Twelve years ago when I first heard that Disney was burning the midnight oil on a live-action version of its 1951 classic, Alice in Wonderland, in which the story is told of Alice and her journey down the rabbit hole in search of the anecdote to her curiosity, I was hard-pressed to think of the reasoning behind such a mammoth and magnificent animation house’s decision to compete against itself, to the point of pinning remake against classic–a classic that had quite literally played a role in establishing the brand from its infancy.
It was unsettling to learn that plans for the undo and redo of any Disney film were in development. But the fact that such a classic was among the first to be forced into the remake grinder . . .
Maybe I should have been able to decipher the writing on the wall: that this was only the beginning, that Alice was only the first to go, that this would be the new trend, the new normal for Disney. Disney–the most prolific, most creative, and most productive animated feature mill and purveyor of stories on earth.
The live-action version of Alice’s musings, ponderings, and time spent in a world of nonsense burst forth at the box office, and it had taken on far more than just a live-action aspect. It was the embodiment of an intentional, radical deviation from anything that resembled the beloved and charming Disney classic, a mainstay in so many fans’ childhoods.
Poor Alice. Poor Walt.
And, in usual the reimagined Alice story starred many of Hollywood’s elite. It left many of us scratching our heads. And it was full to the brim of imagery some fans considered inappropriate for the kind of audience who would have rushed to the movie house for the chance to take in the original version in 1951.
If I’m fully disclosed, I was completely puzzled by Burton’s offering. I felt like I imagine Alice must have felt in that crazy upside-down Wonderland world where everything was nonsense, where nothing was what it is because everything was what it isn’t, and contrariwise, what it was, it wasn’t, and what it wasn’t, it was–to loosely quote Alice from the original Disney classic.
But remakes don’t trump classics. They will never trump the classics. Remakes aren’t even on the same shelf with the classics. That’s what makes classics, by definition, classic.
Then came Maleficent.
The year is 2014, and the film is shocking. I found myself offended by the brazenness with which the film was delivered. It was as if Angelina Jolie herself had written Charles Perrault’s 17th-century tale upon which Disney’s rendition was based. This time it was personal; of all the classics in Disney’s glorious vault from 1937 forward, it is the 1959 telling of Aurora-turned-Briar-Rose-turned-Aurora again that cast a spell on me at the age of 4 when I first saw the film and from then forward required that the “” story be read to me nightly by my mother.
Sleeping Beauty is the singular most perfect piece of Disney greatness ever to grace the silver screen. Though Walt Disney Animation Studios touted the film as “six years in the making,” they were being humble, as production for Sleeping Beauty actually began in 1951, meaning the film took more than 8 years to finish. The production process was extremely intensive and painstakingly detailed. It was the last of the Disney films for which animation cels were traditionally inked.
For these reasons and others, the thought of a screenplay written to evoke feelings of empathy and compassion for Maleficent, the self-proclaimed “Mistress of All Evil” didn’t bode well.
And if you’ve seen the film, you know that it isn’t only a backstory for the beautiful villainess, but an edited, diluted take on the story of Princess Aurora as well. My favorite member of the Disney family of classics now lay on the proverbial cutting room floor, and for me, only the 1959 version would ever hold water.
Perhaps Charles Perrault would have felt similarly had he lived to see Mr. Disney’s animated take on his fairy tale, wherein only three fairies made the cut when Mr. Perrault’s own version had seven.
The day after my birthday in 2015, Disney released its live-action take on Walt’s beloved 1950 classic Cinderella at the theater, and the blue dress Miss wore as she portrayed a watered-down version of Cinderella at the royal ball made my skin crawl. It served as a symbol of the myriad of obnoxiously different differences between the 1950 original and the 2015
Sidenote: Disney’s 1950 Cinderella never wore a blue gown. Hers was white.
But it didn’t stop with Miss James and the fabricated blue dress.
The Jungle Book, 2016
In April 2016, Mowgli and company graced the big screen again for the first time since Walt’s death, excluding The Jungle Book 2, this time as a real boy and as CGI beings, respectively. And it felt blasphemous.
Though Jon Favreau was nearly knighted over the success of his 2016 take on Mowgli’s life story, many fans who respect the genius of Walt Disney were dumbfounded.
The decision on the part of the company named for Mr. Disney himself to allow anything to touch the film–the last film to ever have Walt’s fingerprints on it this side of Heaven was, at best, offensive, and at worst, a complete sacrilege. Walt worked tirelessly on the animated feature inspired by the works of Rudyard Kipling though he’d never live to see its theatrical debut. The film should have been placed into a vault, perhaps literally and figuratively. No remake should have befallen it.
The remakes just kept coming
Only a month and a half after the blasphemous release of Favreau’s Jungle Book attempt, as if to mock fans further and pour non-iodized salt into our proverbial wounds, Disney oversaw the materialization of a second Alice installment, this one more ghastly and macabre than the first. Alice Through the Looking Glass debuted at the box office, and it was anything but Alice.
It was also anything but successful. Tim Burton was MIA for the second Alice project, and whether for that reason or another, the film was one of the worst theatrical disasters of 2016, and among the top flops in Disney’s history. According to The Hollywood Reporter, it came in 70% behind the first “take 2” of Alice’s story.
Beauty and the Beast, 2017
In 2017, St. Patrick’s Day, a celebration of leprechauns, Irish heritage, and luck, proved unlucky indeed, as Disney released a new take on its 1991 animated feature about an inventor’s daughter and the hideous beast she came to love.
I won’t make the overstated argument that Emma Watson’s British accent was out of place and thus, detracted from the story. Belle is French, but as an American actress lent her voice to the animated feature, and made no attempt to offer Belle a French accent, I won’t take issue with Hermoine for sticking with the British. The accent doesn’t matter; my distaste for this remake is based on one simplicity: that classics aren’t to be remade.
Christopher Robin, 2018
In 2018, Disney released Disney added a human family to the mix, heartstrings were pulled upon, and again with the full disclosure: I gave Disney a pass on this one simply because it was an adorable film that featured Winnie the Pooh and Tigger.
Nobody can be uncheered by Pooh and Tigger.
2019: The year of Disney Remakes
Between 2014 and 2019, Disney ground down at least one of its powerhouse classics per year, and since 2019, the grinder has become more voracious, as it pulverizes more and more classics every year as the forecast of a neverending stream of remakes trails off before us into the future. It’s disgraceful. But in 2019 alone, more titles passed through the Disney remake grinder than in any year up to that point. Dumbo was released in March that year, but the makeover film about a flying pachyderm with ginormous ears irrefutably flopped, making it the second take-two in only 3 years to embarrass Walt’s Production House according to Deadline. Dumbo cost $170M to make and only brought in $119M.
Two months later, Disney’s humanized version of its 1992 animated feature Aladdin called on Will Smith to take the wheel from the late Robin Williams as Genie. And though the live-action story of Aladdin, Princess Jasmine, and the Fresh Prince Genie was one of the better remakes, the early-90s version simply needed no take-two, whether Smith was able to fill Williams’ shoes or not.
Disney released three more remakes that year, one directly to the brand new Disney+ platform on roll-out day. Fans got to witness, for the very first time, what Lady and her Tramp looked like in their furry forms, and the one thing I’ll say for the canine is that Disney did better in opting for live animals, as opposed to CGI-created characters. But if ever there were a Disney classic, surely Mr. Disney’s 1955 original, Lady and the Tramp, serves as the epitome. Why it was made over, I’ll never understand.
It was followed by a redo of Disney’s Mulan that faced delays as the coronapocalypse loomed over the earth before it found its way to fans, whether adoring or fuming by this point.
Walt would not be a fan
Some think that if Walt Disney had lived to see the era of the remakes, he would have looked the other way. Some think he would have been opposed. And since 2018, at least a small group of people firmly but erroneously believe that a clause in his will holds the studios legally bound in remaking the classics every 10 years, so much so that Snopes.com devotes an entire entry to the strange belief.
But I don’t believe Walt would have been pleased at all with the era of the Disney remake, and not just because I hope he wouldn’t. By his own admission, Walt Disney was not a fan of remakes, do-overs, or sequels.
“By nature, I’m an experimenter,” Walt was quoted as saying, “To this day, I don’t believe in sequels. I can’t follow popular cycles. I have to move on to new things. So with the success of Mickey, I was determined to diversify.”
Oxford defines an experimenter as “a person who tries out new ideas, methods, or activities.” Remaking classic versions of beloved masterpieces is quite the opposite of “trying out new ideas,” and it makes me think there has to be a reason for the new approach, and that reason can’t be solely for financial gain, as many of the remakes have cost the entertainment giant fortunes. So then I wonder if there’s a shortage of creativity and artistic mindset.
If so, perhaps therein lies Disney’s true dilemma. Could it be that Disney’s writers keep coming back from their own personal Idea ATMs, only to discover the Idea Accounts are overdrawn–overdrawn by years of corner-cutting and settling–two things with which Mr. Disney was never associated? And could it be that Disney’s writers, directors, and producers have applied the “corner-cutting” mindset to screenplays and profitability, trading the upside of a new and original idea for the promise of a quick turnaround and profit?
As Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother (in Walt’s 1950 film, of course) said it about miracles, so it can be said of original ideas: they take time.
Whether Disney’s new idea vault is empty, or movie makers see new ideas and the time it takes to create them as lost profitability, the fact remains that remakes don’t make every Disney fan happy, and for many of us who truly respect Walt’s work, it’s an egregious practice on the part of the Studios that feels watered down and counterfeit.
Mr. Disney wouldn’t be the first to have his organization willfully deviate from his ideals upon his passing, and it’s true that Walt didn’t write the original stories upon which many of his classic animated features are based. Lewis Carroll was Alice’s creator, Charles Perrault dreamed up the story of Princess Aurora asleep in a tower, and Rudyard Kipling told the tale of a little boy named Mowgli who was raised by jungle animals. But Walt only used ideas from those stories as the basis for new ones and told his animators to start creating and not to read the books upon which the stories were based. It was from this practice that truly original takes on old stories were born. That’s creativity. That’s ingenuity.
Why do the remakes keep happening, and what’s to become of Walt’s legacy?
In 2022 and beyond, Disney will roll out modernized, made over, live-action versions of Pinocchio, The Little Mermaid, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Bambi, Peter Pan, The Sword in the Stone, Robin Hood, Hercules, and The Aristocats, in addition to planned sequels to its earlier remakes, like a take 3 of Aladdin.