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Disney has always been associated with cinematic magic, as their specialty is bringing the stories of our childhoods into living, breathing life through animation. Though in the company’s recent years, that magic has turned its focus to the live-action market as well, with almost a decade of revising animated classics into more realistic, live-action tales. At this weekend’s D23, there were four live-action adaptations on the board in the coming years: Dumbo, The Lion King, Aladdin, and Mulan. Each film is equally important in the Disney canon, and each needs to keep the following lesson in mind when becoming a “real” movie: don’t forget to innovate.
Doing something different with a live-action adaptation is key to the success of a Disney live-action film, as just adapting the story wholesale will cause a lot of problems in the long run. While Beauty and The Beast was a smash hit for Disney this past March, there are still some that mock the film for playing it way too safe. With only a handful of new songs, and not a lot of difference between the animated classic and its recent revamp, there wasn’t enough new material to distance the two films. Yes, the film was a financial success, but if these complaints aren’t addressed, it’ll cause bigger problems along the way.
Lest we forget, there was once an era where Disney looked through its catalog of classics and fables, and launched into a seemingly endless cycle of direct to video sequels. These cheaply animated, and mostly sub-par films managed to tarnish the reputation of the studio’s animated branch, with Cinderella, The Little Mermaid, and Peter Pan all taking what were undoubtedly the biggest hits in the whole experiment. Not that there’s anything wrong with making a sequel to a beloved classic, but if you’re going to try and grab that brass ring, you should have a good, story-based reason to do so. If Disney’s not careful, their live-action adaptations could become the next direct-to-video crisis.
A good example of a film that adapted its source material into a fantastic live-action product is the Jon Favreau-directed version of The Jungle Book. Rather than make a cookie-cutter adaptation of the classic musical we all know and love, Favreau’s variant turned the film into an epic quest of Mowgli’s, complete with more backstory and a ton more action. And yet, two of the film’s classic songs, “I Wanna Be Like You,” and “The Bare Necessities,” still made appearances, which enhanced the film’s classic appeal. But at the same time, you got to see a lot more to the story of Mowgli that the animated version never gave you, so there was a purpose behind the film existing.
Not so coincidentally, if there’s a new and unique reason for your live-action adaptation to exist, then there’s just as much incentive for your audience to show up. In the case of The Jungle Book, the audience surely showed up, as it became one of 2016’s highest grossing films, which lead to Disney’s unprecedented success in that same year. With projects like the Cruella De Vil prequel to 101 Dalmatians still on the books at Disney, it doesn’t look like it’ll all be carbon copies in the future. Not to mention, Dumbo is in Tim Burton’s hands, and like the results or not, his Alice in Wonderland took the project in a fresh direction that didn’t simply follow the road most travelled. So there’s still hope in the Disney live-action canon, but it’s a hope that needs to be reinforced.
Disney has gotten to this point of success with their live-action remakes by invoking the familiar, while at the same time taking chances. It’s a factor that shouldn’t be easily ignored, and yet with Beauty and The Beast, it feels like it could disappear in favor of chasing the next big hit. Though if our own Conor Schwerdtfeger’s report on the opening number to Jon Favreau’s The Lion King is any indication, our worries aren’t justified, and we’ll be in for some magical times yet. However, we’ll close with a simple restatement of what we’re concerned about, so that way if anyone feels the temptation to cave into a simple remake, they can be lead back to the right path.
The moment that the powers that be forget the Disney legacy of innovation and creatively adapted storytelling is the exact moment that these live-action adaptations become the new Direct to Video Sequels of the Disney world. And you can ask anyone, especially the fans of Disney, as well as the studio’s creative director John Lasseter, and they’ll tell you, that is an era that the studio would never want to return to.
The Lion King takes its place in the circle of remade life, on July 19, 2018, with Dumbo landing on March 29, 2019, and both Aladdin and Mulan awaiting formal release dates of their own.
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