The announcement earlier this year that Disney had started production on a live action “interpretation” of 1991 animated classic Beauty and the Beast confirmed what many have suspected following the earlier real-life remakes of Alice in Wonderland, Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella: Disney is systematically re-releasing its entire back catalogue of feature-length cartoons with actors instead of artwork.
Obviously, this makes quite a bit of sense from a business perspective. The fairy tales these live action films are based on are filled with archetypal characters and universal themes that appeal to a wide audience from children to the dating crowd, and even more importantly (at least from a studio point of view), fairy tales are in vogue right now.
There’s also the matter of built-in brand recognition. Not only are these familiar fairy tales, but they are familiar Disney fairy tales, which makes them the definitive versions for many modern cinema goers. By aping the visuals of the animated films, Disney is able to tap into the affection and nostalgia the general audience already has for these existing properties when marketing the remakes, which is always a plus when promoting a new property.
But best of all from a purely commerce driven position, movies like Maleficent and Cinderella already have a proven track record, in the form of their animated ancestors; the basic blueprint for bringing their respective source material to the screen successfully has already been mapped out.
All that needs to be done is to dust off the original screenplay and update it for a modern audience, which usually means recasting the female lead into a more self-sufficient and independent heroine (hooray!) and stripping out the musical elements (boooo!).
Yes, there’s definitely a strong business case for Disney’s current live-action plan of attack (the three live-action movies released thus far have made crazy big box office, and the animated originals still generate plenty of cash for the studio through DVD, streaming services and the like). But what I’ve found myself wondering lately is whether this approach is worthwhile on a creative level?
Let me make it clear that I’m not knocking the cast and crew involved with any of these movies, many of whom are incredibly talented, award winning actors, directors, screenwriters and technical artists.
Nor am I saying that fairy tales aren’t fertile ground for reimaginings or reinterpretations; part of the power of these stories is that they can withstand being retold over and over again and still remain entertaining.
But I think a large part of being able to keep these stories fresh is by telling them in new and interesting ways, which is what Walt Disney himself and his team of animators did when they first decided to retell the story of Snow White via moving hand drawn pictures.
By comparison, slapping a coat of flesh and blood paint (sorry, gross metaphor) on top of these stories seems like a step backwards, as so much of the wonder and magic imbued into these fantastical stories was a direct result of the still-breathtaking animation that brought them to life.
To be fair, while this year’s solid if unremarkable Cinderella remake hewed pretty closely to the plot and characters of the 1950 classic that inspired it, the filmmakers in charge of Alice in Wonderland and Maleficient both tried to do their own thing with the material, to mixed artistic results.
I’ve already mentioned that both these films were big hits in a commercial sense, but neither seemed wholly satisfying in storytelling terms, and I think that ironically, the problem was that both deviated too far from the solid foundation provided by their original source material’s story.
Alice in Wonderland failed to properly develop its genuinely fascinating themes of metamorphosis and personal discovery and ended up an over-stylised mess, capped off by a well-intentioned ending that kinda implies that Alice helped light the fuse that started the Opium Wars in China (seriously, so awkward).
Maleficent fared somewhat better by comparison, although by attempting to portray the good side of its titular dark fairy queen (who was perfectly wonderful as a pure embodiment of evil to begin with), it ended up coming across as a bit of a second-rate Wicked.
At this point, you’re probably thinking I’m trying to have my cake and eat it too (and it’s certainly a possibility, given how much I love cake); aren’t I saying that Disney should be reinterpreting these stories, and then criticising their attempts to do so? The answer is no, not exactly.
You see, where I think these adaptations came unstuck is that the filmmakers were trying to create something new that also emulated a pre-existing work, which meant that certain plot and character beats had to be either restaged or at least called back to. This in turn severely limited their creative options, which would not have been the case if they had been free to tell their stories completely free of the animated versions of old.
Rather than forcing filmmakers to shoehorn their own vision into a pre-existing mould, wouldn’t it be better for Disney just to let them tell a new, self-contained story free to develop it’s own characters, plots and themes, without any distracting external factors? I think the creative end product is likely to be better, and audiences will benefit as a result.
So I guess what I’m saying is that I think it’s fine for Disney to keep telling new versions of stories they’ve told before, so long as they tell them independently of what they’ve done before.
I really hope that this is a conclusion that Disney arrives at, and soon. After all, do we really want to live in a world where a live-action “reinterpretation” of Aladdin is a thing?