (2-D) animated Disney films in the 2010s-2020s
|Film Remake||Original Animated Film||Remake Director||Remake Budget||Remake Gross|
|Alice in Wonderland (2010)||Alice in Wonderland (1951)||Tim Burton||$150-200 million||$1.025 billion|
|Maleficent (2014)||Sleeping Beauty (1959)||Robert Stromberg||$180-263 million||$758.5 million|
|Cinderella (2015)||Cinderella (1950)||Kenneth Branagh||$95-100 million||$542.4 million|
|The Jungle Book (2016)||The Jungle Book (1967)||Jon Favreau||$177 million||$966.6 million|
|Alice Through the Looking Glass (2016)||Alice in Wonderland (1951)||James Bobin||$170 million||$299.5 million|
|Beauty & the Beast (2017)||Beauty & the Beast (1991)||Bill Condon||$160-255 million||$1.264 billion|
|Christopher Robin (2018)||Winnie the Pooh (1977-2011)||Marc Forster||$75 million||$197.7 million|
|Dumbo (2019)||Dumbo (1941)||Tim Burton||$170 million||$353.3 million|
|Aladdin (2019)||Aladdin (1992)||Guy Ritchie||$183 million||$1.051 billion|
|The Lion King (2019)||The Lion King (1994)||Jon Favreau||$250-260 million||$1.7 billion|
|Maleficent: Mistress of Evil (2019)||Sleeping Beauty (1959)||Joachim Ronning||$185 million||$491.7 billion|
|Mulan (2020)||Mulan (1998)||Niki Caro||TBD||TBD|
|Cruella (2021)||One Hundred & One Dalmatians (1961)||Craig Gillespie||TBD||TBD|
|The Little Mermaid (TBA)||The Little Mermaid (1989)||Rob Marshall||TBD||TBD|
|Snow White & the Seven Dwarfs (TBA)||Snow White & the Seven Dwarfs (1937)||Marc Webb||TBD||TBD|
|The Hunchback of Notre Dame (TBA)||The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)||TBA||TBD||TBD|
1.) Remakes of Disney Renaissance Era films from the 1980s-1990s will continue to gross the most money due to the adult nostalgia and young families of newly established Millennial moviegoers: As stated above, many of the hand-drawn films Disney has already reshot or will reshoot in live action or contemporary digital animation were released in the late 1980s-1990s during the period now recognized as the Disney Renaissance. Famous titles of that era, which have been remade in the 2010s or will be remade throughout the 2020s include Aladdin (1992, remade in 2019 by Guy Ritchie), The Lion King (1994, remade in 2019 by Jon Favreau), Mulan (1998, to be released Q1 2020 by Niki Caro), The Little Mermaid (1989, to be released circa 2021), as well as potential sequels to their contemporary remakes.
It’s worth noting that Disney did not launch its current wave of live-action remakes with these Renaissance era films; Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland (2010) is credited with the box office momentum that lead to the studio revisiting its more recent titles, the latter of which are almost certainly more recognizable or beloved by contemporary audiences. 3/4 of the highest grossing Disney animated remakes since then have all been based on Renaissance era films (Table 1), and those three (Beauty & the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King) have all grossed over $1 billion. I expect future remakes of Disney Renaissance movies to dominate box office profits relative to Disney remakes of animated films from other eras, if for no other reason than Millennials (those born from ~1981-1996) who grew up on Renaissance titles are now young adults, many with new children ripe for Disney’s filmmaking library.
2.) Musical numbers, costumes, and characters designed for traditional (2-D) animation do not translate well to live-action or photorealistic 3-D Animation: My “problem” with these films’ success is not so much cynical disinterest in yet more remakes, but my confusion at their clumsy, inexplicable translation of stories, dance-sequences, costumes and overall artistic styles designed for hand-drawn or 2-D animation to live-action or photorealistic computer generated imagery (CGI). Montage sequences and dazzling, surrealist, dare I say psychedelic visuals created for traditional animation do not translate well to live-action, as exemplified by the stilted musical numbers, laughable costumes, and forgettable CGI of Aladdin (2019) and Beauty & the Beast (2017); by the same token, the emotional, dynamic facial expressions of decidedly non-realistic characters from 1994’s Lion King are traded for the blank stares and awkward head tilts of the 2019 film’s Planet Earth (2006)-style documentary visuals. You can’t adapt a story tailored for one specific art style to another without losing something in translation, and therefore arguments that these live-action remakes “lack heart” are not without merit.
3.) Older, more generic properties seem more “adaptable” to contemporary filmmaking trends: In contrast to the financially successful yet emotionally vapid remakes of more recent Disney films, contemporary remakes of older titles like Cinderella (2015) or The Jungle Book (2016) work better as standalone features. The reasons for this are numerous, but the biggest explanation may be that filmmakers are allowed greater freedom to direct true adaptations of these older films, whose fans may be less sensitive to modern re-imaginings or are, you know, dead. Stories like Cinderella (AD 510?) or The Jungle Book (1894) have become so ingrained in popular culture and storytelling methodology that they feel a part of the public domain.
4.) People gravitate to these live-action reboots for the same reasons certain other remade properties are successful — they market nostalgia well: Note how I didn’t argue these films pay homage to wistful memories of past titles by effective, cinematic means; none of the aforementioned films are exceptional, and most of them are quite bad. Rather, it’s apparent to anyone who tracks box office grosses over time that Disney is, top to bottom, a master at parasitizing itself and marketing that in-house plagiarism to audiences who were raised on properties like Aladdin, The Lion King, Mulan, etc. As Millennial households mature and acquire greater disposable income, including income to spend on young children of their own, Disney appears well situated to take advantage of the entertainment industry’s transition from milking nostalgia for the 1980s to milking nostalgia for the 1990s.