Disney: Why the Live Action Remakes Don’t Work

Screenshot of Pinocchio as voiced by Benjamin Evan Ainsworth and Tom Hanks as Geppetto from ‘Pinocchio’. Copyright goes to Walt Disney Pictures.

Hey! Hallie here!

Disney has been relentless with their live action remakes. It seems like every animated classic is, at this point, destined for a needless remake. And most of them are indeed needless. Why remake an already beloved movie if there isn’t much to add to the story? Not many Disney fans can answer that question, nor is Disney doing a good job of justifying the existence of any of their live action projects by answering the question themselves. In other words, these movies are clear cash grabs with no value. But why are they so bad? Why does something that could be so harmless rub so many people the wrong way? Let’s talk about where these movies fall flat and why they feel so awful. Before I jump into this, note this post is more a dig at ‘Pinocchio’ than ‘The Little Mermaid’. ‘The Little Mermaid’ already holds importance due to Black representation, and for that I’m rooting for it.

Retelling the Same Stories:

Not all Disney live action projects fall into this category, but a good majority of them do. The recent ‘Pinocchio’ is an excellent example of this, as are ‘Beauty and the Beast’, ‘Aladdin’, and ‘The Lion King’. These movies don’t do anything at all to differentiate themselves from their original movies aside from a few song changes and new actors stepping into the roles. Which makes them all completely redundant. What’s especially painful about ‘Beauty and the Beast’ or ‘The Lion King’ though, is that they’re Renaissance Disney films. In other words, their live action counterparts are remakes of films that Disney made in their prime. When they first showed mastery of deep characters, meaty storylines, and Broadway-style plot progression. So they already got as much out of the characters and the story as they could have when they released the first films. There isn’t anywhere else to go with them unless you were to completely change the plot, which sometimes does work but is very clearly not what any of these films are attempting. Add to that the fact that ‘The Lion King’ isn’t technically live action anyways because it’s all CGI, or the fact that the majority of the ‘Beauty and the Beast’ cast had to be autotuned because they couldn’t sing the songs well enough, and you have a long list of bad decisions to add to these already uninspired films. This category has an exception, however. ‘Cinderella’ gets a pass for actually expanding on the characters in the film. They draw out the romance between Cinderella and Charming enough to make it stand out, and because it’s a remake of a really early Disney film, it allows for deeper-feeling characters.

Missing the Point:

Some of the live action remakes we see take enough liberties with the story that it doesn’t feel like I could turn on the original and get the same, if not better, experience. But that doesn’t make these remakes good, necessarily. Enter movies like ‘Mulan’ or ‘Dumbo’. While these movies follow a similar plot as the original, they have aspects to them that feel completely new. Except these aspects undermine the entire storyline of the movie. In ‘Mulan’ this manifests as a further exploration of Mulan’s femininity and strength. But her strength comes from “chi” rather than from her own abilities as they do in the original film. And the effort to focus on her femininity ends in many conversations about how men treat Mulan, bringing the conversation back to the men, instead of a focus on how Mulan’s femininity empowers her. I mean, we all know at this point that the movie failed the Bechdel test despite very clear efforts to pass it. Then there’s ‘Dumbo’, which manages to bury a heartwarming story about an elephant who is treated as an outcast learning to find his confidence, behind a family drama starring two little kids. At some point Dumbo doesn’t even feel like the main character anymore. A notable exception to this category is ‘The Jungle Book’, which, like the above movies, tells the story of the original movie with enough exceptions to feel different. These exceptions are extremely good, though, expanding on all of the characters and the lore to the point that it feels more epic in scale than the original.

Leaving the Original Too Far Behind:

This is actually my favorite category of Disney’s live action movies. Movies like ‘Maleficent’, ‘Cruella’, and ‘Alice in Wonderland’ all feel completely unique. In fact, ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and ‘Maleficent’ started the trend of Disney making as many live action remakes as possible, and I didn’t hate it when it began. These films aren’t perfect, however. ‘Maleficent’ and ‘Cruella’ both suffer from overly-simplistic plots that take up too much effort to explain how these characters became known as villains. ‘Cruella’s examples are the most fun to pick on because they’re the most ridiculous. I mean, Dalmatians kill her mother? Really? That’s how we’re going to justify her skinning puppies? There’s also the strange reveal that Cruella gifted Pongo and Perdita to Roger and Anita, which just doesn’t make any sense. On the other hand, ‘Maleficent’ does everything it can to prove our title character isn’t the villain and isn’t responsible for the majority of the things we saw in the original movie, which is clever at parts but reaching at others. ‘Alice in Wonderland’ is a completely different beast entirely. It fleshes out Wonderland lore with more content from the original book, ages up all the characters, and presents a giant war between kingdoms that ends in the beheading of a large beast. It’s probably the least kid-friendly movie here and does attempt a bit too much. But it’s hard not to get caught up in the whimsy presented in it. As I said, these movies feel more justified and more enjoyable. Just not perfect. No exceptions in this section. These movies all have their pros and cons.

And that’s it! I left out a few movies from this post, but I don’t regret ignoring the more forgettable ones. There’s one giant exception to this entire post, though. That would be ‘Christopher Robin’, a movie that’s technically considered to be a Disney live action remake but doesn’t quite operate that way. It doesn’t really match up to Disney’s ‘The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh’, its storyline is more unique than any of the movies I mentioned, and it’s by far the best movie I’ve mentioned in this post. If you watch nothing else from what I’ve discussed, watch ‘Christopher Robin’. But that’s the thing. ‘Christopher Robin’ is worth watching because it has its own identity. The other movies on this list can’t say the same. Because of that I and many other Disney fans are tired of seeing live action remakes. I really hope ‘The Little Mermaid’ does its best to set itself apart because I very much want it to do well, but I can’t help but be exhausted by these constant, blatant examples of a lack of creativity.

Don’t do anything fun until I get back!


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