In the age of the “live-action” remake there has been a rather consistent howl of “Why doesn’t Disney just make ORIGINAL animated films?”. Fair question. At least it seems like it at first glance.
All we seem to hear about recently are remakes when in relation to the animated legacy of Disney so let’s dig in.
MALEFICENT came out in 2014 but that is not a live-action remake. It’s barely even a prequel since it has never been established that it has any direct connection to the original 1959 animated film. It changes the narrative of the animated film in full. It’s not good but it is an original idea off of an existing story. If we are going to start counting those into this discussion then we need to start at SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS and what you consider an “original” pitch. Disney has forever leaned on existing works to build their library so if you are looking to raise anarchy on the field of “original” stories, that is not the hill on which to plant your flag. Here is a list of the most recent live-action remakes which got its start in 2010 then slumbered for a bit to rage loudly later…
ALICE IN WONDERLAND 2010
THE JUNGLE BOOK 2016
PETE’S DRAGON 2016
ALICE THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS 2016 (This is a stretch but I am going to include it. It is an “original”, in the Disney traditional use of the word, but also a sequel to a live-action remake.)
BEAUTY AND THE BEAST 2017
THE LION KING 2019 (not wide released as of this writing)
I have not included CHRISTOPHER ROBIN here either because it is not remaking any original film. It’s a continuation of a classic story so it fits more into the sequel category if anything.
Nine films in 10 years. This creates a near one to one yearly average mainly due to 2019 and 2016 unleashing three in the same year. That fact is also why this trend feels so heavy and unrelenting. What about going forward? Well, that list is largely based on what films are in pre-production or even earlier. Some may never see the light of day, some have been wrapped up. MULAN is an absolute with a release date of March 27th, 2020. The trailer also looks fantastic where the idea seems to be NOT producing a beat by beat remake. It’s within that realm that the live-action road has seemed worth the trip.
2015’s CINDERELLA directed by Kenneth Branagh is rather strong under this ideal. It tells the tale we all know but adds in new drama by expanding the role of the The Prince, here known as Kit, and giving Ella much more to do than be saved by cartoon mice. It also expelled the sing-song aspect of the animated telling. Likewise, 2016’s THE JUNGLE BOOK felt fresh. It crafted a much more dangerous landscape than its animated counterpart while still including the musical aspect but having those sequences played in a very different manner which struck your nostalgia bone but worked on its own as well. Under the direction of Jon Favreau, THE JUNGLE BOOK nearly made one billion dollars AND was a critical success. Something a majority of the the live-action batch has been unable to achieve.
Not that a Rotten Tomatoes score tells the whole story but so far only PETE’S DRAGON, THE JUNGLE BOOK, CINDERELLA and BEAUTY AND THE BEAST are the only films to score above 71%. BEAUTY AND THE BEAST just crawling by at the low mark presented. What was the highest score? PETE’S DRAGON at 88%. What film made the least money? PETE’S DRAGON pulling in 143 million worldwide compared to 2543M for CINDERELLA, 1.2B (read : BILLION) for BEAUTY AND THE BEAST and 966M for THE JUNGLE BOOK. Huh. How odd. The least familiar in pop culture of the four films made next to nothing. Almost as if the audience just wanted what they already knew. Yes, PETE’S DRAGON has its fan base. A very small, cult level, fan base. It’s not Cinderella, it’s not BATB. THE JUNGLE BOOK was flashy and marketed wisely as an adventure film for everyone. That and word of mouth (which it earned) sent that film soaring. No word of mouth for PETE’S DRAGON though since no one saw it, me included. I am just as guilty as everyone else.
So where are all the original animated films? Has the House of Mouse dried up creatively? To list upcoming live-action remakes by Disney is largely based on pre-production reports or rumors but let’s stick to a list compiled by VARIETY. Some we know are inbound while some loom on the horizon.
LILO AND STITCH, LADY AND THE TRAMP, CRUELLA, PRINCE CHARMING, THE LITTLE MERMAID, PETER PAN, THE SWORD IN THE STONE, SNOW WHITE, THE JUNGLE BOOK 2, PINOCCHIO and ROSE RED. There are a few here that fall into the MALEFICENT/CHRISTOPHER ROBIN category of question but still, it’s a lot. I wonder though. If a release slate of films for Walt Disney Animation Studios was released in 1950, do people cry “Why not ORIGINAL ideas?” as CINDERELLA, ALICE IN WONDERLAND, PETER PAN, LADY AND THE TRAMP and SLEEPING BEAUTY are put up on a billboard? Out of those listed only LADY AND THE TRAMP is not based on an existing work. Something to consider.
Back to the question at hand. Where are the original ideas? Well, they never left. They are just surrounded by remakes and sequels. Let’s take a look at the last decade. We will include PIXAR here since they are a part of Disney and a part of the major release schedule. Walt Disney Animation Studios and PIXAR are two entities but work in tandem when it comes to release dates and such. We will include it while looking at other decades as well to make it all even.
BIG HERO 6
THE GOOD DINOSAUR
That is 10 films. An average of one per year. Let’s compare that to other decades in Disney’s history.
In the 2000’s the studio released 11 animated films from Walt Disney Animation while PIXAR produced 7 for a total of 18 films. That is major output and unfortunately, on the Disney Animation side, the quality suffered and this was the decade where the strategy changed to produce less but at a higher value. The 2000’s included forgettable entries as DINOSAUR, BROTHER BEAR, HOME ON THE RANGE, CHICKEN LITTLE and BOLT. ATLANTIS and TREASURE PLANET may have its fans (and they do) but they were critical and financial failures.
The 1990’s features a large portion of the new Golden Age at Disney with 9 WDA releases and PIXAR changing the world in 1995 with TOY STORY then following it up with A BUG’S LIFE and TOY STORY 2. A SEQUEL!! THE SHAME!! So in the 90’s they put out a combined 10 “original” releases. We lose one from PIXAR from TS2 and WDA drops a tally due to THE RESCUERS DOWN UNDER being a follow up to THE RESCUERS.
The 80’s were a rather dark period in the history of WDA. They released 5 films and beyond the fandom circles, only one resonates in 1989’s THE LITTLE MERMAID. The 70’s also had 5 animated features released but you can argue THE MANY ADVENTURES OF WINNIE THE POOH since it was put together from three older featurettes released by Disney. The 1960’s was the least productive decade largely due to Walt Disney’s passing. That is an assumption by me but it feels a rather accurate one given that the company lost its identity and struggled heartily to find it again. From 1960 to 1969, Disney released 3 animated films.
The 50’s was an absolute dynamo of classic films that total up to five. They were CINDERELLA, ALICE IN WONDERLAND, PETER PAN, LADY AND THE TRAMP and SLEEPING BEAUTY. As stated earlier though, at the time of release were these films met with the “original” complaint? I would guess not since in the prior 13 years it was largely shown that Disney made adaptations.
The 40’s sported 10 releases with a number of them being compilations with MAKE MINE MUSIC, FUN AND FANCY FREE and MELODY TIME. Some were based on existing works (PINOCCHIO, DUMBO, BAMBI) as well. FANTASIA was wholly original and was met with confusion by audiences. The only film prior to PINOCCHIO was SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS so that is what people wanted. More of those. Audiences did not seem to react well to new ideas. They knew what they wanted and that is where their money lay. World War II also had huge effects on the studio too. People were not in the mood to see a cheery fairy-tale with the reality that clouded the globe. Overseas markets were non existent for obvious reasons.
So has Disney really abandoned the original animated feature? They just wrapped up a decade where they equaled or produced more animated features than every other decade of their existence besides the 2000’s which includes a collection of misfires that no one remembers anyhow and even in that arena it’s by a single film. Now, the production cycle was longer in the old days with animators working around the clock in sweat boxes until the work was done so they could quickly start work on the next project. With that in mind, we still even out except in the 40’s with many releases being anthologies and not singular original stories. So lets change the focus. What if the live-action remakes are taking the place of “original” live-action films?
Live action was seen to Walt Disney as a creative outlet that did not mean financial ruin should one bust at the theater. They could make them leaps faster than an animated feature at a fraction of the cost so if one was passed over by the audience he had another ready in the wings. That mindset does not work in the modern market though, or does it? A major live action release costs in the hundreds of millions and takes a chunk of calendar for post production time so it should be tougher now,right? Let’s look at it anyhow.
In the last decade we have an absolute mess of live action releases from Disney. I am going to stick with the US releases for ease as well. ALICE IN WONDERLAND, PRINCE OF PERSIA : THE SANDS OF TIME, THE SORCERER’S APPRENTICE, SECRETARIAT, TRON : LEGACY, PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN : ON STRANGER TIDES, THE MUPPETS, JOHN CARTER, THE ODD LIFE OF TIMOTHY GREEN, OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL, THE LONE RANGER, SAVING MR BANKS, MUPPETS MOST WANTED, MILLION DOLLAR ARM, MALEFICENT, ALEXANDER AND THE TERRIBLE HORRIBLE NO GOOD VERY BAD DAY, INTO THE WOODS, MCFARLAND USA, CINDERELLA, TOMORROWLAND, THE FINEST HOURS, THE JUNGLE BOOK, ALICE THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS, THE BFG, PETE’S DRAGON, QUEEN OF KATWE, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN : DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES, A WRINKLE IN TIME, CHRISTOPHER ROBIN, THE NUTCRACKER AND THE FOUR REALMS, MARY POPPINS RETURNS, DUMBO, ALADDIN, THE LION KING, MALEFICENT : MISTRESS OF EVIL.
Good lord…long list. How many do you remember fondly remember? Out of the 30 films listed 16 of them have been given a “Certified Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Some of the highest ranked films made next to nothing compared to the some of the lowest ranked films. For instance, QUEEN OF KATWE made just 10 million worldwide while sporting a score of 93%. On the other end of the spectrum PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN : DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES raked in nearly 800M while garnering a score of 29%.
Thirteen of the films are adaptations/inspired by existing stories (Prince of Persia, Sorcerers’s Apprentice, Secretariat, Million Dollar Arm, Alex and …, Into the Woods, McFarland USA, Tomorrowland, The Finest Hours, The BFG, Queen of Katwe, A Wrinkle in Time, Nutcracker) while 16 are direct sequels or remakes. Then there is Maleficent which I honestly don’t know what the hell that is. Seriously. Help me out here. Is THAT the original?
And here lay the issue I have. The animated films are fine. They are putting out quality work and looking forward, PIXAR has stated that the recent TOY STORY 4 will be their last sequel in the foreseeable future and they already announced their next two films which are original pitches. WDA is still up in the air a bit after the canning of GIGANTIC and only FROZEN 2 upcoming. We will find out more towards that at D23 one would assume.
What about the live action scene though? It’s a large platter with the FOX acquisition so we really need to wait and see what happens. If you are yearning for the old days of Disney live action films though, take a look at the majority of films they released. Largely adaptations. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Rob Roy, Davy Crockett, Johnny Tremain, Old Yeller, Darby O’Gill and the Little People, The Gnome-Mobile…
Okay, lets hold for a moment. Have you not seen The Gnome-Mobile?