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, 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.
[See also: The man who animated Disney]