By: Ines Laimeche
Whether you love, hate, or love to hate Disney’s live-action recreations of classic animated films, there seems to be no escaping talk about them. Over the course of October, I rewatched several of the most major live-action adaptations from Disney from the last 6 years (Maleficent, Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King, and Mulan). I wanted to answer the question that’s always been in the back of my mind—why has Disney devoted more and more time and energy over the last ten years into these remakes, and what could this mean for the future?
To start, none of these movies are artistic failures. To save from wasting time on individual tangents for each of these movies, I will agree with the critics that the visuals, costume design, and musical score in Disney’s remakes are their strongest points. But the problem with these films that keep them from being universally loved is that they lack what a movie on its own needs most—an individual voice. Several remakes (Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, most notably) were noted to be incredibly similar to their animated source material, with little or no added development to any of the characters or the story overall. To their credit, however, films like Cinderella (my personal favorite), escape this issue by either finding a way to insert actual depth to originally one-dimensional characters without altering the storyline in a major way, as Cinderella does. Or it can go the route of Maleficent and turn the story on its head altogether by looking at it from a new perspective. By doing this, Cinderella and Maleficent both often escape the criticisms that remakes get, and are both genuinely good films on their own. They laid the groundwork for how remakes of classic films should work. However, for whatever reason (be that the higher-ups at Disney or the makers of the films themselves), nearly all of the remakes that followed went in a completely different direction.
But that’s not to say that the films that didn’t follow the paths of the more objectively better remakes weren’t completely unsuccessful—with the exception of this year’s Mulan, all of the aforementioned remakes were incredibly commercially successful, often becoming one of the highest-grossing movies of its release year. Some of them, such as The Lion King, even made it onto the list of highest-grossing films of all time. No matter the actual artistic merit of these films, people have continuously decided to see them in theatres. Not to sound like a broken record, but once again—why?
From my perspective, nearly all of these movies prove over and over that often they only have two things going for them more than anything else—a celebrity cast and the ever-alluring nostalgia factor. The Lion King, for example, garnered much buzz for its all-star cast including the names of Beyoncé, Donald Glover, Keegan Michael-Key, and so many more. No doubt celebrity appeal is an important element, but the element of nostalgia is as well, if not more. Very few people can escape the joyous jolt of familiarity that comes with hearing a song from your childhood in something packaged as new (even if it, at its core, is not) or seeing a character that you identified on the big screen once again. Using nostalgia to bring audiences in borders on ingenuine from its makers, but it is certainly effective.
Relying on nostalgia is certainly not a tactic that Disney’s remakes alone are using—a significant amount of movies that have come out in recent years seem to be reboots, or sequels. All three of these types of films use the ever-prevalent public yearning for escapism, to go back to a more idyllic time when life seemed to be simpler. The COVID-19 pandemic (along with everything else that’s happened in 2020) has seemed to ramp this desire up tenfold, and that is why I believe that no matter how bad many of these remakes, reboots, or sequels have been, they will, ultimately, continue to do so for the foreseeable future.