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.
Making a splash at 2014’s Sundance Film Festival was this quirky little indie dramedy delight, Frank. Domhnall Gleeson stars as audience surrogate Jon Burroughs, who finds himself caught up in the wild and inscrutable world of indie experimental band Soronprfbs. Now a new hire on keyboards, Jon finds himself antagonized by unbalanced Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and fascinated by enigmatic lead singer Frank (Michael Fassbender), who never takes off his papier-mâché head. And so Jon begins to constantly wonder “what goes on inside that head inside that head”.
Frank engages its central theme with a laser focus. Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan’s script interrogates our cultural narrative/myth of the musical genius fueled by things like an early trauma or an abusive upbringing. Title character Frank (whose fake head is inspired by real-life comedian Chris Sievey’s Frank Sidebottom persona) fits a stereotype that protagonist Jon actually finds himself jealous of. Jon, an amateur songwriter himself, voices a half-joking wish that he could have had a troubled childhood to unlock the key of musical inspiration. The film plays with this familiar idea brilliantly, and the realization of the truth about Frank is poignant and tragic.
But what I haven’t touched on so far is the humor, which can hit both subtle and side-splitting. The film had me laughing within two minutes, and though I can’t call the film a laugh riot, it balances its humor with its pathos very well, even if it leans very hard into the latter in what you might call a “downer ending”. It is a downer, but absolutely necessary to the story being told here.
The other major concern of the story is a broader satire of indie rock, as Frank is torn in two directions by two bandmates. Protagonist Jon represents the route to mainstream popularity, with his understanding of pop hooks and promotion. Frank’s muse Clara represents the purity of independent music making, the credibility of a hipster’s world of unpronounceable band names and pretentious artistry that even the artist can’t interpret. But both Jon and Clara describe their music as “happy”. The journey of the band’s music tracks throughout the film; when, under Jon’s encouragement, Frank plays for the band “his most likable song ever”, the result is one that amuses me to no end. Your mileage may vary, but I think it’s hilarious.
The character Frank is a great creation, infused with an undeniable screen presence even without the use of Fassbender’s face. Maggie Gyllenhaal also excels as the unpleasant Clara, giving her all to a role she admitted she didn’t “understand” at first. Post-Harry Potter, Gleeson proves he can carry a film, although he doesn’t have much of a load to bear given the fact that director Lenny Abrahamson and editor Nathan Nugent make each shot and each scene carry its weight in furthering the story.
Frank is not for every taste, but it knows exactly what it wants to do, and carries its themes through to their logical conclusions with great insight, humor and drama. The cast is uniformly solid, with the three central standouts sealing the deal of a well-made and substantial mix of amusement and aching drama. 8/10.
“Think before you act, son.” – Caesar, to his son Blue Eyes.
It is ten years after the end of Rise of the Planet of the Apes. A global pandemic, along with self-destructive martial law and civil unrest, have wiped out 90% of Earth’s human population. And in Muir Woods, a sentient colony of apes are establishing a civilization of their own. When human survivors living in San Francisco encounter the apes, will peace or war prevail in the end? And, for another question, can this film live up to the brilliance of its predecessor?
The short answer is, well, not really… but it was certainly a tough act to follow. I’m afraid explaining why Dawn falls shorter will necessitate contrasting the two films, so before I do my duty and discuss Dawn as a distinct film on its own terms, I’ll get the SPOILER-tinged comparisons out of the way first. I apologize for the length of this, my first full-blown rant on this blog.
Rise vs. Dawn Rant Segment (with SPOILERS)
Okay, we have to talk about Koba. He’s the villain of Dawn. You know something that was pretty great in Rise? THERE WAS NO VILLAIN. I get it, Koba was tortured, and that sucks for him, but what it means for Dawn is that we’re stuck with this one-note villain with no real motivation other than to stir his own blood for violence. He loses the moral high ground of protecting his fellow apes when he starts f***ing shooting and murdering other apes!!! He’s just an id. That’s ALL. It’s just something like whiplash when, after Rise primed us to expect shades of grey, we get a character like Koba in the sequel. Let me tell you, it is so profoundly satisfying seeing Caesar call Koba out on his bullshit.
The broader problem with this sequel is that while Rise had a multi-layered emotional resonance in a story that felt fresh, Dawn feels like a much more stale and worn story. Dawn is a story of the Other, it’s about fragile peace and terrible war and it’s all things that aren’t particularly interesting when you get right down to it. It doesn’t play out badly, but replace some of the names and look at the underlying story and you don’t have anything special. In Rise, we were following the unique emotional tug and pull within Caesar, and external skirmishes that never felt gratuitous because we were engaged on both sides of the conflict. The climax of Rise was a twist on monster movies, with complex emotions being played with. The war in Dawn, and especially Koba’s place in it, just feels like a big downer. Don’t get me wrong, the spectacle is stunning, but jeez! And what are they going to do in the next sequel? Just have a pure war movie? God, I hope not. Think of something better! It’s like Rise was this fantastic set-up for sequels that have written themselves into a corner, because what can come of this situation but desperate violence? Anyways, I’ll calm down now.
Dawn on its own terms
I appreciate the lengths to which the apes are focused on here. We get an excellent sense of their fledgling society, and Andy Serkis brings incredible weight to the role of ape leader Caesar in his motion-capture performance. Serkis gets top billing in this film, and boy howdy does he deserve it. His performance is passionate and understated at the same time. And he made me tear up near the end. Hats off to you, Mr. Serkis. The film is bookended by extreme close-up shots of Caesar’s eyes, poetically playing off of the events of the film very well. The film’s most indelible images indeed belong to the apes. This is a film where apes gallop on horses and fire machine guns. At the same time!
But this purposeful focus on the apes makes the human side of things suffer a bit by comparison. The human cast in this film don’t suffer from inadequate screen time, but they do suffer from inadequate interest. Gary Oldman, Keri Russell, blandly likable Jason Clarke; the human characters in this film are, well, fine, but nothing more. No human role is very meaty to begin with, and even with the actors giving it the old college try, they still don’t make much of an impact.
Getting back to the good, you ironically see more of San Francisco in this film, after the apocalypse, than you did in Rise. It’s a very engaging device for those familiar with the city. The war set pieces, despite my issues ranted about above, are stunning. The motion-capture is fantastic. Michael Giacchino delivers a solid score ranging from controlled cacophony to his trademark piano work.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, though a lot less nuanced than its predecessor, remains a solid film. Excuse the length of my rant on some of my issues with the film, but these are opinions I stand behind. Looking forward, I really, really hope the next installment in 2017 goes for the unexpected. But one thing I will expect is for Andy Serkis to remain amazing. The main takeaway from Dawn is his performance, and it makes up for other shortcomings in this technologically accomplished effort. A weak 7/10.
P.S.: In this film, Jason Clarke gets some thespian training as a figure of post-apocalyptic human authority, in a world where there is a threat of humans being caged like cattle. He’ll put all that to use when he plays John Connor in Terminator Genisys. And speaking of that (bad) title, it instantly brings to mind the San Francisco biotechnology company Gen-Sys, prominently featured in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and casting a shadow on the Dawn.
Director Tim Burton returns, not with his usual self-conscious kookiness, but with a sober true-life story: Margaret Keane’s journey from enabler of her con artist husband to courtroom victor. The point of controversy? Margaret’s “big-eyed” paintings of children, claimed by her husband Walter as his own work. They are works that society defines by their kitsch, but which carry great personal value to her.
Big Eyes is a portrait of an emotionally abusive relationship, but with a payoff that reflects the film’s constant brightness and sunshine. As for the spouses themselves, leads Amy Adams as Margaret Keane and Christoph Waltz as Walter Keane play off each other very well, in part because they are so polar in their performance styles. Adams is reserved, ever radiating wounded pride, and with a lot going on that’s internal. Waltz is gregarious and so very external. He infuses Walter with a gee-whiz lunacy that is certainly… unique. At times he goes so far over the top he resembles something of a painted figure himself, but by all accounts the real Walter Keane really was like that, so I’ll just run with it. Waltz’ showiness complements Adams’ internalized performance well.
But her character’s restraint informs the film as a whole as well. In the film’s second act, wherein Walter is taking credit for Margaret’s paintings unchallenged, there is a lot of superficial talk about the inspiration for these strange paintings. But Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski’s script never delves into Margaret’s true inspiration for them. In the context of the film, the paintings are an arbitrary quirk, an element with potential for effective development that goes untouched. Screenwriters Alexander and Karaszewski previously collaborated with Burton on his only other film based on true events, 1994’s Ed Wood. That is certainly the best Burton film I’ve seen, and Big Eyes struggles to recapture that magic. The title character in Ed Wood is so vividly realized, with perfectly articulated dreams and eccentricities. Margaret Keane could have desperately used some of that insight. Her reactiveness could have been balanced with more depth of character.
For his part, I venture to say that Tim Burton has a personal attachment to the story of this film. In 1991, Burton actually commissioned the real Margaret Keane for a painting of his then-wife Lisa Marie; later he did the same for his partner Helena Bonham Carter. Thus a sense of responsibility follows Burton to this film, but this respect does not help the film stand out. It is a story told well enough, but nothing more. It is efficient, not extraordinary, safe rather than stunning.
I don’t mean to be reductive, as there are worse things a film can be than efficient. And you could very validly make the argument that Big Eyes is not trying to blow your socks off, but rather tell its story with a minimum of bells and whistles. It is a very good production. The heightened color and compositions contribute to the atmosphere, and there is a fantastic sense of place (1950s and 60s San Francisco and Hawaii). Lana del Rey’s title song, though perhaps oddly placed in a film with such a firm sense of its own time period, is effective and ethereal (that’s twice in 2014 she’s positively contributed to a film’s soundtrack; her cover of “Once Upon a Dream” in Maleficent is one of the only things I like in that mangled movie). The supporting cast (Jason Schwarzman, Krysten Ritter, Terence Stamp) do able work, with Schwarzman’s art snob being the standout.
So Big Eyes is a mixed bag, but defined more by a lack of true spark than anything actively wrong with the final product. Amy Adams gives a very strong central performance; it’s just a shame she didn’t have a little more to work with. It’s a refreshing Tim Burton film, coming after some of his more overblown 21st Century epics. Just don’t expect Ed Wood. A weak 6/10.