Have We Met Before? | My Take on Disney’s Live-Action Remakes | Opinion

In an earnings call on August 6, 2019, Disney CEO Bob Iger announced the next addition to its growing list of upcoming remakes: Home Alone.

The original film was released in 1998 and stars Macaulay Culkin as Kevin McCallister, a kid who is, as the title indicates, left home alone when the rest of the family unintentionally leaves him behind while they go on vacation.

It’s a staple in a lot of childhoods, often considered a classic, and inspired a handful of sequels. Fans took to Twitter to express their initial thoughts, some excited, others unsure about the concept, and a few wondering at the logistics of the remake including when it would be set and if Culkin would have a role in it.

I have a confession to make that could very well lead me to being shamed by members of my generation: I have never seen Home Alone, so I’m not able to jump on the nostalgia train this time around.

I can, however, use this as a chance to discuss a topic I’ve wanted to do an opinion piece on for a while: Disney’s trend of remaking classics.

A Tale As Old As Time

(or at least a few decades)

For the past few years, Disney has released a number of live-action remakes of animated classics such as Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast.

In 2019 alone we had live-action remakes of Aladdin and Dumbo along with a technically-not-live-action-photorealistic remake of The Lion King.

Upcoming additions include The Little Mermaid, Lilo and Stitch, and Lady and the Tramp, the third of which will be released to Disney’s streaming service called Disney+.

Speaking honestly, I have only seen a handful of these newer films, but it’s still worth mentioning that this is a trend that has seen a massive rise in recent years.

It’s worth noting that rebooting past films for new audiences is not exactly new to Disney, such as The Parent Trap (1961, 1998).

Recreating their own animated films is nothing new, either.

101 Dalmations saw a live-action remake in 1996 and got a sequel titled 102 Dalmations in 2000.

1967’s The Jungle Book has had multiple live-action remakes, first in 1994, then again with The Jungle Book: Mowgli’s Story in a direct-to-video release in 1998, and most recently in 2016; a sequel to the latter is said to be in development.

Lately, Disney has been releasing these live-action remakes more quickly, with multiple in production and development.

What Makes A Remake Work

As I’ll be discussing in the next section of this post, Disney’s live-action remakes have their flaws. But there are times where they work or even make improvements to the original.

As visually-stunning as The Lion King is, I wasn’t as excited about it as I was when Mulan was announced.

To the dismay of some, the Mulan remake will not feature any of the 1998’s iconic musical numbers and excludes characters like her eventual love-interest General Shang and dragon sidekick Mushu.

These changes and others were made with the intention of bringing honor to Chinese culture and history (and yes, that was an intentional reference). 

Quoting the Wikipedia page for the film, “Since several recent Hollywood films were accused of whitewashing, Mulan has been under intense scrutiny since The Hollywood Reporter reported that Disney was making a live-action adaptation of Mulan. An online petition titled ‘Tell Disney You Don’t Want A Whitewashed Mulan!’ received more than 100,000 signatures. On October 4, 2016, Disney announced that a global search for a Chinese actress to portray the title role was underway. A team of casting directors visited five continents and saw nearly 1,000 candidates for the role with criteria that required credible martial arts skills, the ability to speak clear English and, lastly, star quality.”

Additionally, animated Mulan’s name is Fa Mulan while the upcoming remake follows Hua Mulan, keeping true to the Chinese legend.

In my mind, when a film is based off something so significant to a culture or history, there needs to be a level of understanding and respect maintained throughout (check out my post on bringing historical characters into fiction for more on my views on this subject).

That’s one of the reasons I love Dreamworks’s The Prince of Egypt. 

The film is based on the Book of Exodus.

Without going too into it, I don’t associate with any particular religion, but The Prince of Egypt ranks so highly on my list of favorite animated films. One of the reasons for that is knowing how much effort went into it on the research side of things.

According to an article by Dan Wooding, the team behind the film placed a great importance on staying true to the Bible’s story when adapting it for film.

In it, Jeffrey Katzenberg said:

One of the things we decided when we took the decision to make the movie was that this is not our story. It is not a fairy tale that is simply taken and adapted to tell a version of it, or that services a theme or an allegory or something else that we would want to tell. From the very beginning it was our goal and our mandate to take this Bible story and to be as faithful and accurate in our telling of it as we could be, in the context of understanding that we have 90 minutes to tell the story of 80 years of a man’s life. So that forces us to make a lot of choices along the way, but we did not want those choices to do anything that would affect or change or diminish the essence of the message, the values of the story as it exists in the Bible.

We have treated this story and told this story in its context of 3000 years ago as fact. Tzivia Schwartz-Getzug’s job was to reach out to a very diverse group of very informed group of people to help us fulfil that goal. That meant talking to scholars, Biblical experts, theologians, educators, philosophers, and clergy… an extremely diverse group of people across as wide as spectrum as we could possibly find. Since our intention was very clear, in order to do that, we felt very comfortable inviting people in to help us achieve that goal.”

Dreamworks brought in a team of Biblical scholars; Christian, Jewish, and Muslim theologians; and Arab-American leaders to help them make sure the film would be faithful to the original story as depicted in the Bible.

Additonally, a level of respect was taken with the portrayal of God. Every religion has its own views on how God should be portrayed in film, and some are strongly against the idea of doing so.

Dreamworks took note of this.

In The Prince of Egypt, God is heard speaking directly to Moses at the Burning Bush.

As Lon Bender describes, “The solution was to use the voice of actor Val Kilmer [who plays Moses] to suggest the kind of voice we hear inside our own heads in our everyday lives, as opposed to the larger than life tones with which God has been endowed in prior cinematic incarnations.”

If you listen closely, you can also pick out the voices of other cast members speaking the same lines at a low whisper, all played simultaneously beneath Kilmer’s portrayal of God, perhaps as a means of demonstrating how God’s influence is in all who share in that faith if they listen.

Following a preview of the film, there was immense praise for Dreamworks not only for consulting various religious groups but actually listening to them and taking into account the advice and information they provided.

Because of this dedication to staying true to the original story, The Prince of Egypt is more than just a great animated film with a fantastic soundtrack, but also why I am so eager to see Disney’s live-action remake of Mulan.

However, not all remakes are created equal.

When A Remake Doesn’t Work

The live-action Beauty and the Beast film starring Emma Watson and Dan Stevens (both of whom I love in general), seemed to set out to answer a lot of plot holes and questions that the original animated film left us with like, how Belle’s mother died or why all of the Beast’s servants were turned into household objects to be punished alongside him even though he was the only one who turned the enchantress away when she approached him as an old hag.

But in trying to answer these, the film just digs a deeper hole for itself.

For example, Beast shows Belle an enchanted book which he says was “a little gift from the enchantress…that truly allows you to escape.”

The book essentially transports its user to wherever, whenever.

He allows Belle to use it, which she does to travel back to “the Paris of [her] childhood,” which is A) one of the movie’s several unnecessary additions to the soundtrack and B) its attempt to explain the reason for her mother’s absence: she died of the plague.

This scene seems out of place in general, but also created another plot hole. Even in the theatre I was wondering why Belle didn’t just use the book to Portkey herself out of the castle and back to her father.

This is one of several occasions where trying to expand upon its narrative impacted the film in a sort of inhibitive way.

As with Nala in The Lion King and Jasmine in Aladdin, the live-action Beauty and the Beast film sets out to give its heroine a larger, more impactful role. Watson’s Belle is seen having inherited her father’s inventive notions by constructing a washing machine of sorts in town, and showing her not only possessing the love of books the character has always been known for but teaching a young girl to read (before she is mocked for doing so).

I loved seeing these new sides of Belle, but at the same time felt like they were great ideas that didn’t get the attention they deserved. Once Belle is at the castle as the Beast’s voluntary prisoner after agreeing to take her father’s place, this isn’t seen as much.

The Beast’s character was also changed, as he comes across as more of a haughty jerk this time around. Rather than giving Belle the library out of developing feelings for her and wanting to do something nice for her as is the case in the animated film, live-action Beast pretty much does it to show off and at one point criticizes Belle for saying Romeo and Juliet is her favorite Shakespeare play. Though he does not specifically say it, it gives the impression that he doesn’t believe she is smart enough to appreciate the intricacies of other works like Macbeth or Othello and instead prefers the romantic tragedy.

At the core of Beauty and the Beast is the theme of how people can change and that it’s what’s inside that counts. The Beast is introduced in most versions as being cruel and selfish, becoming more compassionate through Belle’s kindness towards him in spite of it. However, the live-action portrayal doesn’t demonstrate this progression of character as well as the original animated film.

The Beauty and the Beast live-action remake had the potential to be an improvement upon the classic, and seemed as though it wanted to be, but came up short. On the whole there were a lot of great ideas it wanted to explore, like Belle being a feminist role model, giving answers to questions audiences have had for a long time, and portraying Lefou as openly gay (which was limited to a brief shot of him starting to waltz with another man at the end of the final scene; the majority of his role relegates him to idolizing Gaston), but it did not take any of these far enough to feel as truly significant as one may hope.

Remakes Without Reason

As I’ve suggested, I feel like remaking a film should be with some merit, like diving into

As gorgeous as it appears, my first impression of the photo-realisitc The Lion King was Disney basically saying, “Hey look at what we can do! Look at this technology! Doesn’t this lion look real!? So cool!”

It came across as a spectacle for spectacle’s sake, kind of like the aforementioned instance of live-action Beast flaunting his extensive library (even though the trailer gave me chills and had me tearing up a bit the first time I watched it).

At the time of writing this post, I have not seen the new The Lion King, so I cannot judge it fairly and will therefore not be going too much into discussing that specific film.

However, it does feel like an instance of my first major issue with live-action remakes.

Remaking for Revenue

In most cases, my feelings towards live-action remakes concern the feeling that it’s being done for the sake of money rather than out of a love for storytelling.

The remake of Home Alone I mentioned at the top of this article feels very much like it’s a cash-grab fueled by nostalgia, and this isn’t the only time that has happened.

When a live-action remake brings few new elements to the story but rather feels like the studio copy-pasted the script right down to the shot by shot camera directions, it can feel careless. Like it exists solely to get people into the cinema, ie to buy tickets to see it and splurge on merchandise.

Remaking a film often leads to the story trying to cram in three new backstories and a bunch of new musical numbers for the soundtrack so it can have a shot at winning an Academy Award for Best New Song.

It’s worth noting that while these songs can be wonderful additions, they can sometimes come with the feeling of trying to pad the runtime or recreate the phenomenon that was Frozen’s smash hit “Let It Go.”

It can work, as was the timely power anthem “Speechless” sung by Naomi Scott as Princess Jasmine in the live-action Aladdin, but not always. As much as I love Dan Steven’s performance of “Evermore” in Beauty and the Beast (which gets a shout-out in another post on building soundtracks based on your WIP), it’s not exactly of any substance in the film’s narrative and consists mostly of the Beast sexily brooding after letting Belle go; it causes the story to drag on.

The same goes for unnecessary sequels, like the upcoming Frozen II, which really feels like Disney trying to rake in more money than magic (though my feelings about Frozen being a perfect standalone may change depending on how the film turns out, and could easily get its own post).

It’s been established that these live-action remakes do well in terms of profit, even if they aren’t as satisfying to the audience (or critics).

The Impact on Storytelling

Apart from all of these reasons live-action remakes don’t always work and my feelings towards them in terms of what their purpose might be in the studio’s eyes, there is a greater issue I take with their new frequency.

As a writer, these live-action remakes can feel like they are at times make it difficult for new stories to be told.

Let’s face it. Whether you’ve written a new book or have a film idea to pitch, its marketability is likely going to be taken into account before someone is willing to take a chance on the project.

It’s not just limited to Disney, either.

Trends matter in entertainment. Twilight created a newfound interest in vampires. The Walking Dead made zombies popular again. We’re just now seeing what seems to be the tail-end of a YA Dystopian trend fueled by The Hunger Games, Divergent, The Maze Runner, and others.

What is popular is what sells. That is what is published. That is what is made.

As such, it can be difficult for new ideas to come to light.

I have sometimes had difficulty tracking down nonfiction books about the Regency Era for my writing. There is a greater interest in the Victorian Era and Edwardian Era, the latter being in part due to the success of Downton Abbey. WWII interest has also seen a resurgence as of late.

As such, I would be lying if I said I wasn’t worried I might have a difficult time publishing my novels because they are set in the Regency/Georgian periods. The audience may be there, but it’s not as prominent right now.

The frequency of Disney’s live-action remakes furthers that concern. Monetarily speaking, remakes work. It’s a tried and true method.

But it’s also limiting. It makes it harder for new stories to be told and for new voices to be heard.

Even if money isn’t the only reason for this trend of remaking past movies, it does impact storytelling as a whole.

If a studio has the option of an up-and-coming screenwriter’s film and the concept of remaking a previously successful film, I don’t like how easily I assume they would pick the second one.

Retelling Rather Than Remaking

Something I have not addressed thus far is another of Disney’s recent live-action films: Maleficent.

The film, released in 2014, provides a deeper look into the life of the Sleeping Beauty villain, Maleficent, focusing on her life before Princess Aurora’s birth where the animated film opens, and tells her side of the story.

Even though Maleficent is not the perfect movie, it sat better with me than some of the live-action remakes because it wasn’t a remake. It was a retelling.

Though based on one source material or another, a retelling is a new story.

In the case of Maleficent, it helps make her a more complex character than her animated counterpart, who is basically petty enough to curse a baby because she wasn’t invited to a birthday party. Live-action Maleficent is shown to actually grow to care about Aurora like a daughter (which makes sense considering how close she was to the young princess’s father in her childhood before he betrayed her trust).

Reimaging a classic has so much more opportunity for exploration. It results in a story that feels fresh rather than overdone, and can even change the way we view of a certain character. New settings, new characters, new storylines that don’t necessarily have the audience going in already knowing what is going to happen.

Pride and Prejudice has been adapted a number of times, but it’s also been retold a number of times.

  • Bride and Prejudice gives it a vibrant Bollywood flair
  • The Lizzie Bennet Diaries makes it contemporary, with the story conveyed in vlogs
  • Pemberley Ranch by Jack Caldwell sets the classic story in the antebellum south
  • Pride and Prejudice and Zombies adds—you guessed it—zombies into the mix

Even though most elements of Austen’s novel remain intact, the changes in setting (or genre, even) make each retelling a breath of fresh air.

Even if the audience goes in knowing something is based on a beloved book or movie, there’s a greater chance to surprise them. New elements added and tiny changes made can make for a much more enjoyable experience.

 

Final Thoughts

It doesn’t look like Disney will be pulling the plug on live-action remakes anytime soon. With a long roster of projects in the works and new ones being announced almost as frequently as these films are released to cinemas, this is a trend that will likely continue for at least the next few years.

However, what is trending changes with time. Depending on what new releases take the world by storm in the future might cause a cessation of these remakes and reboots.

For this moment in time, I have high hopes for the upcoming live-action remake of Mulan. I actually don’t know how I feel about calling it a remake since it’s taking the focus away from Disney’s animated film and is instead rooting itself in the original Chinese legend.

I would love to see Mulan be successful enough to change the face of the film industry, not just culturally, but from a storytelling standpoint that can shift the focus from resuing or refreshing past works to bringing forth new ones.

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