Disney’s Focus On Live-Action Remakes Tells Us Something About The Stories Audiences Want

Disney is in full live-action remake mode. Within the next two years, there will be no less than five live-action remakes of Disney animated classics, with an additional three films planned but not yet scheduled. This isn’t even counting films like Cruella and Maleficent II, which aren’t remakes per se but are tied directly into the plots of animated classics. 

It’s fairly clear that Disney’s motivation for making all these live-action remakes is financial. And fair enough. Films like the 2015 Cinderella remake starring Lily James, and the 2017 Beauty and the Beast remake starring Emma Watson and Dan Stevens were enormous box office hits, proving that nostalgia can be monetized. But, from a critical standpoint, it does beg the question: do we really need all these remakes?

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For me there is only one reason to remake a cartoon as a live-action movie (or a Broadway stage production, for that matter). It’s to somehow deepen and flesh out the narrative. When we watch a cartoon, we’re suspending our disbelief much more than we would when we watch live-action. It’s not just that anything could happen in a cartoon — with today’s special effects, pretty much anything can happen in live-action too — it’s also that we don’t really expect the same level of character development, motivation, and nuance as we do from live-action. And we fill in a lot of the gaps on our own — Ariel’s father is so uptight because he’s raising his daughters alone, Cinderella’s stepmother forces her into servitude so as not to invite comparisons between her and the stepsisters, that sort of thing. But a live-action movie is different. If the people are real, and the places are real, then we want the characters and their motivations to be real too.

Though Disney has been making live-action remakes since the ’90s, the first to really bring home the big bucks at the box office was Cinderella. (Maleficent came out before that and earned slightly more, but it isn’t technically a remake.) Though I enjoyed the live-action Cinderella, I was ultimately disappointed with the way in which it was basically just the cartoon with real people. Sure, they added a scene where Cinderella meets the prince before the ball, and a sort of random backstory for Lady Tremaine, and a scene with Cinderella’s mother before she dies, but the movie basically relied on the opulence of the sets and costumes. It was the visuals of the cartoon come to life, not the characters.

The live-action Beauty and the Beast, which came out two years later and made even more money (in the neighborhood of $300,000,000 more!), was a bit more interesting. The film did try to flesh out the characters. It gave the Beast more of a backstory and reimagined him as a sort of misanthropic academic with a sarcastic sense of humor, it recast Gaston as a war veteran with PTSD, and made Belle a woman haunted by her mother’s death. Not all the changes worked — Gaston was a far better villain in the cartoon, for example — but I applaud the filmmakers’ desire to try to add depth to the characters and the plot.

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As far as audiences are concerned, however, it seems like they’ll turn up for a live-action remake of an animated classic no matter what’s been done to it. And this should tell us something: the old films were good movies. Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, Sleeping Beauty, etc. are so beloved that, when Disney announces that it’s remaking them with real people, audiences show up in droves. They want to see these movies because they loved them before and they want to relive them — fleshed out, more fully realized, and more emotionally charged. 

But Disney seems to feel that the addition these beloved films need is not more emotional depth, but rather more political ideology. Aladdin, which comes out in 2019, seems bafflingly focused on giving Jasmine more power — she apparently gets some kind of subplot involving trying to take the throne to protect the people of Agrabah — which seems pretty unrelated to the actual story (you know the whole Aladdin and the magic lamp thing?). And Mulan, which comes out in 2020, already has fans pretty upset for ditching Mulan’s love interest entirely (I guess there’s some guy in this version named Chen Honghui who “becomes close to Mulan,” whatever that means) and for removing all the songs.

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If fans liked these movies before, and they’re willing to show up to watch them again, Disney shouldn’t have to inject a bunch of ideological nonsense into them to make them palatable to a modern audience. They’re already palatable, that’s why they’re so beloved, and that’s why people are showing up to watch them. 

The overwhelming fan response to these remakes should also tell us something about the kinds of movies Disney fans want to see. The much-anticipated Wreck It Ralph sequel which came out this year made far less money at the box office than the 2017 Beauty and the Beast or the 2015 Cinderella. But Ralph Breaks The Internet was touted as introducing a new kind of Disney princess in the race-car-driving, hoodie-wearing heroine Vanellope. If all those old movies were so anti-feminist, and if we’re all so much more enlightened now, why are the remakes of the old movies doing so much better than the new movies Disney is making?

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If Disney can’t come up with any new stories that leave ideology behind, then I’m all for remaking the old stories we all love. But the remakes should flesh out the characters and their motivations, not some sort of political agenda that ruins the plot and is totally unnecessary anyway. Am I going to go see Aladdin regardless of its politics, just like everyone else? Yes. But I’m not going to like it. And, frankly, it’ll probably make me a little sad. It’ll probably make most of us a little sad — all of us lining up to try relive something of what Disney once was, what it could be again, if it would only ditch the ideology and stick to the stories. We love the stories. Bring them back.

My new book, Saving Cinderella: What Feminists Get Wrong About Disney Princesses And How To Set It Right, is out now! Click here to learn more.

9 thoughts on “Disney’s Focus On Live-Action Remakes Tells Us Something About The Stories Audiences Want

  1. Pretty much agreed with you regarding the live action remakes and how most of them are just unnecessary (only Beauty and the Beast really NEEDED a remake because… well, the original film had far too many flaws to really stand the test of time, to put it simply, that and there were some rather glaring character problems in that movie. Well, okay, that and maybe Dumbo, but that’s only because PETA doesn’t allow elephants at the circus anymore.). And honestly, another problem with them is that they’re really not even allowing for any animated films to come out, or at least, none that aren’t either a sequel to a prior Disney movie or a movie made by Pixar.

    As far as Gaston, yeah, personally, I’d argue that the remake version from what I gather was actually better, since at least the remake version didn’t come across as even stupider than a James Bond villain and outright gloat his evil plan to lock up Belle’s father under false charges to essentially force Belle to marry him in front of the tavern/village, and then get cheered on for it despite it being an explicitly amoral plan. In reality, if he were to pull that, the villagers would have turned on him and sent him to the stockades. In fact, to be honest, the original only got as far as he did because the rest of the principal cast were idiots. I’m sorry, but there’s definitely no way the villagers would have liked Gaston for trying to imprison him under false charges for the explicitly selfish goal of marrying his daughter. Maybe if he hid his intentions from them, I could buy it, or heck, maybe let them know but then blackmailed them to force them into complying. But as it is, the original was pretty bad. At least the remake does in fact make him genuinely threatening. Also helps that it now actually explains why Gaston didn’t bother with the triplets in the remake, as well as the triplets also being given a personality change that actually WORKS for the moral of the tale (the original movie just made them way TOO nice even with their crush on Gaston, especially when they were supposed to be Belle’s foils, and ironically made them far closer to representing the themes to the movie about inner beauty than Belle herself did, or the fact that the triplets looked like they came out of Dead or Alive and thus, despite the narrative, just blew Belle’s beauty out of the water.).

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    1. Oh, I have to disagree. The original Beauty & the Beast was wonderful! It did not need that ridiculous CGI & celebrities version, imo. But I do agree that Disney needs to come up with some new original animated movies that aren’t sequels or remakes. (Even Pixar has fallen deep into the sequels trap.)

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      1. Oh! No, I LOVE the 1991 Beauty and the Beast. It’s my all time favorite Disney movie, and it’s much much better than the 2017 remake. My point was that I applauded their attempts to reimagine the characters (even if I didn’t agree with all of them) because otherwise why remake it?

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      2. Glad we can agree on the live action remakes in general. In my view, the only time remakes, live action or otherwise, are even remotely necessary is in order to fix certain things that didn’t work in the original film (or if its a multi-entry franchise, because the story ended up broken via a lot of retcons), or otherwise there’s stuff in real life that occurred that makes the originals unwatchable. Think a mulligan. Otherwise, I wouldn’t bother with making them. In fact, to be honest, I’d argue SEQUELS are preferable to remakes, since they at least continue a story and add new things to it, world-building and all of that, while remakes literally retread old territory and create it again (besides, some sequels actually do very well. Like for example Empire Strikes Back, the sequel to A New Hope).

        As far as the original, I thought it was good when I was younger, but after encountering a woman named Heather Lucas in College who actually tried to cram her feminist agenda onto everyone (not to mention similar encounters in college with leftists and male feminists and all of that.), or heck, even earlier when I learned Che Guevara’s a bad guy despite what Sartre claimed, I began seeing warts and blemishes in the movie, warts that reminded me of her attempts at brainwashing. Didn’t help either that around the time Maleficent was released that Linda Woolverton if anything CONFIRMED such was the case in Time Magazine, something I had stumbled upon. Heck, now I actually FEAR the animated Belle thanks largely to some implications Glen Keane gave that the movie took place in the prelude to the French Revolution, fear that she’ll become a Jacobin and backstab Adam again. This post here gives a good explanation about my current problems with Belle, for example: https://otnesse.tumblr.com/post/181320252364/problems-i-have-with-belle-tumblr-edition Had to use my Tumblr account because for unknown reasons, linking directly to the blog on Disney Wiki doesn’t actually work, at least, not on here. Also, the blog has links to Heather Lucas’s course lectures. Sorry for it being a mess, but I had to directly copy the whole thing from Disney Wiki. Besides, there’s a whole lot of plot problems from within the film, such as Be Our Guest being made to accommodate Belle instead of Maurice, and not even bothering to alter the lyrics to take into account of that change (like acting as if Belle was the “first guest”, when Maurice was the actual first guest), or the fact that, despite the village not even being that far away from the castle based on both the Mob Song AND Beast upon freeing Maurice sending him back to the village didn’t seem to be THAT far away (not to mention the prologue stained glass bit implying the forest was cursed by the Enchantress as well, meaning it would have been completely impossible to miss). Probably the kicker of them was Chip managing to start up Maurice’s log cutter despite the fact that it was broken down for ease of transport earlier, and aside from that, neither Belle nor Maurice had any opportunity to fix it up. Heck, the original thanks to Katzenberg and Woolverton insisting on a feminist twist that was unnecessary to the film’s moral comes across as being an in-only adaptation of the original tale, failing to even give Belle foils appropriate for the moral (the most she got was dumb blondes and brainy brunette dichotomy that is completely irrelevant to “true beauty comes from within.”).

        As far as Pixar, at least Pixar isn’t outright remaking its films with live action and is still using animation at all.

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      3. @Faith Moore: I used to love 1991 Beauty and the Beast as well. Unfortunately, circumstances involving several semesters of College where I narrowly avoided being brainwashed by leftist hacks, deep study about the circumstances of the French Revolution and its causes (I take that event very personally because it was effectively the start of Communist revolutions of various stripes, especially the atheistic persecution of Christianity), and, heck, comments made by Don Hahn, Linda Woolverton, and Jeffrey Katzenberg, both relating to Beauty and the Beast itself (original and remake) as well as the Maleficent movie practically killed said interest, or at least grievously wounded it. And make no mistake, even there, I do find some potential for Belle and the film to be redeemed, which is FAR more than can be said about, say, the Rebel Alliance after George Lucas outright admitted he based the Rebels on the Vietcong since 1973 (and such actually was backed up by his development notes). And it’s a darn shame they cancelled those DTV sequels since, cruddy or not, we could have used an actual sequel to BATB that focuses on the French Revolution and Reign of Terror, and more importantly would have confirmed once and for all whether Belle actually WOULD become a Jacobin or not (and I hope for the latter).

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  2. This post is SO great!!

    Honestly, I personally don’t mind the live-action remakes, as long as they do them right. I still think they shouldn’t be replacing new and original animated movies, but…

    I also think that there are old Disney movies that could use a remake more than others. It’s just…those aren’t usually the ones that do well because they never were hits to begin with. (Look at Pete’s Dragon for example. I’m pretty sure everyone’s already forgotten that Disney remade that in 2015.)

    The thing for me was which remakes really hit me and took me back to my childhood. Maleficent and Alice and Wonderland (2010) were okay because they were so different than the originals they were based on. I didn’t love them, but I enjoyed them and don’t dislike them. The Jungle Book was pretty fun and I liked it more than the original, to be honest. (I doubt I’ll be able to say the same for the new Lion King, though, because the original is already incredible.)

    Cinderella in 2015 was the one that blew me away. I adored it. Sitting in the theater with my sister, lost in the beauty and simplicity of it…I felt like a kid again. It was true to the original story, but it felt new again. The prince felt like more of a real person whom Ella might actually fall in love with. Everything about the movie was childlike and sweet. (So unlike the dark Alice in Wonderland and and the twisted Maleficent.) And I was so pleased that Disney centered the live-action remake around courage and kindness–themes which aren’t often promoted in movies these days–and that Cinderella was still a sweet, gentle heroine–not a tough, feminist, ‘new’ kind of princess. (Probably why Emma Watson turned up her nose at the role.)

    Beauty and the Beast in 2017, on the other hand, was such an utter disappointment–perhaps more so because I was so excited about it. First of all, the original was already so good (and fairly recent–much more recent than Cinderella and Jungle Book). I left that theater with a sad sense of disappointment. They had somehow managed to ruin the story I’d always loved. (Not to mention the songs with the awful singing.) I think by trying to realize it and getting rid of everything simple and making it darker and showing Belle as a ratty tomboy…I don’t know. It’s like they missed something about why the original is such a classic. Now, to be fair, the visuals were beautiful. (I know there were a lot of complaints about Belle’s dress, but I thought it was lovely.) Even so…it didn’t make me FEEL the way it should have–the way I was hoping it would.

    Because of that, I’m trying not to hype myself up for Aladdin. (Especially in light of the images EW released just today.) But, yes, of course I will go see it like any good Disney fan. 😉

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  3. I ADORED Cinderella 2015. I was comparing it to Ever After and the animated version. I thought it struck a perfect note, enough development while not being overly complicated, deep, sweet, elegant. I loved everything about it. The plot, the characterization, the costumes, the music.

    I do however, think we got lucky with this on the remakes. I don’t have high hopes for the rest and Beauty and the Beast was politicized and overdone. We did get a gem in “Evermore” I think though. I don’t love the animated Aladdin, just Aladdin himself and the music. And I dislike Mulan (boring and overtly feminist) except for Mushu, the cricket, a few songs/scenes. All this to say, not expecting much from these live action. I want to watch Aladdin, not sure I’d watch Mulan.

    I’m not against remakes. I think many things could use a refresh or redo, but when its because a lack of inspiration or a copycat trend . . . um, not likely to have a high success rate plus boring.

    I feel like movie makers are uninspired and lazy lately, its not just the fairy tales. Such and Such 4, Such and Such Part 1 and 2. Let’s remake classic films, animated films, etc. Let’s add lazy political posturing in instead of plausible compelling characters and plots. Of course I’ve never been huge into mainstream movies, grew up with limited tv and movies, so maybe I’m just now noticing all the trash one has to dig through to find the treasure.

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    1. Eh, personally, Belle from Beauty and the Beast (the original, I mean) was more overtly feminist. Sure, Mulan does join the army, but at least she had the excuse of her father being a cripple and unable to fight in doing that. Belle a few times despite being a shut-in who reads all day came across as superhuman, like, I don’t know, lifting up Beast and Maurice in two separate instances despite their clearly being larger than her, not to mention heavier than her. At least the remake had Belle being given SOME weaknesses and limitations, including making clear that Beast had to get himself up on that horse as she cannot do it herself, not to mention actually THROWING Maurice a bone in this rather than making him so weak that his daughter had to save him every single dang time, and he wasn’t allowed to save her even ONCE. Only area where it seemed more overtly feminist was the villagers just smashing Belle’s washing machine in retaliation for her reading, though even there, the original still had several hints that Belle was disliked by the villagers solely because of her literate stance (not as hated as her father, but even still…), which WAS still feminist propagandizing (and I’d know: I had to sit through a college course for World History Up to the 1500s where said professor, a staunch feminist and lapsed Catholic, DID actually make that claim about how women weren’t even allowed to be literate until they “took power” on college campuses during the 1960s). Heck, at least the remake didn’t cut out a scene simply because the screenwriter thought it harmed Belle’s liberated credentials, which actually WAS the case in the original film.

      Besides, at least it’s a bit closer in terms of actual morals and plot points to the original story by Beaumont and Villeuneuve.

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      1. Oh, and I also forgot to mention that Belle seemed to outright hate Marriage in the original movie, and such an institution being depicted so badly that we’re expected to cheer when Belle throws her groom in the mud and smirks at the result, while in the remake, any negative views on marriage are toned down (in fact, Lumiere and the featherduster are now an actual married couple instead of friends with benefits like in the original movie).

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