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With more free time this summer than I knew what to do with, I was struck by an idea rooted in morbid curiosity: how about I watch all of the new Disney remakes? With the release of Mulan upcoming, I thought the last few weeks a better time than any, but after watching everything from Alice in Wonderland to Lady and the Tramp back to back I was left with one question: what’s the point? From a business standpoint it’s obviously to make money – in fact, they’ve made over nine-billion dollars – but as a consumer, why pay to see a modified clone of something you’ve already seen?
These films wouldn’t have been made if people didn’t pay to see them, so what is it that motivates someone to see The Lion King (2019) instead of just re-watching the original? How did this trend of selling audiences copies of something else begin? There were a couple of Disney remakes before 2010’s Alice in Wonderland, but this one established the formula for printing money that’s stuck around. Step 1: take an animated Disney movie. Step 2: make it live-action. Step 3: stack the cast with celebrities. Step 4: cut to a photorealistic Scrooge McDuck diving headfirst into a billion dollars.
It would be reductive to suggest that all of these films are just uncanny facsimiles of their progenitors, they all exist on a spectrum ranging from genuine re-imaginings to shot-for-shot remakes. The first two, the aforementioned Alice and 2014’s Maleficent exist on the former end of the spectrum, to mixed results.
Tim Burton’s take on the classic novel and film, while earnestly attempting to re-imagine the material, was conceptually doomed for the simple reason that it took the ultimate example of nonsense fiction and attempted to make an organised plot out of it. As well as turning it into the most cliched type of fantasy adventure imaginable, complete with a chosen one and a prophecy and everything else you’re probably sick of.
Maleficent similarly attempts to re-imagine its source material, only with much better results. It eschews the fairy tale morality and gives the classic villain the Wicked treatment, and an effective story about maternal love and redemption combined with Jolie’s note-perfect scenery-chewing gives this film a valid reason to exist. But it’s not without flaws, flaws which are exacerbated by the limitations and risk-averse nature of the Disney brand. Instead of cursing Aurora to literal death like in the original, Maleficent only curses her to eternal sleep, and immediately afterward the so-called mistress of evil finds the child and just observes her, all of the ill intent has evaporated out of nowhere. This leads to her redemption arc being softened since there is barely anything to redeem.
Then came Cinderella and The Jungle Book, both taking older Disney films, updating the text for modern audiences, and removing the cartoon elements in favour of a more clearly defined story. Cinderella is unambitious but ultimately successful, most of its changes are aesthetic with exquisite sets and costumes. The comic relief mice are removed, and the characters are given more development, with the prince being someone Cinderella has already met and fallen for before the ball. But ultimately it follows the same beats as the original, giving it little purpose to exist other than to update the parts that aged poorly.
The Jungle Book similarly makes only minor changes to the story, but its highlight is its ambitious use of CGI to create photorealistic animals, something nothing had really done before, which is reason enough to watch it. After this Disney began remaking not their older classics but their modern ones, starting with 2017’s Beauty and the Beast, remaking a film from 26 years earlier shot-for-shot. Why? Because money.
Perfectly animated movements and faces that are inherently unrealistic are replaced with uncanny recreations, so if watching this film accomplished anything it was to make me want to re-watch the original. Some forgettable new songs are added, some characters are given additional backstories that have no bearing on the plot, and most notably the little nit-picks and holes in the plot are retroactively explained. There’s a difference between updating films from the fifties and sixties to make them less problematic and taking a fairy tale film from the nineties and applying real-life logic to it.
Aladdin follows the same route, adding pointless new details and forgettable songs, recreating sequences that just look bizarre in live-action, and the acting is generally sloppy. Jasmine, like Belle, now has her mother’s absence explained and the aspects of her character that haven’t held up well are replaced with changes that have no consequence on the plot. It seems as if Disney wants to have its cake and eat it, to have classics that everyone loves and also have them completely hold up by modern standards, which isn’t much of a reason for these films to exist.
The Lion King and Lady and the Tramp both suffer from the problem of applying photorealism to something originally animated, something not meant to be an exact recreation of reality. When the lions and dogs sing, they barely emote, the vibrant colours and designs are replaced by washed-out colour pallets and dull sets, it completely removes the charm and impact of the originals. Here, live-action doesn’t add, it takes away.
And 2019’s Dumbo is a peculiar case as its villain is a not so subtle play on Walt Disney and his cutthroat brand of capitalism. But Disney is still operating in the same monopolistic way; the self-awareness doesn’t change their growing creative bankruptcy. Rather ironically, it ends with Dumbo in the wild and the circus using actors playing elephants, selling an imitation of what audiences want, the perfect metaphor for these remakes.
So, what about Mulan? It exists on the middle of the spectrum, there are some significant changes, but it still hits the same beats as the original. But it takes away everything that made the original a classic. Now Mulan is born an extraordinarily powerful warrior, whereas before what made her special was her determination and ingenuity. Now Mulan always wanted to be a fighter, whereas before she did what she had to do to spare her ailing father. Now Mulan is always exceptional, there is no growth, no change. In trying to make Mulan more extraordinary they have taken away what made audiences fall in love with her.
So instead of paying £20 for an imitation of something you loved either wait till it’s free in December or just re-watch the original. And then enjoy the long respite before we get Untitled Aladdin Sequel, Emma Stone’s Cruella, Hercules in live-action, until they finally scrape the bottom of the barrel. (And no, I didn’t make those up.)