Disney to continue transforming animated classics into live-action films

Live-action remakes of classic Disney cartoons are crowding the slate at the moment. We have had Alice in Wonderland, Maleficent and most recently Cinderella, and the likes of The Jungle Book, Beauty and the Beast and Dumbo are just some of the stories set for the future. This isn’t a new phenomenon. In 1996, Disney released a live-action version of 101 Dalmatians with Glenn Close as Cruella De Vil. It wasn’t very good, but it did well enough to spawn a sequel four years later – the creatively named 102 Dalmatians. Now, almost twenty years later, Disney is hoping the flood the marketplace with remakes, alongside their animated output.

It is hard not to greet this news without a degree of cynicism. For some, it stems from an anxiety that their favourite childhood films will be desecrated by the new releases. For others, it reeks of a money-grabbing exercise, with little creativity needed to write the scripts and a guaranteed audience of eager children and their perhaps less enthusiastic parents. More will lament the lack of ingenuity in the studio – have we really run out of ideas completely?

There is, however, a bigger problem. Disney has a staggering command of the marketplace, with its more traditional branch just one of its many tentacles. Disney owns the Marvel films, which are set to dominate the comic book fans cinema diary until at least 2019. Disney also owns the Star Wars franchise, which will see one film come out every year for the foreseeable future. These aren’t films that will struggle for audiences. We know from the astonishing success of the Transformers movies that cinema-goers in the holidays aren’t the most discerning of audiences. Disney knows when to release their offerings to maximise audiences, and won’t be afraid of the competition thanks to the level of nostalgia that their films will generate.

Disney is playing a fairly low risk game.

Recycling popular stories and characters is one thing, but when you consider the high-calibre cast and crew that the big money studio is able to attract, it is impossible to think that people won’t flock to see these films time and time again. The star power is staggering. Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, the film which seems to have kick-started this new flood of remakes, had Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter and Anne Hathaway in its cast. Maleficent had Angeline Jolie. Beauty and the Beast has an amazing array of big names – Emma Watson, Emma Thompson, Stanley Tucci and Ian McKellen among them. The Jungle Book has even more stars, including Bill Murray as Baloo, Ben Kingsley as Bagheera, Scarlett Johansson as Kaa and Christopher Walken as King Louie.

In the director’s chair, the names equally impressive. The Jungle Book is being helmed by Jon Favreau (Iron Man, Elf). Tim Burton won’t return for the Alice in Wonderland sequel, but he’s making Dumbo instead. Kenneth Branagh directed Cinderella. It is no surprise that Disney is able to attract such reliable directors, but it raises an important question about their strategy.

We have seen directors in colossal movie franchises with their creative vision squashed by the demands of the studio. ‘Creative differences’ have been the nail in the coffin for many a potential director in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, for example. With these individual films, a director can’t have a vision that breaks with the overall tone of the collection. We have already seen, in the three most recent releases, distinct differences in tone and approach. Alice in Wonderland had the gothic edge that has become Burton’s calling card. Maleficent subverted the original film completely, and aimed for a darker tone. Branagh, meanwhile, stuck to a traditional telling of Cinderella, and it was no less successful.

You can judge a director by his box office figures or by his films, and it looks like Disney are going for the former.

Why then, when big audiences are a certainty and directors are allowed to pursue diverse visions, are Disney not using the opportunity to cultivate lesser known talent? I’m not asking them to pick someone off the street and put them in front of a camera, or to ask an unproven and unreliable hand to take over the filming. But there are many directors who have made good films without ever having a chance to have a real crack at the box office. You can judge a director by his box office figures or by his films, and it looks like Disney are going for the former. It is a shame that, instead of taking a risk – and it doesn’t have to be too much of a risk – they are going for the big names. In a year where diversity in the film industry has reared its head again, Disney is sticking with that same collection of middle-aged white men to tell their stories.

Disney seems incredibly eager to minimise risk. Anyone can get audiences to go to a film starring Jolie, Depp or Emma Watson. They’ve chosen their most reliable properties too. The risk involved in a Beauty and the Beast film is far less than that of a Black Cauldron remake. The biggest obstacle to audiences flocking to the cinemas is their fear that the films will let them down. Sticking to the same sort of formula will ensure that they turn up. That’s why the casting has been so predictable. If I told you that Bill Murray was going to be in The Jungle Book, you’d assume he was Baloo. If I told you Emma Thompson was in Beauty and the Beast, you’d assume she was Mrs Potts.

As a movie making behemoth, Disney has a responsibility to keep the industry from stagnating. Instead, it’s sticking to the old guard to maximise profits. Its as if Disney isn’t a film studio anymore. It’s a money-making machine. But who can blame them? We’ll all still troop off to the cinema to watch whatever they put out. And then they’ll do it all over again.

PHOTO/Walt Disney Co/Everett