Disney's Live-Action Remakes Are Nostalgic Moneymakers, But Ultimately Unsatisfactory
Some people were Nickelodeon kids; some got to watch Cartoon Network. Some watched the Land Before Time movies, others preferred live-action. I was a Disney kid.
I knew all the words to all the songs. We had an alphabetically organized chest of drawers in our living room that held our extensive collection of VHS tapes, the majority of which were Disney movies.
We each had our favorites. My sister Alison liked “Sleeping Beauty” and “Peter Pan.” My mom had a soft spot for “Beauty and the Beast” and “Winnie the Pooh.” My brother Matthew tended to watch “The Aristocats” on repeat. I adored “Aladdin.”
Those movies are coming back, but in a new way. A live-action way.
The movie that kicked off the latest trend of live-action remakes of classic Disney movies was 2015’s “Cinderella” directed by Kenneth Branagh. After that came “The Jungle Book” in 2016 and “Beauty and the Beast” in 2017. Now, in 2019, we have “Dumbo,” “Aladdin,” and, in a few days, “The Lion King.” There’s already a trailer for 2020’s “Mulan,” and casting announcements for “The Little Mermaid” have caused a bit of a stir.
The thing is: I get it.
Remaking classic Disney movies is incredibly financially rewarding. There’s a built-in audience, name recognition, and the power of the mouse to back each new live-action remake. It’s trendy. It’s cool. It’s the hippest fad.
But, aside from the slam-dunk financial aspect, what’s the point?
Few of these movies do anything different, the only changed aspect being updated jokes and real humans instead of hand-drawn characters. Those that take the original story and do something unique to update it are nearly unrecognizable — yes, “Maleficent,” I’m looking at you.
Consider the “Aladdin” remake: despite having updated jokes and an aptly diverse cast, it paled in comparison to its predecessor. The addition of a new song (“Speechless”) and some new characters were great ideas, but the fireworks weren’t there. This Aladdin and Jasmine barely had a connection, Will Smith’s Genie was lackluster, and bad-guy Jafar just wasn’t menacing at all.
It was a spectacle of special effects but, to be completely honest, the “live-action” Broadway musical adaptation was better. The fact that animators in the early 90s were able to so perfectly draw the Genie according to Robin Williams’ voice acting is way more impressive than this the use of modern motion-capture technology that made Will Smith look weird. The 2019 movie attempted to recreate the magic that was the original, but couldn’t even manage a spark.
And let’s face it: those classic animated Disney movies were special because a lot of them included animals as characters. “Lady and the Tramp,” “The Lion King,” “101 Dalmatians,” the list goes on… and it didn’t matter that the characters were animals because they were drawn to perfection. They were perfect, funny, and often snarky sidekicks, antagonistic minions, and lovable protagonists.
While I haven’t seen “The Lion King” yet, I must admit, I don’t understand the appeal. At least with “Beauty and the Beast” or “Aladdin,” there were real people playing the main characters. “The Lion King” is wild animals, and the new movie seems to be nothing more than an impressive showing of CGI. But I know damn well that those lions aren’t real, just like I knew Simba wasn’t real in the 1994 film because he was animated. If I wanted to see real lions, I’d turn on “Planet Earth.”
In my opinion, what it comes down to is a matter of nostalgia.
By green-lighting live-action remakes, Disney is playing into a natural human emotion to be nostalgic for things of the past — whether that’s in the children for whom these movies defined childhood, in the parents who watched the same animated stories over and over, or in anyone who simply knows and loves these classic stories.
It’s not a bad strategy. Nostalgia is a powerful marketing tool, and can be effective as a storytelling technique too. “The Shape of Water” won Best Picture in 2018 in part, because it’s a callback to movies of yore. Films like “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Rocketman” and “Yesterday,” play on our nostalgia for bands or artists of another time. Even in TV, “Stranger Things” evokes sci-fi classics of the 80s, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” harkens back to the 60s, and reboots like “One Day at a Time” and “Will & Grace” hope to recreate formats that worked well decades ago.
But Disney’s remakes don’t sit right with me. They hit on my nostalgia, yes. The marketing campaign for “Aladdin” got me listening to the songs again, and “Maleficent” brings back some slightly embarrassing memories of thinking that the evil witch was hiding in my bedroom closet. And yet I haven’t gone to see a single of these live-action remakes in the theater.
I miss rewinding a Disney VHS at top speed, hitting play, and smooshing onto the love seat in front of our TV with Alison and Matthew to watch as the blue title card and musical notes of “When You Wish Upon A Star” graced the screen. I miss the stories and characters, anthropomorphic or otherwise. I miss singing along.
But if you’re going to remake a movie, make it different. Make it special. Don’t just re-do it exactly the same as its beloved animated sibling. Because if that’s all you’re going to do, what’s the point?
I’m not saying these stories should be respooled, mangled, and manipulated just to create something new or original. The whole point of remaking a movie is telling a familiar story, after all. But I, as a nostalgic, Disney-loving member of society, need a reason to buy an $18 movie ticket instead of digging up that old VHS tape, rewinding back to the good old days, and pressing play.
None of the photos in this post are my own.