Gilbey on Film: Happy Birthday, Mr Bond

Why we don't really need a Global James Bond Day.

It may not have escaped your attention that today is the fiftieth anniversary of the release of Dr No, the first James Bond film. In fact, it is Global James Bond Day, though it’s worth pointing out that this is only on the say-so of Sony Pictures, the current custodians of the cinematic franchise, rather than the governments of the world. No public holidays for any of us, I’m afraid. And, more positively, no amnesty for anyone found using alligators as stepping stones, driving cars underwater or operating a jetpack without the necessary permits.

Yes, it really is half a century since we (OK, not me, but some of us) saw with virgin eyes a cinematic convention described by Adam Mars-Jones in 1995 as “That hallowed piece of montage in which the viewer is shot by Bond while unwisely attempting to hide in a spiral sea shell.”

To mark the occasion, there is all kinds of hoopla, including the unveiling of Adele’s theme song for the next Bond movie (song and film go by the name Skyfall, a clear back-to-basics message after the complaints raised by Quantum of Solace) and the release of a documentary about the series, Everything or Nothing: The Untold Story of 007. I haven’t seen the documentary so allow me a moment’s recourse to its release, which informs us that it “focuses on three men with a shared dream—Bond producers Albert R. Broccoli, Harry Saltzman and author Ian Fleming” and “draws back the curtain to reveal the battles, threats and real stakes unfolding behind the camera.”

The PR appetite-whetting really began in earnest back in July, when the entire Olympics was revealed to be an expensive pretext for a publicity stunt to promote Skyfall by having the Queen parachuting out of a helicopter and into the Olympic stadium. She fell from the sky: Skyfall—get it? That said, the stunt would have worked equally well had the movie’s producers stuck to the other titles that were in contention, among them Queendrop and Monarchplummet.

Personally I don’t need Global James Bond Day, 007 Hour or even a minute’s silence for Countess Tracy di Vicenzo to feel some Bond-related excitement. The prospect of a new Bond movie (I’ll be reviewing Skyfall in the NS when it opens on 26 October) is enough on its own to do the trick. Bond is part of the cultural heritage and education of anyone who has had any truck with mainstream cinema in the past 50 years; it is the only film franchise which still has about it the status of event. None of which has anything to do with the quality of the individual films—perhaps it makes each one’s particular triumphs that bit more pleasurable, and its disappointments more keenly felt, because most us watch them conscious of the historical precedence. (In other words, we are likely to know our Goldfinger from our Octopussy. As each Bond film comes along, it takes its place on the viewer’s personal Bond inventory.)

David Thomson appeared on Radio 4’s The Film Programme this week to promote his new book The Big Screen: The Story of the Movies and What They Did to Us and complain that there is no longer any sense of cinemagoing as a mass communal event. Regardless of the details of this argument, I think the Bond series is a phenomenon that runs contrary to his theory. Yes, the films all end up on the small screens that Thomson bemoans, but even once Skyfall has taken its place as another bank holiday Monday schedule-filler in 2020 (by which time there will likely be a new actor in the role), there will still be about it the air of the communal.

It also helps the sense of anticipation that the series is in particularly good health. I’m a fan of the Pierce Brosnan era, particularly GoldenEye and The World Is Not Enough, but the special achievement of Daniel Craig’s tenure so far has been to purge the Bond film of its jokiness (even if, in parts of Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, fun was also sometimes a little thin on the ground).

I happened to think Quantum of Solace had its impressive moments, though Craig, has expressed publicly some dissatisfaction with it. “We were hamstrung by the writers’ strike,” he told me last year. “We had half a script and lots of pressure. We suffered because of a lack of preparation. That doesn't necessarily mean that Skyfall is going to be better—I don’t want to jinx it—but I can say we’ve worked solidly on this script for two years.”

The appointment of Sam Mendes as director, and a cast that includes Javier Bardem, Ralph Fiennes and Albert Finney, is intriguing. “Sam's involvement has brought in people like Ralph and Javier. He’s a very visual director, and I think audiences want something visually beautiful in a Bond movie. Also, we got rid of a lot of the old characters in Casino Royale, the ones that had been set in stone. That’s just the way it happened, and I think now we can start reintroducing them.” Among those is Q, played by Ben Whishaw; though the rumour that Moneypenny will return seems to be without value.

“Before we started, Sam and I sat down together and rubbed our hands and said, ‘Right, what shall we do?’ We watched the films, we read the books again, just to find what makes a great Bond movie. And I think we’ve managed to put in all the wit we love about the series.”

We’ll be the judge of that, Mr Bond. We’ll be the judge of that. [cackles sinisterly, touches conspicuous facial scar and strokes pet tortoise]

Skyfall is released October 26.

Daniel Craig promoting Skyfall. Photograph: Getty Images.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Why is Disney producing so many live-action remakes of its most popular animated movies?

The Jungle Book, The BFG, Pete’s Dragon and Beauty and the Beast are just one small part of the studio’s extensive strategy of live-action remakes.

When Disney’s 101 Dalmatians appeared in cinemas back in 1996, it surprised audiences. With a screenplay and production by John Hughes, and a brilliantly deranged Glenn Close as Cruella, it was in many ways more cartoonish than the stylish Sixties animation it was based on. The film was a peculiar choice from a studio in the midst of an animated renaissance: in the first half of the decade alone the releases of The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King, Pocahontas, Toy Story and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, reasserted Disney’s status as the ultimate home of animated family movies.

But it also paid off: 101 Dalmatians broke box office records on the Thanksgiving weekend of release, and was the top grossing family movie of that year.

Fast forward to 2010, and Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland tells a similar tale. The only live-action remake of one of the studio’s own animated classics since 101 Dalmatians, it was critically panned, but a huge financial success, bringing in over a billion dollars at the box office.

Since then, Disney has woken up to the commercial potential of this formula. Following Alice were The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (a 2010 release based on a segment of 1940’s Fantasia), Maleficent’s unusual take on Sleeping Beauty, 2015’s Cinderella, and, this year, The Jungle Book (and an Alice sequel ).

Next month, a live-action remake of The BFG will hit US theatres, to be followed by Pete’s Dragon and Beauty and the Beast later this year. Also in the works are new live-action versions of Dumbo, Mulan, Winnie the Pooh, Pinocchio, The Sword and The Stone, Peter Pan (two, in fact: Peter Pan and Tink), and Chip 'n Dale – as well as a version of The Nutcracker which will be the second live action film modelled on a Fantasia segment.

Like the animated movies of the Nineties and earlier, many of these movies all based on tales as old as time: but the studio is very specifically remaking its own films, rather than working on new retellings of ancient stories. Disney is undertaking a deliberate and extensive strategy of live-action remakes of nostalgic animated successes.

The Disney brand depends on nostalgia to reel in children and adults alike. It’s earliest animated successes, from the Thirties through to 1960, were variations of stories everyone had been told in childhood: Snow White, Pinocchio, Cinderella, Peter Pan, Sleeping Beauty.

Their latest formula works in a similar way: take an old story which will appeal to children, their parents, and a generation of adults with a specific, nostalgic connection to one version (in these cases, Nineties babies). Bring a smattering of famous faces on board, plus an extra helping of action, some vaguely cheeky references, and the promise of 3D visuals. Then you have a Disney film that can extend beyond what can be fairly limiting Disney audience.

It will certainly be profitable for the studio in the short term, but by investing more and more into live-action remakes, Disney is moving further and further away from its USP. Arguably, the animated renaissance of the Nineties demonstrates that Disney generates is most iconic (and, in the long-term, it’s most commercial) movies by sticking to its most traditional skillset: hand-drawn animation, original songs, and a childlike earnestness unsullied by considering what might draw in an older audience. Who remembers the live action Disney movies of generations past? We might just about recall 1997’s George of the Jungle, but Robin Williams and Shelley Duvall in Popeye, anyone? 1994’s The Jungle Book?

It will certainly bring in big numbers at the box office – temporarily at least. But Disney’s latest strategy won’t result in the production of films that will continue to generate big bucks for the studio via its infamous moratorium strategy, or generations of merchandise. The animations that are already modern classics, from Frozen to Tangled, will be doing that work in the next decades. Disney would be wise to look for its next original movie in order to capture hearts – and wallets – for years to come.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.