There’s been a lot of discourse over Disney’s live action remakes lately. Who should be cast in them? How close should they be to the original? Why are they even being made in the first place? (The $1.3 billion and counting this summer’s The Lion King answers that last question pretty nicely.)
With so many opinions on what should be remade and what the approach to the adaptation should be, let’s take a look at the four typical styles of Disney remakes.
Many of Disney’s remakes over the past decade fall under this category including Cinderella, The Jungle Book, Beauty and the Beast, Dumbo, and Aladdin. These are all re-tellings of the same basic stories as their animated counterparts, but make notable additions, deletions, and substitutions to the work.
The freedom to make changes such as additions of new songs, characters, and plot points allow the filmmakers the freedom to adapt the story in the best way they see fit, and most of the changes made are to either help a modern audience connect to the story or to help make it fit better in a live action format.
On the flip side, this method invites a lot of criticism from fans of the source material. Disney advertises these movies as remakes of classics, so if something that is considered “classic” is changed or left out entirely it almost always results in backlash.
Ultimately, the changes generally end up being a mixed bag for fans. The addition of a lady-in-waiting character for Jasmine and her romance with the Genie in Aladdin was well-received, but the magical book in Beauty and the Beast received a lot of criticism.
Clearly the alterations have been hit and miss, but these movies have included enough content from their animated counterparts that fans in it for the nostalgia have generally managed to find plenty to enjoy in them.
The True Remake
By “true remake” we mean a movie that takes the word “remake” fairly literally. This means redoing many of the same shots from the original film and incorporating many of the same lines and music. Summer 2019’s The Lion King is the closest thing we have to this, although a few alterations and additions were made.
The main pros and cons for this style are fairly straightforward: there’s little concern regarding complaints about deviating from the source material too much, but those are traded in for complaints that the film doesn’t do anything new and therefore doesn’t warrant its own existence.
The other hiccup of this genre is that some things in animation don’t translate to live action very smoothly. Many have poked fun at the lack of emotive expressions from the animals in The Lion King, particularly in Mufasa’s death scene. The medium just wasn’t able to evoke the same kind of empathy as watching the hand-drawn animated version because of the limitations in “realistic” CGI and the scene paled in comparison to the original as a result.
On the complete opposite end of the spectrum, we have the re-imaginings. Maleficent and Pete’s Dragon are the only recent live-action Disney movies that squarely fall under this category, but a couple others use elements from it as well. These movies are set in alternate versions of the universes their original counterparts took place in and make major changes to the story. Pete’s Dragon is a total modernization of the original film’s story with lots of changes while Maleficent is to Sleeping Beauty what Wicked is to The Wizard of Oz.
This style may be one Disney adopts more in the future, seeing as Maleficent‘s sequel is set to hit the big screen this fall and the conceptually-similar Cruella movie is set for release at the end of 2020. The beauty of this format is that it’s pretty much immune to (warranted) complaints about changes to the story, since it openly claims to be more inspired-by another movie instead of being a straightforward remake of something.
If the recent Pete’s Dragon is any indication, this may be the key to making remakes of some of Disney’s less well-known movies work. The original Pete’s Dragon is a fun musical film, but critical reception is almost straight down the middle on it (for the record, I lean towards positivity regarding that movie) and it’s not really regarded as a hugely beloved classic like, say, Mary Poppins. So the filmmakers were able to re-imagine the story the way they wanted to and make more dramatic changes with less fan pushback than something like one of the Disney Renaissance remakes would have.
2010’s Alice in Wonderland and its sequel Alice Through the Looking Glass fall under this category, as does Christopher Robin and Mary Poppins Returns. So far, these have played as adult versions of characters who we originally saw as children having grown up and returning to their childhood fantasy worlds. And with the exception of Mary Poppins Returns, they’re really more like hybrids of re-imaginings and sequels than straight-up sequels; both the Alice movies and Christopher Robin take more inspiration from their original book source material than the Disney animated features but can still “count” as sequels to the latter (which is why the upcoming Maleficent: Mistress of Evil was not included on this list).
Up to this point in time, most of the sequels has been subject to virtually the same praises and criticisms of the re-imagining, making it more of a sub-category. But if we do end up getting that rumored Aladdin live action sequel with the same cast as this year’s remake (er, reboot?) the sequel format may end up with some sub-categories of its own.
Disney has a bunch more of these movies in the pipeline, the three officially announced consisting of three re-imaginings and one which will likely be a reboot. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if they started on another true remake soon, seeing as The Lion King is now the most successful of all these movies yet from a financial standpoint. Keeping things as close to the original as possible may be what the majority of audiences prefer in their Disney remakes, though it’s also very possible that it being a remake of the wildly popular original Lion King has been a major factor in the movie’s success.
The next three movies on the docket – Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, Mulan and Cruella – are all looking to be re-imaginings. These have been a bit hit-and-miss both critically and financially, and that’s what I expect these three movies to be as well. Mulan seems poised to make the most amount of money, but it also seems like the biggest target for criticism from fans of the original.
The Little Mermaid may have a shot at pulling in similar box office numbers to The Lion King, though based on everything we’ve heard about it thus far I think that film is more likely to fall under the reboot category. Most of the movies under that umbrella have also performed well.
In the end, I don’t think style is the main factor as to whether people see these movies: it’s the property. The more popular the original is when the remake comes out, the more money it’ll pull in. It’s not about format or even quality, it’s just too hard for people to resist seeing how their favorite animated Disney tales translate to live action…even if it’s just so they can complain about it afterwards.