Disney’s live-action division has been rolling out remakes of beloved animated films for the past several years. The Mouse House sees dollar signs, and oftentimes the public greets the news of a newfangled remake with a roll of the eyes. But when diving into these films proper, an interesting narrative that’s downright chronological emerges: Disney has gotten better at these remakes. But why is that the case? Let me show why quite recently all hope seemed lost, and how things have turned around so now the future looks very bright indeed.
The Case Against
In 2010, Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland hit theaters. So how does the 1951 original hold up? Well, it’s an insane animated fantasia depicting an anarchic land where anyone can be a cabbage or a king. Filled with great characters, it inadvertently invented the Shrek dance party finale, and climaxes with Alice gaining the upper hand by eating shrooms. It features the most wonderful and hilarious subversion of the classic “Princess sings in the woods and attracts cute animals” trope, as Alice attracts them, but they’re all grotesque hybrids of animals and tools. These are just some of its wonders. The early Disney tendency to have a bunch of vignettes orbiting a thin framework fits like a glove with this concentrated randomness. In short, it’s an all-time great.
Now, it’s not strictly accurate to call the 2010 Alice a remake, as the film makes a contorted attempt to describe this journey into Wonderland as Alice’s second. But the implication that the original’s events are in continuity here becomes laughable in context. We enter Wonderland and hear words like… Prophecy? Chosen one?!? The very idea of anything being “foretold” in Wonderland is a bad joke. Narrative logic is one thing, but the storytelling becomes bogged down in politics and pretense. What was once a land of chaos becomes a bombed-out shell of its former self, populated by irritating nuisances in place of characters. Even the gruesomeness on display (three characters get stabbed in the eye, not to mention the decapitation) just comes across as desperate. Despite the one area of improvement over the original being Mia Wasikowska as an engaging protagonist, what we end up with is a poisonously boring film that represents the absolute nadir of the Disney remake. This is what not to do.
As it turned out, this black hole of entertainment was an enormous financial hit, to the tune of over a billion dollars. But it’s what I’d call an accidental billion-dollar movie, as it rode the crest of the Avatar 3D wave.
To play fair, things get significantly improved in the 2016 sequel, Alice through the Looking Glass. Despite a sickening insistence on pitching Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter as the emotional center of the film, small steps are taken in the right direction. It’s set in a bright and colorful Wonderland for a change, it’s got a solid villain in Sacha Baron Cohen’s embodiment of Time (“And I… must find… the kindergartner…”), some of the jokes land (the frog dude!), violence is used more constructively (the Humpty Dumpty gag is fantastic!), the art direction is superior (the Chronosphere is a clockwork astrolabe you can fly in!), and in Alice’s role as a dauntless seafaring explorer, she foreshadows Disney’s upcoming animated musical Moana. (And bonus points for using Alan Rickman as a voice of comfort, in his final film role.)
But overshadowing everything is the root problem of these modern Alice films: they get stuck on portentous exposition when they should just be parading charming nonsense. They’re boring because they never resolve the tension between the potential of their setting, and their need to inject drippy drama into it. Put it this way; the Mad Hatter’s dad is a textbook strict Victorian father. In Wonderland.
Next, in 2014, the Angelina Jolie vehicle Maleficent went back to the roots of the 1959 Sleeping Beauty. In the original, Maleficent is a legitimately scary villain who capitalizes on her small sliver of screentime to make a huge impression. She’s such a representation of pure evil that it feels like the film doesn’t give her much airtime for fear of kids being traumatized by her menace. She can also turn into a dragon.
Come the modern reimaging of the story, Maleficent is no longer evil, no longer the villain, and no longer can turn into a dragon. Sigh. Jolie is an unimpeachable casting decision, but the material she’s saddled with plays it safe even while making truly odd choices. Maleficent is made a victim, and the way her wings are violated is coded in a deeply uncomfortable way for a family movie.
Where this remake shines are only in stolen moments. The recreation of the famous throne room scene is by far the best bit of the film, because it’s the only time Maleficent is allowed to be true to her name. For the rest of the film she’s not even an anti-hero. She’s just the hero. Maleficent is let down by nonsensical plot devices, a pantomime villain, truly embarrassing versions of the original fairy characters, but above all the softening of an iconic Disney villain. I assume that choice is to make Maleficent palatable as a lead, but what’s the point of doing it if it’s not to be done right? When it comes to putting a villain in the lead role, I’m not expecting Man Bites Dog or A Clockwork Orange. But I do expect an understanding of why we were drawn to the character in the first place.
So the Alice films and Maleficent, while definitely fitting into the macro trend of Disney remakes, are more like hybrid reboot/reimaginings, and as we’ve seen, have failed to make new ideas work. Don’t get me wrong, outside-the-box ideas are great for remakes, but the choices made in these two stories have fallen flat. When in doubt, both Alice and Maleficent portray pitched battles between armies that come off as Lord of the Rings-lite, seeming desperate for an edge they just can’t sharpen. So post-Maleficent, things aren’t looking so great at the moment for this remake experiment. But, just around the corner in 2015…
The Case For
The 1950 Cinderella stars cutesy mice as much as it does the title character, and sets up a familiar fairy tale framework. Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella takes it and runs with it, filling in character depth, casting impeccably, and ending up with an intoxicatingly beautiful film. Cinderella (Lily James) and Prince Charming/Kit (Richard Madden) are both rounded and their courtship is played for real, none of this snap-of-the-fingers romance of the original. No longer colorless paragons, both characters feel alive as well as noble. But even as the characters are respected, the more lavish and glitzy elements of the story are channeled as well; the dance at the ball is pure movie magic that gets me every time.
We saw in Maleficent the hesitance Disney had in placing a properly characterized villain in a lead role. Cinderella is a gold standard in updating a vintage villain correctly. There is no redemption for Cate Blanchett’s wicked stepmother Lady Tremaine, but at the same time there are moments of subtle sympathy for the character. The impeccably dressed Tremaine is defined by her ambition and cruelty, but equally her intellect.
Taking an old-fashioned fairy tale and populating it with strong characters, Cinderella is a platonic ideal of the Disney remake, respectful of the original but updated in enough respects that the 21st Century version has a life of its own.
Cue 2016’s Jungle Book. So how does the venerable animated original look today? The 1967 Jungle Book feels more like a loosey-goosey hangout movie than anything else. Laid back and virtually plotless, it’s sedately entertaining but struggles to cohere into a story. Its themes of man’s relation to nature are crippled by portraying most of the animal characters as oddly specific human caricatures, often out of swinging clubs or the British Raj occupying government of India; figures of white imperialism march in proximity to scat-singing jazz musicians.
Jon Favreau’s Jungle Book ditches the dated elements of the original to tell a straightforward adventure story with a precocious Mowgli traversing an actual plot, threatened by a vicious villain in Idris Elba’s Bengal tiger Shere Khan. This version, however, is first and foremost a technical marvel, using only the bare necessities of live-action elements in a lavish CGI production that as near as damn it convinces you it’s all happening for real.
With interesting themes of technology, an impressive ensemble cast playing the animals (the trio of villains are the best characters), and a believable jungle society that wasn’t there before, this Jungle Book improves on the original. And again, like Cinderella, it succeeds by using the original as a clear template and filling in the corners with innovation.
The Flavor of the Day
Which brings us to the tale of a boy and his dragon. In the 1977 Pete’s Dragon (distinct from the other originals discussed here because the dragon Elliott is the only animated element), the actors gurn and mug their way through a sub-Chitty Chitty Bang Bang musical which has its charms but is more weird than wonderful. The 2016 remake likewise features a boy named Pete and his pet dragon Elliott on the fringes of a small town, but otherwise there’s virtually no connection. Indeed, the remake represents a 180-degree about-face, as the over-the-top acting of the original is replaced by director David Lowery’s indie naturalism. The scatting, mumbling Elliott is replaced by a dignified furred dragon tailormade for plush merchandise. The pratfalling Mickey Rooney is outclassed by the wizened charms of Robert Redford.
Sonically, the off-off-Broadway musical numbers are ditched, but the original main theme’s rustic tenor is still appropriated in Daniel Hart’s score. (The only other link to the past is that the remake might’ve taken Elliott’s color-changing fur from an animation error in the original.) And the set-up of a boy and his pet dragon is raised to the level of high spectacle, as Hart’s indescribably soaring dragonriding theme scores Elliott’s triumphant flights.
The film isn’t trying to rock anyone’s world, but to tell a simple and emotional story. When it gets sentimental, it earns it. And when it just wants to get to the pure Disney magic of Elliott in flight, it’s flawless. (The ending, in particular, rates high on the “tears of joy” scale.) Pete’s Dragon represents an outlier in the world of Disney remakes. Like Alice and Maleficent, it absolutely distinguishes itself from what came before. But much more importantly, like Cinderella and The Jungle Book, it’s an upgrade in quality from the original and continues the studio’s winning streak.
Music as Metaphor
All five original films that have been remade are musicals. This is an interesting baseline because gradually more and more original songs are finding their way into these remakes. Alice in Wonderland uses none of the myriad throwaway songs from the original. Maleficent and Cinderella use the properties’ most iconic tunes only as end credits songs (From the former, “Once Upon a Dream” is hauntingly sung by Lana del Rey; From the latter, “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes” and “Bippity Boppity Boo” are sung by the actors in character). The Jungle Book continues the end credits tradition, but for the first time includes (incomplete) versions of original songs in the movie proper, sung by the actors.
While Pete’s Dragon is an anomaly in this progression, the future holds plenty of interest for Disney music fans. The imminent Beauty and the Beast, plus recently announced remakes of The Little Mermaid and The Lion King (the latter directed by Jungle Book helmer Favreau), will take the plunge into being full-on musicals. And not only will they include the original songs, but also bring back original composers such as Alan Menken and enlist hot new talent like Lin-Manuel Miranda to develop more songs in the established style.
The gradual willingness to integrate more and more classic songs into Disney remakes is a narrative that runs parallel with the way these 21st Century reimaginings have increased in quality. As they practice fidelity to the originals balanced with modern and welcome twists on character and story, they also incorporate more and more of the original sonic landscapes that have charmed generations. Don’t reinvent the wheel (narratively tortured Wonderland, goody two-shoes Maleficent), but complement the source material with the benefit of intelligent storytelling. As long as Disney learns from what didn’t work in Alice and Maleficent, and keeps striking the healthy balance of respecting originals and original thinking in Cinderella and The Jungle Book, their remake hot streak will continue. And it doesn’t hurt to put in the songs we all know and love to whistle while the movies work.