Originality Is Suffering for a Disney-Sized Profit
Disney Studios is trying to “top pigs with pigs” with their new live-action movies, and while it’s working in the box office, it’s not working for some animation fans.
By Eric McInnis, Arcadia University
Back in the 1930s, after the massive success of the Walt Disney short “The Three Little Pigs,” theater owners begged Disney to produce sequels to the short, and Disney conceded.
However, while the sequels did moderately well, they didn’t hit the iconic status of their predecessor. Therefore, Disney focused more on risk-taking ventures, most notably making the first major feature-length animated feature, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.” Disney kept himself in check and refused to settle with his previous hits through the slogan, “You can’t top pigs with pigs!”
Fast forward more than 80 years later, Disney has not really kept his word. While Walt Disney Animation Studios and, to a lesser extent, Pixar Animation Studios, have been pushing for creativity and original intellectual properties, the live-action side of Disney has been demanding nothing but sequels and remakes. Lucasfilm is pretty much required to make nothing but Star Wars sequels and prequels for the next few years, and while movies like “Ant-Man” and “Doctor Strange” aren’t technically sequels, they are connected to the Marvel Cinematic Universe and pretty much act as building blocks for movies like “Avengers: Infinity War.”
But, within the past few years, the most interesting franchise out of all of them is the “live-action remake” franchise. While all of the movies have absolutely nothing to do with another, they do have one thing in common: they take a classic film from Disney Animation’s library, slightly rewrite and revamp the script, get some recognizable actors and shoot the film in live-action.
The new “series” of films began in 2010 with the Tim Burton film “Alice in Wonderland.” Thanks to the iconic status of the original story and the 1951 Disney animated film, as well as the incredible marketing campaign enticing viewers with wild and jaw-dropping visuals, Johnny Depp in the height of his popularity and incredible 3D (back when 3D was all the rage), “Alice” became a massive hit, garnering over $1 billion worldwide at the box office.
And so, Disney soon began to greenlight other films woven with the same cloth as “Alice.” Within a few years, Disney had announced films like “Maleficent,” “Cinderella,” “The Jungle Book” and “Beauty and the Beast.” And, much like “Alice,” the former three were all monster hits, garnering over $750 million, $540 million and $960 million respectively in the worldwide box office. “Beauty and the Beast” will follow suit.
And, looking at Disney’s upcoming film slate, the movies are here to stay, as within the last couple of years, Disney has announced remakes for films like “Snow White,” “Pinocchio,” “Dumbo,” “Peter Pan,” “101 Dalmatians,” “Sword in the Stone,” “Winnie the Pooh,” “The Little Mermaid,” “Aladdin,” “Mulan” and even “The Lion King” (although the latter’s technically going to be an animated film, but with photorealistic lions instead of the cartoon lions of its predecessor). Things have gotten so crazy, some movies have two remakes in development, with films like “Genies” and “Tink” also in the works.
I don’t blame Disney for cashing in on their new gold mine. In spite of Disney’s words, the film industry today is far different than the film industry in the 1930s, with its emphasis on blockbusters and worldwide grosses. And, while I personally am not a fan of any of the films Disney has put out in the new faux-franchise aside from “The Jungle Book,” I know I’m in the minority.
Judging by the massive box office and trailer views, as well as my Facebook feed full of people going gaga over Donald Glover playing Simba, Disney has managed to get multiple generations into the palm of its hands, by playing into adults’ nostalgia for the movies they grew up with and kids’ love for princesses, animals and fantasy creatures.
However, there are two issues I have with Disney focusing so much on their new fad. Again, I get why Disney makes live-action remakes, and I understand why they strike a chord with so many people. But, what irritates me is the overabundance of the live-action remakes on Disney’s film slate and the pushback against more original and adventurous ideas.
I’ll admit that there are plenty of other movies currently in development that don’t fall into the live-action remake territory, like a reboot of “Tron.” But, compared to the size of films similar to the upcoming remakes of “The Lion King” or “Dumbo,” I’m still disappointed and uninterested, especially when plenty of movies with more interesting concepts, such as the aforementioned “Tron” reboot and an action-adventure film based on Don Quixote, have gotten little news outside of their initial announcements, while the likes of “Mulan” are already being given a release date and director.
I understand the formula practically prints money, but the mission statement of Disney company, both during and after the original owner’s reign, was taking risks. Without risks, there would be no “Snow White,” no “Cinderella,” no “Little Mermaid” and no Disneyland. But what I’m saying doesn’t just apply to animation and theme parks.
In terms of modern-day live-action, let’s look at a little film called “Pirates of the Caribbean.” On paper, the idea seems ludicrous. Disney, a company known for its family-friendly brand, making their first PG-13 movie? Based off of a Disneyland ride? Hold on, two-and-a-half hours long? And a pirate movie, a genre of film considered dead for years? Yeah, you would assume Disney’s got a big flop coming. But, when the movie came out in theaters, “Pirates” became a phenomenon, to the point where the series became one of Disney’s biggest brands at a time when the company wasn’t doing great film-wise.
“Pirates” was later followed up with even more giant risk-taking efforts paying off handsomely, with big-budget films like “National Treasure” and “Narnia” making pretty strong profits for the studio as well. But now, instead of something new and exciting coming out of the Mouse House, there’s “Cruella” and “Winnie the Pooh.”
I know, risk-taking, big-budget Disney movies like “Prince of Persia,” “The Lone Ranger” and “Tomorrowland” bombed in the box office and weren’t well-received by critics. But simply put, I’d much rather see a movie like “Tomorrowland” over “Maleficent.”
Ignoring quality for just a moment, would you rather see a remake of an animated classic that was just fine as an animated movie done in live-action, thereby putting limits on a limitless medium like animation, or an idea or adaptation of something with a hint of something new? What makes an updated reboot of a classic Western TV show less interesting to you than a retread of a movie that didn’t need changing? What makes an original sci-fi story taking ideas from a Disneyland section less exciting to you than taking a medium like animation, which is limitless in its potential and creativity, and watering it down alongside some recognizable actors?
I’d much rather take a mediocre movie trying something never done before over a decent movie going through the motions, especially when it doesn’t hold a candle to the original film.
As for the second issue, and I know I sound petty, but I feel like having a live-action remake diminishes what makes the animated movie great. Not in the sense that the movie is worse because of such a remake existing, but because said remake indirectly perpetuates the idea of animation being a lesser form of storytelling compared to live-action.
Bill Condon, the director of the upcoming “Beauty and the Beast” remake, said in a featurette officially released by Disney, “When something is so perfect, why go near it? The answer is technology has caught up to the ideas that were introduced in that movie.”
Even ignoring for just one moment that the original “Beauty and the Beast” had some of the best production design in not just Disney films, but in films period, Disney, in an official featurette produced by them, admitted they felt that the 2D animation was not up to snuff, and a Best Picture-nominated movie, which already entranced millions of viewers, was somehow not the definitive version.
They are pretty much marketing their movie as being the “true version,” saying that your Grandma’s Disney cartoons got nothing on the new sleek, live-action flick with Hermione. In the end, what I see is Disney pretty much making the movies both to rake in on nostalgic millennials, and to make films appealing to the group of people who think animation is just “kids’ stuff” and will always be inferior to “real movies.”
Obviously, a medium that can create anything just through drawings or computers doesn’t have anywhere near the same talent, craft, ingenuity and creativity a film with cameras and real people has, right? Better yet, a surreal adventure of a little girl going through Wonderland just wasn’t creative enough. Let’s make a movie not in a medium where such surreality can flourish, but instead have actors in front of a green screen with a bunch of CGI.
Or hey, let’s take a movie about talking lions, featuring incredible music, gorgeous scenery and a complex story focusing on life, death, sacrifice, guilt and inner courage that was already perfect, and make it “better” by taking out the 2D drawings from the original and add in some photorealistic lions generated from some computers. There, now Disney Animation’s original vision is finally complete.
Okay, maybe I’m a little hyperbolic here. After all, Disney clearly understands how to make wonderful animation, as shown with “Inside Out” and “Zootopia,” so the company likely has no malice toward the art form. But, while possibly unintentional, I, and I assume many other animation fans, will have to deal with people still not taking a phenomenal art form seriously, as the animation king pumps out movies that take perfect animated films and supposedly makes them more perfect.
A frustrating part about being a film fan is how other film fans will go on and on about how family films like “E.T.” and “The Wizard of Oz” are poetic and magical, but I can’t discuss the nuance and subtlety found in “Cinderella” or “The Iron Giant” without a few heads turning in confusion, with a possible snicker. Friends will sometimes ask why I watched “Finding Dory” over the weekend when I’m a grown adult and I don’t have kids, as if seeing a movie not for your age demographic is a bad thing.
People will take my complaints when I see a terrible cartoon doing nothing to offer people any sort of creativity or effort, and they’ll just say, “It’s just a cartoon,” or “It’s for kids,” because I guess it’s perfectly fine for something to be crap because the movie isn’t for adults. So, seeing Disney constantly redoing the films that put them on the map, then adding in the “magic touch” of live-action leaves a bad taste in my mouth as a film fan, a Disney fan and an animation fan.
And so, I shall close with a message to Disney.
I understand you have a great, successful business plan here, and I’m glad my friends and colleagues are excited for what you put out, but please, throw me a bone and at least try to push for some of your other movies, and don’t leave fresh and interesting films in the dust.
I’m definitely going to check out “A Wrinkle in Time” when it comes out, and I hope you really sell the picture so other people will look at your big risk of a movie and give the film love it deserves. And maybe, just maybe, you can cancel your plans to remake “Pocahontas” and “Tarzan.” I know you’re just waiting to announce them in the next few months.