The Disney film division is drunk. Drunk on remaking many of the classic animated films as live action movies. Aside from the recent Jungle Book and the upcoming Beauty and the Beast, there have been announcements and some rumors that Pinocchio, Dumbo and the Lion King are in various stages of development. Then Tinkerbell (rumor of Reese Witherspoon) and Cruella (rumor of Emma Stone) are going to have live action renditions of their own.
With the critical and box office successes of Alice and Wonderland and The Jungle Book, it’s not hard to understand why Robert Iger and the rest of Disney’s management is jumping into this trend with both feet. Not only have the movies been viewed positively by the critics and made very handsome profits, but they are introducing stories and characters to a whole new generation of movie goers. And if there’s anything Walt Disney knew and the current management knows, characters and their franchises can drive long term profits and fan loyalty.
It’s no secret that Walt had a particular view of the world. In some ways his movies reflect the world and the time in which he lived and the idealized world of Marceline, Missouri he had grown up in. Even at the time of his greatest successes, many described his entertainment as “corny”. It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to say that Walt created what we now call Family Entertainment. His story telling insures his work remains timeless and just as entertaining now as it was many years ago. In much the same way we can still watch and enjoy Gone with the Wind and Singin’ in the Rain, even though they were made long ago by entertainment standards.
But, I don’t think we can ignore the this generation’s expectations for any form of entertainment. We’re not satisfied with a roller coaster that goes up and down, it has to go upside down. Fireworks can’t just be loud and bright, they have to make pictures and be synchronized with music. Cars can’t just get us from here to there, they have to do it while we surf the web and stream only the music we want to hear.
So does that mean that in order to attract a 21st century audience, the Disney company has to remake all of the classic animated films? Let’s keep in mind, that Walt was remaking what were, and still are, considered classic fairy tales and fables. I would say, if you sit most kids and many adults in front of the movies we put in the animated Disney classic category, they will be drawn in an enjoy it as if it were made today. So why do it over again? I think if a director has something new he would like to say with the material, then, by all means, have at it. But just modifying the script by putting in some modern references, using technology or making it “grittier”, seems like a waste of good film.
In the case of the live-action remake of Cinderella, I think that the director gave us some new insights into the characters which make the film work. The Mowgli in the new, live-action jungle book, demonstrates more emotional dimension than Walt’s original. And director Favreau raises the stakes for everyone by having Shere Khan kill Akila. The tiger seems more dangerous and determined than the suave 1967 animated character. I will reserve judgement on Beauty and the Beast and others until I have seen them.
It’s no surprise that we want our movies and theme parks to sizzle with excitement now possible through the use of technology. Now before you start thinking that I want to go back to the early days of Coney Island and silent movies, I’ve been involved with technology and computers for over thirty years. And I do think they have a place in our entertainment. I think attractions like Star Tours, Rock ‘n’ Rollercoaster, Mickey’s Philharmagic and others (not to mention those in other theme parks) are great examples of how different kinds of technological advancements help to meet our 21st century definition of what’s fun, exciting or thrilling. And Pixar has used technology as a way to tell great stories, populated by memorable characters.
Walt himself was always looking for the next great thing to make an idea even better. He called it, plussing. Whether it was adding sound or color to movies, the mulitplane camera, audio animatronics, the monorail, new attraction ride systems, combining live action and animation in films, Walt was often first and more often than not, he was right about what the public would like. We get so caught up in the entertainment empire that Walt built that we lose sight of his constant drive for innovation. If it plussed the story or the attraction, and made it better, then he wanted to use it.
There will always be risks in taking on films and attractions with which the public has formed an attachment. In any case, there’s no chance that the changes will please everyone. Some are wild about Walt Disney World’s New Fantasyland while others still mourn the loss of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. It would hard to imagine that the Disney company will be right every time. There will probably be creative team who will lose sight of story and character and hope that CG will save the movie. No one sets out to make a bad movie or theme park attraction. But it does and will happen (See Stitch’s Great Escape for an example of a good idea going wrong) Don’t forget, once a project has been green lighted, Mr. Iger and Disney has to trust in the producers, directors, Imagineers and other artists, tradespeople and craftsmen to deliver the goods as promised.
I would hope, the Disney risk taking is not limited to just remaking titles from the existing catalog. I’d love to see new ideas and new creative excitement surprise us, so the Disney company can build new audiences through the development of new characters and unforgettable stories. Even if they are not all spectacular hits (see Tomorrowland). Remember:
For now, I think Disney has earned my trust. I’ll try to keep an open mind as new films and attractions are delivered. Hopefully, the upcoming new additions to the theme parks and new film projects will continue to show that Disney is not quitting.
What do you think?