When Michael Eisner assumed leadership of Disney in the mid 1980s, he gathered together a bunch of the company’s creative types – story people, directors, some animators – and told each of them to go out and find five new ideas for animated features. That particular genre may have been all but dead at the time, but Eisner was determined to bring it back. He’d spent the past decade building Paramount into a box office powerhouse, and he knew the best way to save a fledgling Disney was to get it back to doing what it did best – animated musicals. Ron Clements, a story artist and writer/director, took the challenge to heart and came back with a two-page outline for a movie based on an old Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale called “The Little Mermaid.”
The rest is history. Disney’s Renaissance had just begun.
By contrast, when Bob Iger greenlit a live-action remake of The Little Mermaid he asked his top lieutenants if there were any of those 1989-1999 films left which they hadn’t remade yet. They told him they’d already hit all the biggies – Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King and had Mulan in production. As for what’s left, well, Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, maybe Hercules, maybe, just maybe but, seriously, probably not Tarzan. Screw it, let’s just do The Little Mermaid.
Of course, that’s not actually how Iger decided to put Little Mermaid next on the docket after Mulan. The forthcoming live-action Little Mermaid has actually been in development since 2016, a full year before the new Beauty and the Beast arrived to record returns. However, it certainly feels like Disney’s strategy in this department is as simple as “let’s just remake all the most popular ones and when you we run out of those we’ll…um…well, we’ll never run out of those and that’s that.”
If you expand out from just the Golden Age and look to Disney’s entire back catalog, you can see where this remake train truly can run for quite a bit longer. Snow White, Pinocchio, Bambi, Peter Pan, The Sword and the Stone, The Aristocats, and Robin Hood are all there waiting to be redone as are less obvious choices like The Black Cauldron. Cruella, a One Hundred and One Dalmatians prequel starring Emma Stone as the fur coat-loving baddie, has already been announced for Christmas 2020. A live-action Lady and the Tramp is heading to Disney+.
So, yes, gravy train, keep on a-runnin’.
However, with The Lion King about to hit theaters a lot of critics are taking a wider view and wondering what exactly is Disney’s long game here? Have they simply stopped trying to make any new classics? (Prospects look dim, Artemis Fowl.) And what happens when they run out of classics to remake? 10, maybe 20 years from now when the technology will have again made a quantum leap forward will they just remake the remakes? Will the kids growing up on the live-action Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin take their kids to some future version with a tech enhancement we can’t yet fathom? Or will the next wave be live(ish)-action remakes of the more recent Disney Animation hits like Moana and Frozen? Or is Disney guessing traditional movie-going won’t even be a thing of much consequence by then?
Such hand-wringing and thought experimenting is coming up now largely because Disney has pushed these live-action/CGI remakes on us so hard this year. The Lion King is the third one of 2019, following Dumbo and Aladdin, and it’s only July. Don’t forget, we still have that Maleficent sequel in October. That’s not even a strict remake but instead a continuation of their “let’s do Wicked but for Disney villains” trick that served them so well with the first Maleficent and in a similar way with The Descendants, the on-going Disney Channel franchise about the kids of famous villains.
The early word on Lion King is not good. Full disclosure: I haven’t seen the film yet and can’t speak to whether the criticisms leveled against it are fair or not. However, critics have accused this Lion King of being one of the least imaginative Disney remakes to date, even more shot-for-shot remake with nothing genuinely new to add than usual. The visuals are stunning, as they usually are, but the actual filmmaking offers no new storytelling ideas, no update on the original’s Hamlet, but with animals.
The remakes usually try harder to justify their existence.
For example, Tim Burton created an entirely new second and third act for Dumbo and also baked in a heavy dose of meta-commentary. Guy Ritchie gave the Will Smith genie a girlfriend, Alan Menken wrote a new female empowerment song for Jasmine, and the diverse casting gave positive exposure to actors rarely trusted with such a massive stage. Mulan – early teasers can be deceiving, so insert asterisk here – aims to do the same thing with its casting while also possibly dropping the songs and cartoon sidekicks in favor of a more serious-minded historical epic. The Little Mermaid will have a black Ariel along with, most likely, a new female empowerment song written by Menken.
That’s generally what these movies do – slavish recreation meets occasional innovation with a side helping of woked up gender/racial politics. The older the classic, the more likely the remake will be forced to come up with plenty of new content. The original Jungle Book and Dumbo, for example, run just 78 and 64-minutes long respectively and are far more episodic than most people remember. Their remakes each added more streamlined narratives and nearly 30 and 50 minutes of new material. To a critic, those films at least make for a more interesting watch because there’s more to digest and chew on and less shot-for-shot mimicry.
Those remakes, however, are more challenged to find purchase with modern audiences. Jungle Book hit big; Dumbo did not. So, maybe amend my early statement about the gravy train to “gravy train, get ready for an occasional pit stop in flopsville.”
The Renaissance-era remakes have been far more bullet-proof, hitting that sweet spot for nostalgia for the parents and brand new for the kids. Remember, the kids seeing these new movies have grown up in a world where watching old, hand drawn animation feels as strange to them as watching black and white movies did to older generations. Any cinephile reading that last sentence probably just threw up in their mouth a little, but that is a large part of what’s happening here – Disney giving modern kids the old classics in a new hybrid live-action/CGI, or sometimes entirely CGI, format they’re more open to.
Critics waver from one film to the next as to which ones are interesting and which seem like boldly cynical cash grabs, but audiences are far less discriminating. The Lion King, for example, currently has a 60% on RottenTomatoes. That’s not going to stop it from annihilating the box office this weekend.
Thus, Bob Iger’s instincts will have been validated yet again. Back at the dawn of Disney’s Renaissance, Michael Eisner turned to his team and said, “Bring me new ideas!” (Granted, calling a nearly-150-year-old fairy tale like “The Little Mermaid” a “new idea” is a bit of a stretch, but at least it hadn’t become a Disney movie before.) Iger’s orders are quite different: bring me all of the old ideas we know people already like!
As a financial endeavor, it works, and it’s an industry, arguably culturally-wide trend right now. At Crypticon Kansas City yesterday, Joe Bob Briggs, of all people, was asked his option on the way this trend – remake, sequels, etc. – has played out in the horror genre in recent years. He eloquently equated it all to Broadway, arguing recognizable movies which keep coming back are akin to the classic musicals which are continually revived and toured around the country. You do the umpteenth version of The Music Man, he argued, because you know it’s a show that works and always sells tickets.
Similarly, Disney is doing the Renaissance movies again because we already know these movies work. Does that mean, however, that we might someday see Disney remaking its remakes, trotting out the old standards like a Broadway revival?
I don’t know. I just know there’s going to be a bottom-of-the-barrel-scraping phase if all of this continues on its current trajectory. That being said, if they do get around to a live-action/CGI Emperor’s New Groove I’d totally watch it.
Who’s with me? Anyone? Come on, don’t Jerry Maguire me here. That movie’s totally charming! Convince me otherwise in the comments. Also, you know, respond to the rest of the article, but mostly the Emperor’s New Groove thing.