In 1951, Walt Disney Pictures released Alice in Wonderland, a tale of absurdity and surrealism that wonderfully demonstrated the unlimited realities that animation can create. In 2010, Walt Disney Pictures released Alice in Wonderland, a live-action film that is kind of a sequel even though it doesn’t follow Through the Looking Glass. It transformed the Mad Hatter into an emotionally tortured Johnny Depp, crammed Alice into a cliched “chosen one” journey and tried to insert politics, war and worst of all real life into a world where fantasy is supposed to dominate. Needless to say, I wasn’t the biggest fan of the 2010 remake, and it currently sits at 5.7/10 on Rotten Tomatoes. Nevertheless, it made enough money to warrant the remake of several Disney animated classics into live-action films. In the past six years, these remakes have included Cinderella, Maleficent and The Jungle Book (note that the 2016 Tarzan movie is not a Disney film, but a Warner Bros. one instead). Beauty and the Beast is scheduled within the next few months, and more are in the works. In fact, just last week we got word that Disney is planning a live-action remake of The Lion King. That announcement is the reason I’m writing this column.
Now, I do not have anything personal against remakes, and I’m not going to follow that up with a “but” either. If they’re done well, I can be grateful for them. Take The Jungle Book, for example. The animated version is typical classic Disney fare, with fun songs and dancing animals and some G-rated peril. It was even the last film to receive Walt Disney’s personal touch before his passing. That being said, it was released nearly 50 years ago. We’ve come to accept and even expect a little more intensity in our family entertainment. The 2016 remake is, first of all, a solid film on its own. Secondly, it actually told a new story that was worth telling. Kipling’s book peeks through more, with themes like nature vs. progress and the desire to use technology (more specifically, fire) for personal gain. King Louie becomes an imposing and malevolent figure, Shere Khan is utterly ruthless and Kaa the snake is cunning and dangerous. The CGI looks amazing, and the design of the animals gives them just enough anthropomorphism to let them talk and still move like normal animals, all the while avoiding that treacherous uncanny valley. By updating the story for a modern palate, the remake was indeed successful and worth producing. I cannot rule definitively on most of the other live-action films, since I didn’t see them. But if Jungle Book is the best that live-action adaptations can provide, then I can definitely think of a few movies that could benefit from the treatment. Remake The Hunchback of Notre Dame to get rid of those gargoyles, move the mature themes to the forefront and keep that bone-chilling music; I will throw every last dollar in my wallet at that. The Sword in the Stone and The Black Cauldron may also improve; the former has already gotten a remake announced. Long story short, live-action reboots can end up being good for the story as a whole.
That being said, you know which characters I’d argue would not benefit from a live-action transformation? Dumbo, Winnie the Pooh, and Tinkerbell. Alas, they can all look forward to being ripped from their animation cels and thrust into the real world. While Jungle Book had a source text that warranted a darker treatment, Dumbo and Winnie the Pooh do not. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather keep a dark, gritty adaptation of Pooh Bear deep in the recesses of the Internet where I dare not tread. As for Tinkerbell, she already has a line of CGI movies devoted around her. I don’t see what new stories can be told or retold there. And finally, I’d like to land on The Lion King, the topic of the day. While Jungle Book was updating a 50-year-old movie, Lion King is barely over 20. It’s the same age as some of the students reading this! Jungle Book came out in a time that valued light-hearted and harmless family entertainment; Lion King helped define a new era that demanded maturity and an edge to family films. In the end, Mufasa and Scar and Simba do not need to be updated, at least not yet. In 2045, we may have ventured so far away from those tastes that Lion King could actually use a remake. As it stands, though, I feel like Walt Disney Pictures is rolling some potent and dangerous dice with this production. They’re messing with one of their most highly acclaimed works; if they do not perfect this remake, and I mean absolutely perfect it, they’re going to be in for a hard time.
I know that the ravings of a college student probably won’t make it to the Walt Disney board of directors. I simply wish to express my opinions on the recent trend of live-action remakes, and hopefully provoke some of you on campus to consider the concept more deeply. (That being said, if this does end up before Disney executives… live-action Hunchback. Make it happen.)
David Gouldthorpe is a junior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He can be reached at [email protected] Animation Analysis will appear alternate Wednesdays this semester.