When Disney announced a live-action “interpretation” of 1991 classic Beauty and the Beast earlier this year, it confirmed what we all already suspected: Disney is systematically remaking its entire back catalogue of animated features as live-action movies. After all, the Beauty and the Beast remake news arrives hot on the heels of live-action remakes of Alice in Wonderland, Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella, and comes alongside news of a live-action Jungle Book remake, too. It’s obvious what Disney is up to, here.
And from a business perspective, this approach makes a lot of sense. Not only are the fairytales that inspired the likes of Beauty and the Beast universally recognisable and resonant stories with timeless, archetypal power, but the Disney versions have a tremendous amount of built-in brand recognition. Disney’s animated take on Beauty and the Beast is beloved intellectual property in its own right, and tapping into the nostalgia audiences feel for it with a live-action do-over is a license to print money. Heck, Disney even has a commercially proven template to work from; all their filmmakers have to do is update the dated elements for modern audiences (hooray!) and strip out most/all of the musical elements (boo!).
Yes, there’s a strong business case for Disney’s current live-action remake strategy, and it’s clearly working for the studio – the live-action remakes released so far crushed it at the box office, while the animated originals continue to generate review through home media and streaming services. But what about on a purely artistic level? Few people would argue that Disney’s live-action remakes reached the creative heights of their predecessors, which begs the question: should they keep making them?
Disney needs to innovate, not recreate
Now, 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 fairytales aren’t fertile ground for big screen re-imaginings or reinterpretations. Part of the power of these stories is that their unique capacity for being retold over and over again without losing their appeal.
But for this to work, you need to find a fresh new take on the original fairytales, so that you can retell them in a way audiences haven’t seen before. Walt Disney himself knew this; it’s what his team of animators did when they first decided to retell the story of Snow White with moving hand drawn pictures, a novelty at the time.
By comparison, there’s nothing ground-breaking or exciting about Disney’s present day approach of slapping a coat of live-action paint on top of these stories. If anything, it’s a step backward, considering so much of the wonder and magic of these animated classics was the very animation that brought them to life. Rather than faithfully recreate an animated flick like Cinderella, Disney needs to innovate and find a new angle on the source material.
Learning the right lessons from Disney’s more ambitious live-action remakes
To be fair, Disney and its filmmakers tried to mix things up with Maleficent and Alice and Wonderland. Unlike Cinderella – or (presumably) Beauty and the Beast and Jungle Book – these two movies did their own thing, serving as a prequel and sequel to the respective inspirations. The results were commercially rewarding, but critically discouraging.
Alice in Wonderland was an overstuffed, over-stylised mess, whereas Maleficent squanders a perfectly cast Angelina Jolie to deliver a second-rate Wicked. Given this lukewarm response, can you blame Disney for deciding to play it safe with its future remakes?
But the thing is, that’s not the lesson Disney needs to learn here. See, Alice in Wonderland and Maleficent didn’t come unstuck because they tried to do something different, they came up short because they didn’t try to do something different enough. The filmmakers wanted to have their cake and eat it, too – trying to stage movies that are simultaneously reboots and remakes/sequels, resulting in creatively restrained, muddle stories.
For future Disney remakes to work artistically, the filmmakers need to start over from scratch. They need to go back to the original fairytales – not the original animated movies – for their inspiration, and find a unique take on the material, instead. This will give them the freedom to tell a new, self-contained stories with their own plots, themes, and characters, none of which audiences have seen before.
So, no, Disney shouldn’t keep remaking its classic animated movies in live-action – but with so much money to be made, don’t count on the studio stopping any time soon.