Disney Remakes: A Brief History and Opinionated Guide
With the recent releases of Aladdin, The Lion King, and numerous others, many people have been clamoring for original Disney films, rather than the live-action reimaginings of classic films that Disney has been cranking out regularly for the last several years. However, this trend of Disney remakes is not a new development; in fact, this practice has been happening on and off for quite some time in the history of the Disney company. Let’s take a look at when this started and why it is continuing today.
The first time Disney remade one of their products was in 1941. Seventy-eight years ago, Walt Disney released a color remake of Orphan’s Benefit. The original was a black and white Mickey Mouse cartoon released in 1934. With the growing technological advances in the medium of animation and the recent invention of color, the studio decided to release a new and improved version of Orphan’s Benefit, this time in beautiful Technicolor. This was a shot for shot remake, using the same soundtrack as the 1934 cartoon. The only differences were updated animation and color. Now that color was available, Walt Disney was not so eager to reissue his earlier black and white cartoons to theaters. Therefore, it was proposed that several of those early cartoons would be reanimated and released in color. However, for unknown reasons, this never came to pass and the only remake of this kind was Orphan’s Benefit. Many parallels can be drawn between the shot-for-shot remake of Orphan’s Benefit, which was created because of technological advances, and the new remake of The Lion King.
After that first remake, Disney focused primarily on creating original content for the next several decades, with almost no sequels or remakes until the 1980s, with the 1990’s specifically being full of remakes for the Disney company, primarily of their earlier live-action films. One of the first was Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey, which was a remake of the 1963 film The Incredible Journey about a trio of animals that go on an adventure far from home. The ’90s also gave us the first animation to live-action remake, 101 Dalmatians in 1996, which featured an excellent performance of Cruella de Vil by Glenn Close. One could argue that 1994’s Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book was a remake of the 1966 animated classic, but it was more of a separate adaptation of the source material rather than a remake. In addition to these, Disney churned out several other remakes of Disney classics including Flubber, a remake of The Absent-Minded Professor, as well as That Darn Cat and The Parent Trap. A notable cartoon to live-action remake happened in 1997 when Disney decided to take the classic UPA cartoon series Mr. Magoo and bring it to the big screen starring comedic actor Leslie Nielson. Though this was not originally a Disney property, it is important to mention here because it was one of the first times Disney made a live-action remake based on an animated cartoon, whether that be feature-length or short subject.
The trend of remaking live-action films continued into the 2000s with Freaky Friday, The Shaggy Dog, and a reboot of the Witch Mountain films in 2009. However, in 2010, the recent development of remaking animated film began with Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland.
At first glance, Burton’s Alice in Wonderland appears to be a live-action remake of the original. It begins as we all remember; Alice falls down a rabbit hole and meets several bizarre and wacky characters such as the Mad Hatter and the White Rabbit. However, as we learn later in the film, this version of the tale serves rather as a sequel to the original story, whether that be Lewis Carroll’s children books or Walt Disney’s animated version. Either way, the film renewed interest in the idea of bringing the Disney animated classics into a live-action world. Of course, this had already been done in the Disney parks for decades, but the opportunities to explore these characters, stories, and messages in a live-action film was one that neither the Walt Disney Company nor its audience, could seem to resist.
This began a seemingly never-ending stream of animated Disney films coming back as live-action. After Alice in Wonderland came The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, a pseudo-remake of the segment from Fantasia. The next live-action reimagining came in 2014 with Maleficent which, again, was not a straight remake but a live-action version of Sleeping Beauty that took a different journey with the characters and the world, this time focusing on fan-favorite villain Maleficent. However, the next remake would be the first direct remake of an animated classic since 1996’s 101 Dalmatians.
Cinderella, directed by Shakespeare director and performer Kenneth Branagh, was released to theaters in 2015. Starring Lily James of Downton Abbey fame as the titular princess, this film featured stunning scenery, beautiful music, and impressive performances. One of the greatest assets of Cinderella is that it avoids directly copying the original or relying solely on nostalgia, which are problems that arguably have plagued some of the other remakes. Rather, it expands on and often improves the story and the characters, giving it a more focused narrative and fleshing out characters such as Lady Tremaine, played to perfection by Cate Blanchett. This first remake in recent years set the bar high for the remakes that followed.
Since Cinderella, Disney has continued remaking its animated classics with varying degrees of success including The Jungle Book, Beauty and the Beast, Dumbo, Aladdin and the latest, The Lion King. There are also plenty more remakes in production and development with no end in sight. For many, this seems to be an unnecessary endeavor. Why bother remaking what already works so well? This is a fair question. However, when looking back at Disney history, these last few years in the long history of the studio seem like a natural continuation of the values and magic that have kept the Disney Company alive and well. Before the invention of home video, animated classics such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Pinocchio were re-released countless times to theaters in an effort to reintroduce these beloved stories and films to new generations. It seems that the Walt Disney Company has never lost that desire and is still doing it today by offering audiences new ways to experience their timeless films by updating them for the latest generation. Walt Disney himself loved technology and the potential that technology would have on our future was one of the many things that interested him. While looking at footage of the new photo-realistic film The Lion King, I can’t help but wonder what he would think about this amazing technology and how it can be used to tell stories.
I look forward to what the Disney company continues to put out in the future, whether it be original films or remakes of beloved classics.
Taschen, Benedikt, et al. Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse: The Ultimate History. Taschen, 2018.
“List of Walt Disney Pictures Films.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 12 July 2019, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Walt_Disney_Pictures_films.