Aside from resurrecting the Star Wars franchise and creating the biggest television series ever with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the Walt Disney Motion Picture Company has found another way of dragging audiences to the theater for “must-see” events: live-action remakes of their classic animated films. Not to sound overly cynical, because there are positives and negatives (and annoyingly neutrals) to Disney’s new approach to earning money, and I’m here to categorize them accordingly.
Hopefully, this list highlights what should be praised, criticized and forgotten about Disney’s live-action remakes. The executives of Disney probably won’t read this, but it’s nice to think that they will, and subsequently proceed to apply the necessary changes in the hopes of earning billions of dollars more (solely because of this list). The list will divide all of Disney’s live-action remakes (except Alice Through the Looking Glass, because I had forgotten that film existed until I started writing this introduction) into what’s good, what’s bad, and what’s completely boring.
Pete’s Dragon (2016)
Disney’s arguably best live-action remake yet is also of one of its most obscure properties, Pete’s Dragon. Dropping the musical and underdeveloped fantasy-adventure aspects of the original, David Lowery’s live-action remake instead opts to focus on the sincerity and humanity that lies at the heart of this relationship between a boy and his dragon. The magic of Disney films (i.e. finding the perfect balance between awe and intimacy) is really felt in Lowery’s careful pace and focus on human connections. This love for characters and craft pays off beautifully in the less emphasized scenes between Pete and Elliot, which contain more soul than entirety of most spectacle films nowadays. Lowery’s Pete’s Dragon is “brazzle dazzle” sincerity.
Kenneth Branagh’s 2015 live-action remake of Cinderella represents Disney’s best effort at embracing both the beautiful and the problematic elements of its original property and updating it without failing to capture the original’s magic. Obviously not shy of showcasing his Shakespearean roots, Branagh revitalizes Cinderella here as a royal drama mixed with elements of classic romance storytelling. Instead of fundamentally “updating” Cinderella’s character, the film embraces the roots of her character and frames her passivity as a virtue. The film does the same with the Prince, developing his character through the natural romance and the aristocracy and actually giving him a role other than, well, Prince Charming. The film does away with the musical aspect, but the movie magic isn’t lost. The transformation and ballroom sequences arguably capture that same magic in a better fashion than the original.
Alice in Wonderland (2010)
The first of Disney’s live-action remakes is also the one that feels the most ambivalent towards the property it’s based off of. It feels as though Tim Burton was interested in the eccentric template that Lewis Carroll’s Alices Adventures in Wonderland presented but also incredibly uninterested in what made it an iconic work of literature. Burton’s updated designs and darker narrative range from interesting to bizarre but always misguided. The film being about Alice being the “Chosen One” to slay the Jabberwocky is the complete opposite of the genuine enchantment that Disney captures with Cinderella just a few years later. It’s perhaps quite fitting that Burton chooses to rename Wonderland as Underland.
The attempt at giving Maleficent (of Sleeping Beauty fame) the Wicked treatment was a real cinematic misfire for Disney. The intention is admirable, of course. It seems as though Disney wanted to give spotlight to one of their more popular villains in a feminist narrative, which is admirable, given the alternative (a live-action remake of admittedly one of their more boring titular characters, Aurora). Sadly, it doesn’t excel at doing so. In its opening act, the film literally physically abuses and sets Maleficent upon a revenge story for, in essence, being molested. It’s a problematic approach to the origin story of an iconic villain, and the narrative doesn’t even lead it anywhere meaningful. The awkward pace and tonal inconsistency doesn’t help its case either. Maleficent herself would’ve found it foolish.
The Jungle Book (2016)
“The VFX was great!” is essentially the consensus everyone reached on Jon Favreau’s live-action remake of The Jungle Book. It’s hard to have a strong opinion one way or the other on a film that really doesn’t appear to have anything meaningful to say or depict. On one hand, it does succeed at making the jungle adventure more thrilling than the original. On the other, the photo-realism of the special effects rob the film of the lovable “Disney magic”, which is why musical sequences like “Bear Necessities” and “I Wan’na Be Like You” ones fall flat and just come across as awkward.
Beauty and the Beast (2017)
Disney’s 2017 remake of Beauty and the Beast is a retelling of the tale as old as time. That is the most appropriate description for the film, Disney’s laziest attempt at monetizing audience nostalgia. Nothing from the remake is fundamentally different from or even an improvement over the original. Instead, audiences are forced to basically rewatch an animated classic with around 40 minutes of narrative padding that only desultorily tries to modernize the original. The film even follows the same editing and transition as the original animation, so the point of a retelling is really lost on me. The magic of the animation just can’t be found in the lifelessness of the visual effects. Never has being a guest been such a chore.
Disney’s misfires of approaching their first couple of live-action remakes as darker and grimmer takes on the original properties were certainly tiresome, but what’s even more troubling is how Disney has seemed to grow comfortable with releasing repackaged versions of their animated features. Disney is cunning in their success of capitalizing on the current generation’s nostalgia (I mean, just look at the numbers Maleficent, Jungle Book, and Beauty and the Beast pulled in), but I’d like to believe that the company that launched the creative works that enchanted generations is capable of creating new works of magic, instead of looking back on the magic of the past. Only time will tell…
Featured Image: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures