Here’s a list of Disney Live Action Remakes that I enjoyed:
- Cinderella (2015)
- The Jungle Book (2016)
- Pete’s Dragon (2014)
Here’s a list of Disney Live Action Remakes that I did not enjoy:
- Beauty and the Beast (2017)
- The Lion King (2019)
Now, I could go into each and explain the things that I did and did not like about each movie (and certainly, there were things I did and did not like in each one), but given the amount and the general structure of these remakes, plus general quandary that are the Alice and Maleficent live action films, there is a question that
most many some people ask which is:
“Why remake these movies at all?”
What Makes the Disney Remakes Different
I know I’ve already done a post on remakes, and I stand by what I said: a remake is a chance to take something and make it better, or at least make it new. But given the sheer volume of these films, I think I can go a little more specific as to where I think that these movies specifically succeed and fail. Because this isn’t the fourth remake of A Star is Born or the first live action Pokemon movie, the Disney Remakes are something different entirely— and they rely on our familiarity with the products in a very distinct way.
I’ve talked about the Nerdwriter’s video on Intertextuality and specifically name-dropped his concept of “weaponized intertextuality”, but let’s dive into it a little further. The Nerdwriter defines weaponized intertextuality as “intertextual references that manifest as objects, people, or situations explicitly meant to trigger an emotional response in the viewer”. He cites the use of Khan in Star Trek: Into Darkness and Blofeld in SPECTRE as examples, further citing that a reliance on this trope can feel like a replacement for content, really. Like no one guessed that Benedict Cumberbatch was going to be playing Khan. The Nerdwriter actually starts out by talking about the first teaser for Beauty and the Beast (2017) and how it ends with the image of a rose and the tag line “Be Our Guest”— two things which would more or less have no meaning to anyone unfamiliar with the 1991 animated film.
But that’s not all it does.
There’s a ballroom with a grand piano (we later find out it’s a harpsichord because “historical accuracy” or whatever)
There’s someone slashing at a portrait
And there’s the music— the “Carnival of the Animals” inspired “Beast theme” and a few notes from the title song “Beauty and the Beast”.
All of these things, but especially the music, the rose, and the tag line, are meant to draw from the emotional ties that you, the audience, already have with the story, the characters, and the company really. And that’s what has made Disney several billion dollars over the past decade.
The Nerdwriter in his video spends a lot of time on The Force Awakens, which is understandable as it was huge at the time the video came out and it does tend to use some of these techniques, but I find them more justified in the new Star Wars films for several reasons:
- These Star Wars movies are sequels to the Original Trilogy, and are going to have characters overlap. Is it weaponized intertextuality to have Anakin Skywalker, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Yoda in the prequel films? Or is it telling more of the story that we don’t know yet?
- The fact that we recognize Han Solo/Princess Lea/the Millennium Falcon/etc. is not the only thing that the movie relies on— it does explain who each of these characters and things are so that the kids that these movies are made for who haven’t seen the original trilogy yet can get caught up without missing anything. It might not be immediate or obvious, but it’s there.
- The musical stings that are reused from the original films (the Force Theme, the Main Theme, and the Imperial March) are motific material that John Williams has expertly crafted to weave the disparate and, at times, unwieldy process of film-making together so that they all sound like they’re part of the same story. Explaining leitmotifs is a novel unto itself, but let’s get into that in another post.
Now, for the record, Star Wars is a Disney franchise, but it’s run by a completely separate arm of the company. I’m not an economist or a lawyer, please don’t make me explain the business side of how these movies get made.
What the Disney Remakes mostly rely on is the fact that you know and care about these stories and characters. That you can sing along with all of these songs. That you’re going to give them your money. And they’re right! You know the characters and stories, you can sing these songs (Emma Watson can’t, but you can), and Disney is going to get billions of your money.
So, let’s talk about Power Rangers for a sec.
Saban’s Power Rangers (2017)
I saw the 2017 Power Rangers movie around the same time as the live action Beauty and the Beast. I liked the Power Rangers movie a lot more.
Or, well, I enjoyed the Power Rangers movie a lot more.
See, Power Rangers didn’t have a very high bar to meet— it just had to be better than a Michael Bay Transformers movie. And it was! It gave me reasons to care about the characters, it didn’t shy away from the premise of “disembodied alien head mentors teens who fight giant monsters with dinosaur robots”, and it used the original theme song in a powerful way.
And to some extent, the comparison between the Power Rangers movie and Beauty and the Beast is justified because we’re comparing Live Action Films adapted from entertainment meant (largely) for children. It’s just that one is derived from a cartoon with a premise that is pretty fantastical, and one is based on an Academy Award-nominated film.
So you can see why one might have a bit more to live up to.
They Say the Neon Lights are Bright…
Let’s get into the first half of the premise here. What can cover songs teach us about the Disney Remakes?
I’ve been getting into the Music Theory side of YouTube, and the Essayist/Cartoonist 12tone has a video about cover songs, inspired by the Wheezer cover of “Africa” by Toto. And he makes a fairly salient point about cover songs like Wheezer’s “Africa”: “Unless you’re in the middle of a live performance, your cover is inevitably going to compete with the original. You’re inviting the audience to compare the two, but you’re already starting off at a disadvantage because you’re fighting against their sense of familiarity.”
See, Disney has made Live Action versions of many of their classic cartoon films like Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, The Little Mermaid, and Aladdin— they put them on Broadway. They made them live performances. Even going to the half-hour shows at the parks seem more vibrant than these films, because while we get that these are adaptations, it’s fun to see people perform live. There’s a reason people go to concerts.
A great example of an aspect adapted by Disney that takes advantage of the do-over is the live action version of “Trust In Me” from The Jungle Book:
The original, while not a classic Disney Villain song in the way “Poor Unfortunate Souls” or “Be Prepared” are, is an iconic scene in the film and sung by a Disney Legend. The new one is a better Bond theme than most of the real ones. Was it written like that because Scarlett Johansson is also Black Widow? I don’t know. Maybe. But it’s really good, and possibly even better than the original, because, let’s be real, Winnie the Pooh can only be so threatening.
On the other hand, we have the Circle of Life.
I mean, the main vocalist is different? She has a more pronounced accent, which is really a neutral thing. The opening is the exact same, because with the shot-for-shot they were going for with that opening, they couldn’t change much. It’s a cosmetic change. Much like a lot of the movie, for that matter.
See, what animation and theater have in common is a greater reaction to the willing suspension of disbelief. In Superman, you believed a man can fly, sure, but in Cats, you believed that all cats go to heaven, in Hercules, you believed that the Muses were a gospel choir, and in Newsies, you believed that Jeremy Jordan had a Brooklyn accent. You believe these things because the medium has conditioned you to believe a heightened state of reality that is similar to but also entirely unlike our reality. The rabbit talks, but you still have to follow the laws of hunting season. Live Action doesn’t necessarily have those same allowances.
And then there’s… something else.
CGI is also Animation
Except when it isn’t?
So the second half of this title comes from Arin “Egoraptor” Hanson’s Sequilitus video on The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. See, Zelda had a few issues to sort out moving from 2D to 3D. While the game was successful, there was a shift from the original intention of exploring a world in The Legend of Zelda to telling a story in A Link Between Worlds. There was also the basic nature of 3D changing how certain mechanics worked. His general attitude towards games getting more “realistic” is that “The more specific you get about situations analogous to reality, the more you have to stipulate on.” What this basically means is that the closer you get to real life, the more you expect things to look and act like things in real life. In A Link Between Worlds, if there’s a bat in front of you, you can hit it with your sword. In Ocarina of Time, it’s in a specific point in 3D space. We don’t expect Daffy Duck to have serious brain damage if he’s whacked on the head, any more than we expect birds to come and help us get dressed in the morning. This is, in fact, the entire premise of Enchanted (another Disney film), showing how a classic Disney Princess would interact with the “real” world.
The point of creating these Live Action Remakes came to an apotheosis with The Lion King (2019) which, while having some live action footage as background material, was overwhelmingly animated with CGI. It’s not about reimagining these stories— The Lion King was almost Gus Van Sant levels of faithful to the original. It’s about devaluing the medium of 2D animation. Do you know what the last theatrically released US film in 2D animation was?
Teen Titans GO! to the Movies.
Which is based on a TV show.
And released in 2018.
And what’s more, The Lion King doesn’t work as well with the hyper-realism. We accepted it more with the earlier movies because they were interacting with real people— Emma Watson looked like she was talking with a tea pot, Lily James looked like she was feeding mice, Bryce Dallas Howard looked like she was meeting a dragon. The problem with The Lion King is that without a human or human-like face to attach ourselves to, we have more trouble empathizing with what is on screen. Making the animals look and emote like real animals cost a real connection to the characters that they were supposed to be. And it’s not like in the original film Simba walked on two legs and used utensils to eat his grubs, there was a certain amount of reality being portrayed. But the cartooning of the designs allowed for a greater empathic bond with what was happening on screen. It was more vibrant— and not because there were actual colors that didn’t look like they got passed through an Instagram filter.
“First, I’m gonna take your stick.”
“We have no obligation to make art. We have no obligation to make history. We have no obligation to make a statement. But to make money, it is often important to make history, to make art, or to make some significant statement. In order to make money, we must always make entertaining movies, and if we make entertaining movies, at times we will reliably make history, art, a statement, or all three. We may even win awards…”
– Michael Eisner, CEO, The Walt Disney Company, 1984 – 2005
This quote is a little disingenuous. Eisner never said this as CEO of Disney— he wrote it in a 1981 letter to Paramount. Nevertheless, it it widely considered the ethos that Eisner operated under and it caused him and Disney to achieve both massive success and popularity (the Disney Renaissance) and also wide-spanning mockery and ridicule (the Direct-to-Video sequels). But it’s not… wrong? At least, it wasn’t entirely wrong. This ethos did, in fact, birth the original versions of The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and The Lion King.
The problem is more and more people are liking these movies less and less. The three that were released this year were all rated “Rotten” by Rotten Tomatoes, and even audiences didn’t like Dumbo (did you see Dumbo this year? I didn’t. I could probably tell you as much about it as anyone who saw it). But the movies make money. They’re not obligated to make art.
Anyway, Frozen 2 looks good.
What’s your favorite of the Disney Remakes? Here to speak in defense of the new Lion King? Here because I get a lot of view on my Disney posts? Let me know in the comments. Also like, if you can, and subscribe so you don’t miss future content.