Last summer I took a dive into Disney’s recent trend of remaking their animated classics into these effects laden live action blockbusters and the mixed to negative results that’s provided. Honestly I found the movies we were given to be a bit (and I mean a small bit) more eclectic than I expected as the studio experimented a bit to see what audiences wanted out of these movies. But it ended on an ominous note as we got 2017’s Beauty and the Beast, which is the movie that really exhausted whatever patience critics had with this trend and really marked them as something of a plague. But that’s also when Disney decided to put the petal to the metal: in the last two years of the decade they put out as many live action remakes as they did in the entire rest of the decade combined including remakes of some pretty sacred cows. 2019 in particular was a year that was just rotten with them, like they knew audiences were going to get sick of the fad so they just wrung it dry. So, without further ado let’s finish this up.
Christopher Robin (2018)
Though they are generally thought of as being money machines there have definitely been Disney remakes that have more or less landed with thuds. One of them, seemingly, was the 2018 Winnie the Pooh riff Christopher Robin which sure seemed to just “come and go” in theaters. Looking at the actual numbers you see that the movie actually made a respectable $99 million domestically and about as much internationally so it certainly wasn’t the flop it felt like but there certainly wasn’t enthusiasm for it. That’s partly because the film just feels like something of a misbegotten concept in general. On one hand it feels like one of the few Disney remakes with some legitimate creativity behind it rather than a straightforward remake: rather than simply presenting familiar animal antics in the Hundred Acre Woods but in CGI this time the team here (including screenwriters Alex Ross Perry and Tom McCarthy) sought to tell some sort of story about innocence lost by having an adult Christopher Robin rediscover these characters… seems promising, but what they forgot was that this is Winnie the fucking Pooh we are talking about. Pooh is a Disney IP that isn’t just for kids, it’s for babies, and the exceptionally young audiences that this movie would attract are likely to be bored by all this angst about an adult Christopher Robin while any adults who might find some interest in that are not going to go to something in this franchise unless dragged by very young children.
Of course this plot about a kid from a famous children’s story growing up to forget his former adventures while neglecting his children to dedicate too much time to work might sound familiar and that’s because it’s basically the setup to Hook in many ways. I thought it was pretty tired when that movie indulged in the this “shaming fathers for working too hard” trope way back in 1991 but it’s absolutely ridiculous to build an entire movie around it in the 2010s. I hate this trope both because it’s overused but also because it absolutely reeks of privilege. I’m sure it resonates to studio heads working long hours despite already being millionaires but most people being forced to neglect their family isn’t some voluntary decision that they can opt out of after being visited by three ghosts or something and I’m sure those people aren’t very happy about Hollywood constantly telling their kids “if your father really loved you he’d walk out on his boss.” The movie even seems like it should have some self-awareness about this given it’s weird ending in which Robin somehow convinces his boss that giving his employees more vacation time will solve their financial woes (good luck selling that one in real life). Beyond that the film is just kind of boring and forgettable. The film actually got a surprise Academy Award nomination for its visual effects, which I can maybe see an argument for as the animals (which are depicted as living stuffed animals here) do seem to interact with reality pretty seamlessly, but it’s not otherwise a terribly interesting movie visually and I just didn’t really care about any of the characters. Not the worst of these Disney remakes but probably the most forgettable and the one the world was least interested in.
** out of Five
Mary Poppins Returns (2018)
Unlike a lot of the remakes that Disney suddenly jumped on when they became trendy, the company had actually been trying to make “sequel to Mary Poppins” happen for a while. In fact they wanted to do a sequel right away after the box office success of the first movie but author P. L. Travers would not let them given her objections to the first film (which you can see chronicled in the Tom Hanks/ Emma Thompson film Saving Mr. Banks). They tried again in the late 80s but again Travers proved to be stubborn and irascible well into her old age. The old bat finally croaked in 1996 so by the time Disney began exploiting every last piece of IP in the 2010s the door was open and after Disney approached director Rob Marshall in 2015 things came together pretty quickly. The film they envisioned would be something more akin to a “Legacyquel” (meaning something that’s technically a sequel to a previous franchise but which feels like a reboot) than a true remake and picks up 25 years after the first film with one of the kids having grown up to be kind of fiscally irresponsible and is about to get his house foreclosed on if they can’t find the bank shares that have been misplaced. I would suggest that these people need an estate lawyer more than they need a nanny, but like in the first movie Mary Poppins manifests and starts to get up in everyone’s business.
Now, if you’ve been following this Disneyology series you’ll know that I’m no fan of the original Mary Poppins and in that capacity I actually think this sequel is a slight improvement. The episodic adventures that Poppins takes the kids on generally feel a bit stronger here, there generally seem to be higher stakes to the story, and the film’s music is a bit more to my taste than the songs in the original. Having said all that, this is still a movie that’s very much meant to invoke that original film and please its fans and that is a problem because there are things about this franchise I just can’t stand. The whole franchise just seems to rest on these annoyingly wholesome stories about precious little moppets you want to kill and that’s the case here. I would also say that all this drama around the home foreclosure is kind of silly given that Mary Poppins herself seems to have borderline omnipotent power and could theoretically solve all these problems with a snap of her fingers but doesn’t, presumably because she’s trying to teach this family some kind of lesson but I’m not sure what because they basically just get saved by a deus ex machina anyway. Setting personal taste aside I would say that this probably is made with a little more class and care than your average Disney remake, but even the most successful remake of this movie was not going to be my cup of tea.
**1/2 out of Five
Out of the many remakes that Disney had lined up for 2019 Dumbo actually seemed like the one that had the most potential to me. The original Dumbo was the oldest film that Disney had attempted to remake in this wave and in some ways did feel like a movie that could maybe benefit from some re-thinking and expanding. What’s more they managed to bring in director Tim Burton to helm the film, and while his previous excursion into Disney remakes (Alice in Wonderland) had been less than ideal there was still some promise to that. This was probably a miscalculation as I had forgotten that Tim Burton kind of sucks now, or at least it’s been over a decade since he’s made a live action film anyone gives a damn about and Disney seems to bring his most sellout instincts to the table. The public ultimately didn’t seem to be terribly excited about the film either, the film managed to make over a hundred million at the domestic box office but considering it cost a hundred and seventy million to make it’s likely that even when you bring in the two hundred million the film made internationally it probably didn’t break even when marketing costs are accounted for.
So, what went wrong? Well, kind of everything. There was a lot of talk when the film came out about the fact that they choose not to use any real animal performers in the film since it would be hypocritical to do that in a movie about the cruelty of animal captivity. I can see the logic there but that doesn’t change the fact that these CGI animals just look fake as hell. I don’t know if there were just so many shots with animals that there was no way to make them all look pristine or what, but the film’s $170 million dollar budget was not enough to make the elephants look real. The human characters here also kind of suck despite the film having a fairly impressive cast. Michael Keaton and Danny DeVito are both kind of fun as the villain and semi-villain (and the fact that this is something of a Batman Returns reunion is amusing) but I didn’t care one bit about Colin Ferrell and his family and the movie didn’t really make Dumbo himself as interesting as it thinks it did. Burton does give the film some visual touches here and there, particularly in terms of set decoration (still his biggest talent after all these years) but there’s nothing here striking enough to save the film and you likely wouldn’t be able to identify it as a Burton film at all if you weren’t told it was. I would also note that this is the third straight Disney remake I’ve watched that has some kind of weird contrived anachronistic ending where the corporate villains just kind of become enlightened apropos of nothing and solve everyone’s problems. I guess in its own way that’s in keeping with the “happily ever after” tradition of fairy tales but at least in the old fairy tales you had to, like, kill the dragon or whatever in order to earn that happy ending.
** out of Five
By the time the 2019 Aladdin came around critics were firmly opposed to this whole trend of live action Disney remakes on principle and I remember this one having the added infamy of becoming a bit of a laughingstock after a poorly executed trailer came out that made the genie in it look pretty bad. So I must say that when I turned it on my expectations were pretty low but funnily enough I actually kind of liked the actual film (at least a little) and am in the awkward position of having to defend the indefensible. I think part of that reaction comes down to the fact that in my eyes the original Aladdin is one of the less successful of Disney’s 90s “renaissance” movies. It’s the one I should have the most nostalgia for given the age I was at when it came out but it stands out to me as the one that’s aged the least gracefully, in part because the Robin Williams’ performance as the Genie just strikes me as a bit awkward and a bit rooted in dated pop culture references. That is something that could have used some updating and beyond that the whole Arabian Nights milieu in general doesn’t strike me as one that’s been overdone by Hollywood and which could benefit by being scaled up into a live action epic. And that is more or less what director Guy Richie (of all people) did with this movie. It’s more or less a plot point by plot point remake (with a few additions) and fairly openly reuses a lot of the art assets of original film but it’s not what you’d call a shot for shot remake.
Richie’s version of Agrabah is pretty well rendered, certainly heavily following the lead of the animated film’s aesthetic but expanding on it and there was a bit more of a thrill in seeing the Sultan’s palace and the Cave of Wonders made “real” than there was in seeing the Beast’s castle brought to life in that remake. The script hues very closely to the original and I can probably take or leave most of the changes that were made. A love interest is added for the Genie for once he’s freed at the end, which ties into a slightly clever framing story. No big deal, but its fine. Less successful is an attempt to make Jasmine more palpably embrace her inner girlboss through a song called “Speechless” (the reprise of which hilariously ends with her being hypnotized and literally rendered speechless). Beyond that the film’s finale is a bit expanded and made more of an action set-piece. Finally I think I’m going to defend the Will Smith take on the Genie, which is less of an imitation of the Robin Williams version and instead kind of takes on Smith’s natural charisma and creates something of a Fresh Prince Genie and as a purely subjective preference I think I have more affection for that than I do for Robin Williams doing anachronistic celebrity impressions. The visual effects are also a major step up from what we got from Dumbo despite the two films having fairly comparable budgets though they’re hardly mindblowing.
Having said all that my defense of this movie is modest and tepid as there are some serious drawbacks, none bigger than the guy at the center of it all: Mena Massoud. This actor was a relative unknown before he was cast in this movie and frankly I think he’s in a bit over his head here. He seems like a perfectly functional actor who’s trying his best but this is a pretty iconic character he’s trying to inhabit and I just don’t think the pure star power and charisma is there. I didn’t care too much for the guys they got to play Jafar or the Sultan either, but everyone is largely competent. At the end of the day, this is certainly every bit the product of soulless number crunching it looks like; whatever mild defense I make of it is in relation to the other Disney remakes and my low expectations for the whole endeavor, but I’d also be lying if I said I didn’t think Richie did about as much as he could to make this seem like a real movie and one that mostly flows about as well as it could.
*** out of Five
Maleficent: Mistress of Evil (2019)
Going by straight continuity I should probably be following up my viewing of Aladdin (released 5/24/2019) with The Lion King (released 7/19/2019), but I’ve decided to save that one for last in this viewing series for dramatic effect and will instead jump straight to the October release Maleficent: Mistress of Evil instead. Out of all the movies in this series this is almost certainly the one I was the least curious about going in both for better or worse. It wasn’t a movie I was looking forward to but also wasn’t exactly one I was dreading having to sit though… it was just kind of there. I feel like audiences and critics were similarly disinterested back in 2019. I don’t remember hearing a single thing one way or the other from critics at the time and while the film (like basically everything Disney releases) was a financial success to some extent but it made about a million dollars less than Dumbo domestically (they were numbers 22 and 23 at the domestic box office) but did noticeably better internationally (out grossing Dumbo by a hundred million worldwide) which is probably enough that it sounds like a Maleficent 3 will be happening. Still, it’s a movie that made minimal impact on pop culture and might have been a bit better served if it hadn’t come out during the remake-a-palooza that was 2019.
Of course a bit part of why I was so disinterested was that the original Maleficent has proven to be an exceptionally unmemorable movie… to the point where I barely remembered what happened in it even though I’d only seen it something like four month ago. That having been said I did end up getting caught back up and did end up kind of enjoying certain aspects of the film to some extent. Particularly, the movie has a final battle scene at the end between an army of humans fortified in a castle and the various fairy people and winged beings that are attacking them. I’m not saying that this is some great battle scene for the ages but it was able to pretty nicely differentiate itself from the cookie cutter battles between CGI armies we normally get in these post-LOTR fantasy movies. Outside of that though I don’t think there’s a lot of inspiration to be found here. The film basically undoes a lot of the developments in the previous film in order to find a way to rekindle the fight between humanity and fairy people and our title character kind of gets sidelined for a while toward the end and kind of becomes the least interesting character in her own movie. All told I do still think this is one of the more dignified franchises in the Disney remake trend and becomes even more its own thing here given that it no longer has any need to retell the original Sleeping Beauty story but it still never quite comes together as a truly needed thing.
**1/2 out of Five
Lady and the Tramp (2019)
For however much I complained about all these other Disney remakes, one thing is undeniable: they were pretty big deals. Even the less successful among them made a good hundred million dollars and caught the interest of the masses, and they did this because whatever their faults they were at the very least films constructed to be big modern spectacles. The same cannot be said of Disney’s remake of Lady and the Tramp, which was not even made to be released in theaters. Instead the film, from the moment it was announced, was set up to be a launch title for Disney’s then new streaming service Disney+. This certainly gives me a number of feelings. On one hand I’m not inclined to dignify these remakes in the first place but if they must make a remake of something like Lady and the Tramp I kind of want them to at least make said bastardization a big deal rather than a cheap throw away freebie, which is sure what this movie feels like. I must say, I kind of find that inherently offensive because in my opinion Lady and the Tramp is one of the best of Disney’s classic back catalog. It’s got this really thoughtful animation style and it takes the relationship at its center a lot more seriously than a lot of the company’s films and is also oddly class conscious, so seeing it turned into mere “content” is kind of infuriating.
The visual style of the original Lady and the Tramp was carefully calibrated; it was made in the new ultra-wide CinemaScope ratio with the idea of making it a film told from the low to the ground point of view of its canine protagonists. This remake throws that whole idea out and uses the 2.00:1 ratio that is otherwise mostly used for streaming television shows. There were some real dogs used in the film but obviously whenever they talk to each other it’s CGI city and the animals frankly look kind of uncanny and bad during the close-ups. The basic story is more or less identical to the original film but it feels a lot less meaningful with this presentation. Where that first movie felt like a capital F film this almost feels more like a Hallmark movie for pet lovers. Also, while I’ve generally been fine with Disney’s tendency to engage in race blind casting in their Disney remakes I think it bristles a bit more here given that this is set in a very specific time in U.S. history (turn of the century Missouri) rather than some fantasy realm and the notion that everyone in this area would be nonchalant about the mixed race couple at the center of the film in this time and place feels less like wishful thinking and more like a sort of delusional whitewashing of social mores. But that would have been less of a distraction if this movie made any other case for its existence. It’s not a wretchedly unwatchable piece of work but its sheer blandness makes it even worse than its over-produced counterparts.
** out of Five
The Lion King (2019)
So, I’ve finally gotten to “the big one.” The second highest grossing movie of 2019 behind Avengers: Endgame and the movie that made many a film critic completely blow a gasket with the sheer insanity of its existence… the live action remake of The Lion King. Actually calling this a “live action” remake is a bit dubious considering that the film has no human actors and is by all accounts almost entirely computer generated outside of a single shot of a rising sun at the beginning. Directed by Jon Favreau this can likely be seen as a follow-up to his 2016 version of The Jungle Book, which is one of the better received Disney remakes in part because it was a remake of a movie that was a touch stale and in part because it made changes and also had some pretty interesting technical achievements. Most of that does not apply to The Lion King: the original film is still one of the studio’s most beloved films, one that even I can’t really hate on, and the movie pretty slavishly follows the original film’s script. Some would say that the decision to cast black actors as all of the lions, which I don’t think was responding to a complaint much of anyone actually had with the original and mostly just serves as a flailing attempt to find a reason why this needed to happen at all. As for its technical merits… I don’t know, I mean, the animals certainly look real which is impressive on some level but it’s also true that they’re less expressive than their animated counterparts and generally have less artistry to them.
So, most of what you’ve heard about this is true, however, The Lion King remains a very durable piece of storytelling and at a certain point there’s only so much you can do to screw it up. As creatively bankrupt as the film’s borderline shot-for-shot similarities are, the approach does mean that quite a bit of what did work about that original film does seep through into the new version. I would be curious to see how someone who’s been living under the rock for the last twenty five years (or, you know, a kid) would react to this absent any baggage for the original movie because in a vacuum I think this would be less offensive than it seems to the rest of us. But the movie doesn’t exist in a vacuum, it exists in a reality where there was already a perfectly good animated version of this movie and the utter absence of any changes here is basically an admission that there was nothing broken about the original version. Who was asking for this? Well, a lot of people I guess, if the film’s outlandish box office is any indication. I don’t know, I guess “normies” just look at this stuff differently and view classic films less as these totems to stand the test of time and more as disposable products to be replaced by the new model even if the new model turns out to have defects. To me though this feels kind of like an insult to the legacy of 2D animation that Disney was built on. But again, that’s the meta-view of it, as a product unto itself all I can really do is shrug, I didn’t actively hate sitting through it or anything.
**1/2 out of Five
Well, this experience both confirmed and confounded most of my expectations about these movies. The movies they made between 2010-2018 weren’t all “good” exactly but there was some interesting variation to be found between them as they tested out new ideas for how these movies could be but over time they worked out the “kinks” and by 2018 the conveyer belt was really churning these things out in the blandest way and the movies in this half of my survey mostly lived down to their reputation, many of them not even having the decency to be bad in a way that I find interesting and I kind of struggled to find anything to say about a lot of them. Since their overstuffed 2019 Disney has slowed down their output of these remakes a lot. I’m not sure how much the pandemic played into that but they only released one live action remake in 2020, the live action Mulan, which sucked in a lot of the same ways a lot of these have sucked despite having more potential than most. Then in 2021 they released Cruella which I actually liked quite a bit though it does have some glaring problems and looking back I think my three and a half star review might have been a bit too generous, still that’s one of the best things to come out of this trend and points to things may be getting a little better as we move forward.
There are two of these remakes on tap for 2022. The first is a Peter Pan adaptation Peter Pan & Wendy, which is being directed by David Lowery (promising!) but it’s apparently being released directly to Disney+ (not promising). The other movie is also set for Disney+, an adaptation of Pinocchio to be directed by Robert Zemeckis… lot of ways that can go wrong. Then we’ll get another theatrical release in the form of The Little Mermaid, which is being directed by Rob Marshall and is set for release in 2023. After that we’re getting a wave of sequels to the remakes including The Jungle Book, Aladdin, The Lion King, and Cruella and while it’s not clear how deep they’re in production on any of them there is some preliminary work being done on remakes of Snow White, Bambi, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Hercules. So this trend isn’t going anywhere.