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

It was arguably the first Maleficent film that kickstarted the Disney trend of developing character-specific movies that focus on supporting, but iconic figures from Disney’s most classic tales. Taking this magnificent villainess from the story of Sleeping Beauty, the narrative was allowed to unfold from the perspective of the antagonist, rather than the well-worn fairy-tale we have all come to know and love. Such a live-action venture requires flawless casting above all else, closely followed by an excellent and accurate script. In Angelina Jolie, Disney found the perfect Maleficent, but which other characters are set to take the lead in their own, new movies?

Prince Charming – A live-action film focused on the iconic fairy tale hero, currently in development.

Tinker Bell – A live-action film focused on the popular fairy from Peter Pan, starring Reese Witherspoon.

Cruella – A live-action film focused on the villain from 101 Dalmations, starring Emma Stone, with Alex Timbers directing, due for release in 2018.

Rose Red – A live-action film focused on Snow White’s sister, currently in development.

Tinker Bell and Cruella De Vil are both instantly recognizable Disney characters. Tinker Bell has led many of her own titles in animated movies, and most notably appeared in live-action in 1991’s Hook, played by Julia Roberts. Tinker Bell, however, will feature Reese Witherspoon as the titular fairy in a story that will hopefully tell her tale from her perspective – as opposed to viewing her only as a feature in the life of Peter Pan. Cruella De Vil was most memorably played in live-action by Glenn Close – first in 1996’s 101 Dalmations, and then in 2000’s 102 Dalmations. Those films were not designed to be seen from the perspective of the antagonist, however, so Cruella will certainly bring something new to the table.

Rose Red is the sister of Snow White, and her story has never been seen before in a live-action theatrical release. The tale is said to take place during the period of time after Snow White falls into her infamous deep sleep, as her determined sister fights to find a way to rescue her stricken sibling from her plight. What’s interesting about this project is that Rose Red comes from an entirely different fairy tale than the classic tale of Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs we’ve come to know. This film represents the merging of two stories from the Brothers Grimm – placing Rose Red into the role of heroine within the context of a familiar narrative.

Then, there’s the idea of making a movie about Prince Charming. He’s become a kind of stock fairy tale character over the years, in those female-led fairy tales that were deemed to require a simple male presence. Where a female lead needs to be rescued – in Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, or Cinderella, for example – there’s always a Prince Charming on hand to do the honours. In that respect, he’s a prime candidate for this trend of turning the spotlight onto classic supporting fairy tale icons. We have a vast swathe of female-led character spinoffs, after all – with Tinker Bell, Maleficient 2, and Rose Red all heading for big screen appearances – so surely it’s only fair to balance them out with some idealized testosterone, isn’t it?

Well, there is an issue here, and that is that the development of a Prince Charming movie lends itself to the overall false impression that these Disney movies are all about women. In popular culture, there is certainly a great deal of emphasis on the concept of the ‘Disney Princess’, and indeed, there are a great number of female-led Disney movies. But, let’s not forget that we also have Aladdin, Peter Pan, The Lion King, The Jungle Book, The Sword In The Stone, Dumbo and Pinocchio – all of which are led by male characters. Are we to expect live-action movies for Princess Jasmine, Nala, Raksha, Mrs. Jumbo and The Blue Fairy, too, since they’re the supporting characters for those male heroes?

The character specific spinoff movie is something of a double-edged sword, as a concept – and in this way these films in particular mirror the issues surrounding the idea of live-actions remakes of Disney films in general. In narrative terms, they can present a fascinating opportunity to explore beloved and familiar stories from a fresh perspective. In commercial terms, they can generate fresh profits from an established property, by trading on the goodwill of a recognizable product. In creative terms, however, those values wear thin quite quickly, and are simply over-run by an apparent desire to apply new visual technologies to old stories.

As with any remakes of beloved films, there are questions to be asked to determine their necessity – chief among which is whether the filmmakers are bringing anything new to the story. But ultimately, when looking at the big picture, we need to ask ourselves what exactly it is that the older generation is doing for the younger within the progress of cinema. Those Disney fans that are adults now – who excitedly embraced onscreen characters that were brand new to them as children – are rarely creating any brand new characters today. Children are currently being treated to a live-action version of Beauty And The Beast, for example – the same story that their parents were excited about in 1991 (and 1976, and 1987, and 1997, and 2009, and 2012, and 2014 – which represent just a few of the different versions of that story to have been made).

Those previous versions of the same story still exist – it’s possible to go back and enjoy them, if you wish to do so. With that in mind, however, it’s really quite frustrating that one of the biggest film studios in the world chooses to invest so heavily in projects that seem largely unnecessary. Instead, it’s apparently left to Disney subsidiary Pixar to create a new generation of iconic characters – like Princess Merida in Brave, Dory in Finding Nemo and Finding Dory, and Dean Abigail Hardscrabble in Monsters University. Somehow, I doubt Pixar movies will ever be subjected to live-action remakes – however impressive technology becomes – and that’s just fine, because there are always new characters and stories to be created and introduced. We just need studios to invest in them.