So, What’s the Problem with Disney Live Action Adaptations?

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Disney live-action remakes are generally very successful. Besides the occasional Dumbo or Pete’s Dragon, they’re on the whole very profitable. However, even when they achieve high financial success, they don’t typically hold a place in the popular consciousness. More often than not, we reference, think about, and revisit the original animated films far more often than their live-action counterparts. But why is the Disney magic gone from these adaptations? And how can the company continue forward with more?

It seems like there’s a four-stage cycle to the live-action Disney films based on existing animations. First, Disney announces it, inviting equal amounts of excitement and scorn. Second, the marketing likewise invokes a mixed response, with some loving the redesigns of classic animated characters and settings while others criticize them. Third, there is the release that typically brings a mixed critical range from bad, to good, and to even the occasional “very good.” On top of that, the film typically makes several hundred million dollars or even over a billion dollars as Beauty and the Beast achieved.

But something interesting happens in the fourth stage. More often than not, we and even Disney forget about these live-action films. Take a moment to think about “Beauty and the Beast” or “Alice in Wonderland.” While each is exceptionally successful in their live action versions, we tend to reference their animated counterparts first or only. The original Belle, Alice, and Beast are who we imagine, not their live actors. This is because the animations embed themselves not only in our consciousness but also in our popular culture.

Speaking for myself as a lifelong Disney fan, whenever I have an inkling to watch an animated film with a live-action counterpart, I’ll opt for the former. I do this because I know the quality of the particular story is simply better than anything the live-action attempted. On the whole, this is how I’m feeling with the new Aladdin. It was good for what it was and even did some new great things with Jasmine, but ultimately it just made me want to go watch the original animated version. A lot of this is because there is a sense of magic that’s lost in translation.

The broad majority of live-action remakes have not held a place in the popular consciousness because we, as audiences, know where the full degree of magic and imagination lie: the original animated films. Too often these live-action films want to distinguish themselves as “grounded” when all they are is drab. They use the music and scenery of the original films that sparked such wonder in us as kids but without the imaginative spark that made us love them.

In particular, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin attempted to introduce half-baked dramatic backstories for their leads that ended up being bland and unnecessary, especially when juxtaposed with the splendor of a “Be Our Guest” or an “A Whole New World” musical sequence. These attempts didn’t fit with the creative and expansive imagination the stories fundamentally require. I’d rather see Jasmine and Aladdin unrealistically hold clouds in the sky rather than stay close to the ground–it’s fake and imaginative and that’s why we love it!

It’s as though the Disney Corporation believes that to make these new live-action films more palatable to audiences they have to introduce “grittier” or “more realistic” elements. This is a fundamentally misplaced calculus since audiences of all ages still love the original animated films. We still show them to our kids, we often watch them as adults, and their images are most often the Disney GIFs we use in our communication.

But the best piece of evidence against this is that the numerous musical productions based on animated films are extremely popular and rarely sell themselves on gritty realism. As audiences, we want the magic, the splendor, the extravagance, and escapism that Disney films provide. While the live action films are not necessarily “bad,” their rejection, to one degree or another, of what made their original versions so memorable is. Ultimately the new live-action films are mostly shot for shot remakes with a splash of realism that feels unearned and random.

This is disappointing, especially when the live action versions could expand and improve on the originals. While the animated Aladdin remains substantially better as a whole than its live-action version, the latter improved upon it by having people of color actually portraying the Middle Eastern characters. However, its Western-centric creative team had little to no respect for the cultures they painted on the screen. This resulted in a mix and mismatch of Eastern cultures and ultimately resulted in a product that was more problematic in its Orientalism than its animated original. When it could have improved by giving meaningful representation, it in fact regressed in key areas.

The new Aladdin was a prime opportunity to celebrate Arab culture and the Middle East, and actually involve Arab and Middle Eastern creators to tell this story with authentic elements. Instead, we got a drab, simplistic, and unimaginative Western interpretation of the region that would have Edward Said roll in his grave.

Ultimately, the problem with most of the live-action remakes has been an unwillingness to take creative risks. Even when Disney does allow filmmakers to introduce new elements, they are, more often than not, half-baked ideas that don’t add much to the overall narrative. While we learn more about Jasmine and Belle’s mothers and how they died, their stories are by and large unchanged from the original films, and they have almost the exact same roles they did before. Jasmine is given an empowering song with “Speechless” and we learn why Belle’s father took her away to a small town from a big world, but the narratives are the same.

The same goes for Aladdin and The Beast. We learn more about their backstories but this doesn’t affect the plot in any meaningful way. It’s as though the filmmakers thought that adding backstory equals good storytelling, when really these are facts you’d find in a Wikipedia article, not plot points. They could be interesting and help drive the plot, but the writers of these films simply don’t put in the effort. They expect it to sell anyway because it’s an already beloved classic story, and a little more information is their addition.

However, the live action version of Cinderella and Maleficent (based off of Sleeping Beauty) have mostly avoided these pitfalls, and retained a place in the pop culture, with the latter film producing a sequel to come out this year. These films, unlike their fellow live-actions, took many creative risks, deviating and distinguishing themselves from their animated counterparts.

Cinderella wasn’t a musical and gave significant new depth to almost all its characters, especially the Wicked Stepmother, played to great effect by the iconic Cate Blanchett. The set design, new music, and fundamental differences from its original counterpart allowed it to stand on its own while bringing and maintaining a distinct sense of magic and wonder in areas like costuming. Even though it was mostly a shot for shot remake, the distinctly different dialogue between characters and the consistent involvement of their backstories into their journeys made for an overall delightful film. 

On the other hand, Maleficent completely reinvented the story of Sleeping Beauty and made the titular villain a protagonist and made a rather touching narrative about the power of female love and companionship, even if the critical results were mixed. Maleficent became more of a sympathetic and complicated protagonist whose backstory played a very active role in her and Princess Aurora’s stories. Taking this risk, to build out a side character, a villain, ultimately, paid off. The film’s excellent box office results, combined with its liberties in adapting the Sleeping Beauty story, allowed new stories to be told and helped guarantee its sequel to continue them.

These two live action films didn’t focus or care about staying faithful to the animated sources. Instead, Cinderella and Maleficent aimed to stand out on their own and succeeded with genuinely unique interpretations of their respective stories. But their successes led to Disney promoting and greenlighting the current wave of live actions.

Ultimately, it’s sad that the other live action films didn’t take the memo. There could have been some imaginative and creative results to spark them as new modern classics. We’ll see how the upcoming Lion King fares, and if its director Jon Favreau will make something memorable on its own merits.

At this point, it seems like Disney is selling these live-action remakes as a nostalgic cash grab and little else. Besides the occasional imaginative remake that sparks our imagination, as a collective audience, our retention for these movies is thin. Additionally, this business strategy is inherently limited. The studio is going to run out of nostalgically treasured films to remake. If they do continue this strategy they have to make them actual reimaginings like Cinderella and Maleficent. Originality, to whatever degree they have it, always sells better in the long run.