Box Office Film News

What Aladdin’s Box Office Reveals About Disney’s Live Action Remake Strategy

The character Aladdin ain’t never had a friend like the blue genie, but Memorial Day ain’t ever had a movie quite like Aladdin. Disney’s live-action remake of its 1992 animated classic posted a top-5 Memorial Day opening last weekend, passing Days of Future Past, The Hangover Part II, and Solo: A Star Wars Story in the record book. It held its own in weekend #2 and is currently looking at a worldwide gross north of $450m after just 10 days, quite a success story for the $183m production.

While this might seem like Disney simply doing the Disney thing – kicking names, taking ass – Aladdin’s ticket-printing prowess was hardly seen as a guarantee. Outside of Marvel and Star Wars, Disney’s live-action game hits (Jungle Book, Beauty and the Beast) as much as it misses (Dumbo, Pete’s Dragon, A Wrinkle in Time). When the internet lost its shit in response to the Fresh Prince of Aladdin’s terrible CGI, the knives were out for Guy Ritchie’s possibly ill-fated blockbuster.

Perhaps this persecution narrative helped to significantly lower expectations, but to the surprise and joy of many the film’s actually totally watchable. As I wrote in my 3-star Letterboxd review:

Far from the disaster most expected after seeing those first pics of Will Smith as the Genie, but also far from the genius of the original. Instead, this new Aladdin is the Disney live-action remake formula on transparent display: deliver shot for shot recreations of the moments everyone remembers, woke up the gender politics to fit today, and jam in a new song in the usually failed hopes of winning an Oscar. My 6-year-old niece, however, adored Jasmine’s new female empowerment song, and ultimately prefers this new movie over the animated original. So, target demographic satisfied.

The film has now been out long enough that its box office fate seems all but sealed. This will go down as a smashing success for Disney and will be happily embraced by all those Disney+ subscribers when it inevitably transitions to the yet-to-be-launched streaming service. As such, it’s not too soon to look for the big takeaways here. What can be learned from Aladdin conquering a whole new generation of moviegoers?

To answer that, it might be more helpful to first look at those Disney live-action remakes which weren’t quite as sprinkled with Tinkerbell’s pixie dust:

Title

Original Film’s Release Year

Budget

Domestic

Worldwide

Pete’s Dragon (2016)

1977

$65m

$76m

$143m

Dumbo (2019)

1941

$170m

$103m

$350m

Both creative reworkings of lesser-remembered and/or very old classics. Both completely solid movies worth watching. Both struggled to break even.

Compared that to the more financially enchanted remakes:

Title

Original Film’s Release Year

Budget

Domestic

Worldwide

Beauty and the Beast (2017)

1991

$160m

$504m

$1.26b

Alice in Wonderland (2010)

1951

$200m

$334m

$1.02b

The Jungle Book (2016)

1967

$175m

$364m

$966m

Maleficent (2014)

1959

$180m

$241m

$758m

Cinderella (2015)

1950

$95m

$201m

$543m

There’s no grand unifying explanation behind all of those successes. Alice in Wonderland, for example, was a classic case of right gimmick, right time, lifted as it was by a very 2010 interest in 3D. Its legacy as more gimmick than movie was confirmed when Disney lost roughly $70 on the 2016 sequel, Alice Through the Looking Glass, which had the misfortune of coming out after the 3D craze had leveled off.

Maleficent arrived at a time when a movie star like Angelina Jolie could still be counted on to open a movie, especially one with a fresh spin on an old story, deconstructing the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale by looking at it through the villain’s point of view. Cinderella, meanwhile, is one of the most frequently filmed stories in the world, and fresh off the success of Maleficent audiences were happy to see what new angle if any Disney would find on the ultra-familiar princess story.

Beauty and the Beast and Jungle Book, however, are each rooted in 90s nostalgia. While the original Jungle Book film came out in ‘67, an entire generation is more familiar with Baloo and pals thanks to TaleSpin, one of the old beloved DisneyAfternoon cartoon shows. It aired alongside the likes of Darkwing Duck, DuckTales, Chip N’ Dale: Rescue Rangers, and, yes, even a three-season run of an Aladdin series. Combine that nostalgia with the novelty of Jon Favreau directing the entire film from a LA soundstage/parking lot and tricking us with photo-realistic CGI and you get an irresistible hit.

Beauty and the Beast, of course, was the most critically accomplished of all the 90s Disney movies, becoming the only one of the bunch – Little Mermaid, Lion King, Aladdin – to be nominated for Best Picture.

Disney’s back catalog is obviously far too vast for it to exclusively lean exclusively on its Disney Renaissance 90s hits. That’s why a live-action Lady and the Tramp is heading to Disney+. However, when you couple the recent struggles of Dumbo with that of not-technically-remakes-but-kind-of-in-the-same-ballpark The Nutcracker and the Four Realms and Christopher Robin a pattern does seem to be emerging. Beauty and the Beast, a remake of a 1991 film, tore through the record books. Aladdin, a remake of a 1992 film, is soaring on a magic carpet above expectations. The Lion King, a remake of a 1994 film, is currently projected to top them all.

Obvious takeaway: these remakes fare far better when they are targeted specifically at those 90s kids who grew up on the old classic and now have kids of their own who want to see the new movies. The parent is treated to a live-action recreation of an old favorite and the child gets exposed to a solid story painted in the CGI colors they’ve become accustomed to.

You know what that means, right? Get ready for a live-action Emperor’s New Groove

Ok. Maybe not, and I say that as someone who actually likes that movie. However, Disney will surely cycle through as many as the 90s hits as it can. Mulan is already in development. After that, Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hercules, and Tarzan are all possibilities, however faint their chances. However, by leading with Beauty and the Beast and following up with Aladdin and the Lion King, the only true remaining Disney Renaissance era heavy hitter is The Little Mermaid. When or if that remake arrives, cue up the inevitable hot takes about a woman literally losing her voice just to get a man.

But as Disney continues to raid the vault the formula for prying money from ticket-buying audiences can’t be as simple as trotting out yet another film from the golden era of the 90s. There’s a difference between a general familiarity with a property and a true passion for it. The successful Disney remakes, be they from the 90s or the evergreen classic everyone kind of automatically knows, pick those properties which can tap into that passion. In Aladdin’s case, it doesn’t hurt when you also add in one of the most charismatic movie stars of our day.  

Whether some of these remakes actually need to exist is a question many cinephiles and hardliners will continue to ask. However, it used to be that you simply couldn’t get young people to watch old black and white movies. Nowadays, it’s a struggle to get some of them to watch anything made before the year 2000. The Disney live-action remakes, as sad as this is to say, meet them halfway, telling almost literally the same exact story as the original but in a visual language they’ll better respond to. When their parents on board for that as well, it brings a smile to the face of every Disney shareholder.

Lion King is due next month (7/19). Mulan is due next year (3/27/20).

Advertisements

2 comments

  1. I am a big fan of the cartoon and the trailer really dissapointed. But i went and saw it and liked it. Maybe different to the cartoon but it was still good in its own right. Similar but dofferent. Kids enjoyed it too for same reason

    1. I had a similar experience, with the only real difference being that while I like the original Aladdin I wouldn’t say I’m a huge fan of it. In truth, I only watched it all the way through for the first time a couple of years ago. However, the early Aladdin promotional material looked horrendous. So, I went in with lowered expectations and walked out pleasantly suprised. More important, the kids in my life were overjoyed. As has happened with virtually every one of these remakes, they ended up liking the new movie more than the last one because, as I argued in the piece, these movies which are really more CGI animation than live action are more familiar and easily digestible for kids than the old hand-drawn animated classics which bear no real visual resemblance to the way movies are made now.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.