Is There Any Value In Disney’s Live-Action Remakes?


The growing desire on the part of the House Of Mouse to wring every last remake opportunity from its entire back catalogue is something that sparks a number of debates about the evolution of cinema, and the part we play in that evolution as consumers. With 2015’s Cinderella having come and gone, and Beauty And The Beast now doing well at the box office, we’re currently staring down the barrel of at least a further 15 of these types of projects – featuring live-action re-imaginings of previously animated tales and characters. This being the case, it’s tempting to decry the dearth of new ideas and creations in Disney’s big screen output. But, while there is clearly merit to that argument, is there really no value to be found in these upcoming movies?

Disney’s developing slate of live-action re-imaginings is a mixture of remakes, sequels, and character-focused spinoffs – which makes for an interesting approach to the re-invigoration of the studio’s existing properties. What’s important to remember, however, is that this sudden push to raid old titles comes partly as a result of 2014’s Maleficent, but has also been spurred on significantly by the huge success of Jon Favreau’s 2016 film The Jungle Book – and, as such, the term ‘live-action’ should be used loosely.

The Jungle Book is an impressive hybrid – seamlessly combining live-action performances (for example, the brilliant Neel Sethi as Mowgli), with computer-generated animals voiced by iconic actors, such as Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Lupita Nyong’o, Christopher Walken and Idris Elba. The film is not a direct remake of any previous cinematic version of the story, but is instead inspired by the 1967 Disney animated movie, while returning to the original source material – written by Rudyard Kipling. As such, it retains familiar musical cues and humour, while bringing new elements to the screenplay – and this approach helped the film win an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects, and earn over $966 million at the box office. But is this reason enough to apply the same strategy to other popular, animated Disney titles? Firstly, let’s look at the remakes that have been announced.

The Lion King – A remake of the 1994 animated movie, to be directed by Jon Favreau, and starring the voices of Donald Glover and James Earl Jones.

Aladdin – A remake of the 1992 animated movie, possibly to be directed by Guy Ritchie.

Peter Pan – A new, live-action version to be directed by David Lowery, possibly for release in 2018.

Mulan – A remake of the 1998 animated movie, possibly to be directed by Niki Caro, and set for release on November 2nd, 2018.

The Little Mermaid – A remake of the 1989 animated movie, conceived as a musical.

The Sword In The Stone – A remake of the 1963 animated movie, currently in development.

Dumbo – A remake of the 1941 animated movie to be directed by Tim Burton, and starring Eva Green and Danny DeVito.

Pinocchio – A remake of the 1940 animated movie, possibly starring Robert Downey Jr.

Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs – A remake of the 1937 animated movie, currently in-development.

This selection of titles is, in itself, a mixed bag. While stories such as Mulan and The Sword In The Stone have the potential to become iconic, action-packed pieces of live-action cinema, Aladdin, The Little Mermaid and Peter Pan are far less exciting as movie prospects. In the case of Peter Pan, we’ve seen countless remakes of the story already – including the pitiful live-action Pan in 2015. In the case of Aladdin, the reason the animated movie was so popular in 1992 is because it essentially featured one of Robin Williams’ best-ever comedy routines – and that’s something that can never be recaptured. Without that comedy genius filling out the role of the genie, Aladdin would hold little appeal beyond being a story of male entitlement and the manipulation of a woman. In the case of The Little Mermaid, there have been numerous attempts to reinvigorate that tale – including an independent live-action version, due for release later in 2017. While it’s based on the classic work of Hans Christian Andersen, it is simply too familiar at this point.

The Lion King is problematic in a different way. It may work to its advantage having The Jungle Book’s Jon Favreau at the helm, but in that 2016 film, he had Rudyard Kipling’s source material to mine for thrilling new cinematic elements. No such possibility exists for The Lion King. The tale it tells is clearly Shakespearean in nature, but it was technically an original story when it arrived in cinemas in 1994. In this respect, it could be argued that The Lion King is the least necessary among Disney’s upcoming live-action remakes, as any new elements introduced will have the potential to deter fans of the previous film, and thus reduce the built in brand loyalty upon which these remakes so often trade.

The most intriguing of the direct remakes are arguably Dumbo and Pinocchio – largely because of the people already involved. Tim Burton is at the helm of the live-action rendering of Dumbo, having previously delivered adaptations of Alice In Wonderland and Charlie And The Chocolate Factory. Burton’s penchant for darker, more unsettling tones lends itself well to the 1941 story of an elephant with over-sized ears, who is enslaved by a circus and forcibly removed from his mother. While it is based on a storyline produced for a toy, Dumbo has received a fraction of the attention of The Lion King over the seven decades since its release, and the aesthetic employed by Tim Burton is more than enough to warrant this new vision of Dumbo.

Similarly, Pinocchio has remained largely on the shelf for 77 years – being a strange tale of a wooden puppet that longs to be a real boy. It is, perhaps, the third act of the tale – involving a giant whale – that has kept Pinocchio free of remakes until now, but this is where the current capabilities of computer-generated characters really come into their own. There is no director attached yet, but Academy Award nominee Robert Downey Jr. is rumoured to be filling the role of Geppetto – the wood carver that creates the titular marionette. In addition, Pinocchio is based upon the novel The Adventures Of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi, so there is additional, original source material available to whichever filmmaker eventually takes the helm of that movie.

There two true sequels planned as well, with Maleficent due to make a reappearance, along with The Jungle Book 2. Director Jon Favreau is attached to helm the sequel to his 2016 Kipling-based success, which does, in itself make such a venture an interesting idea. Indeed, if the filmmaker intends to return to the well-spring of Rudyard Kipling’s work to build a second movie with the kind of accuracy he employed in the first instalment, then The Jungle Book 2 certainly seems to be a surefire hit. Maleficent, on the other hand, has more of an uphill struggle. The initial instalment – released in 2014 – was profitable enough, but was met with a mixed reception. The saving grace here is that it was the performance of Angelina Jolie that elevated the first film and, while no director has yet been announced, the actress is expected to return as the eponymous villain.