It seems that Disney is well on it's way to announcing a live-action version of their entire back catalog. The Sword in the Stone recently became the latest addition to a list which includes The Jungle Book, Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, Dumbo, Pinocchio and Mulan (as well as the already-released Maleficent and Cinderella). Not that I'm complaining, of course! I'm thrilled to see these Disney classics getting a new lease on life.
That said, The Sword in the Stone is an interesting choice for a re-make. It's lacking the love story that is the centerpiece of so many Disney films, and it's star is a twelve year old boy who is turned into various animals.
This leaves me wondering, where is Disney planning to go with this remake? If their existing live-action films are anything to go by, they have two options; staying faithful to the original in almost every way (a la Cinderella), or creating an entirely new story inspired by the original (like Maleficent).
While Disney is clearly attempting to revitalize many of it's older films (Pinocchio, Dumbo, etc) in order to turn them back into money-makers, the issue with that approach is that they simply don't have the same romantic appeal as the classic princess films. Disney recognizes that while it's target audience may ostensibly be children, the ones making the movie-going decisions are adults, and more and more grown-ups are choosing to indulge their inner child at the movies. By making films that appeal to all ages, they are almost guaranteed to make more money.
With that in mind, it's easy to see why a live-action remake that is true to the original animated classic wouldn't be the smartest move. A twelve year old isn't the most relateable character for teens and adults, and the rest of the cast doesn't exactly inspire great love either; the bumbling Sir Ector, bully Kay, crazy witches and crotchety old wizard Merlin. It's simply not the ideal cast of characters to appeal to all ages and demographics.
It would be nice to see a version of the film with more of a gender balanced cast. The only real female character in the original is Madam Mim, a chubby lunatic who has a bit part at the beginning of the movie as a magical opponent to Merlin. Then there is the nameless girl-squirrel who falls in love with squirrel-Wart, providing one of the saddest moments of the film along with a valuable lesson for the young future king. While this is largely due to the very masculine source material (the Once and Future King), Disney could easily take some liberties to create or expand upon the women in this world.
There's also the issue of talking animals. Each of Wart and Merlin's adventures in the original involve the pair turning into various creatures; birds, fish, squirrels, etc. This would have to translate into heavily CGI'd scenes of talking animals, which can be very hit or miss. In Cinderella, even though the majority of the film was lifted directly from the animation, the talking mice were omitted in favor of much more realistic mousey friends. The Jungle Book and Dumbo will reportedly be doing the CGI-talking-animal route, so Disney would be smart to hedge their bets and stick with a more realistic approach for The Sword in the Stone.
Finally, the original doesn't have a soundtrack that could carry a live-action adaptation. While some Disney classics (such as Aladdin or the Lion King) could arguably get by on the strength of songs alone, there is only really one truly memorable tune in the Sword in the Stone; That's What Makes The World Go Round. It's not even memorable for being a good song, more of an annoying earworm of a ditty that sets rhyming pairs of opposites to music.
With all these reasons stacked against it, where could Disney go with the upcoming film?
Luckily, there is a huge amount of scope in any film based on Arthurian legend, and Disney has proven that it is willing to think outside of the box with Maleficent (as well as rumors that Aladdin will be an Agrabah-set prequel).
I would love to see the story turned on its head, as the tale of Merlin. While this is definitely an angle that we've seen before (in TV and film), it would still be fascinating to see him at this stage in his story. His interactions with Madam Mim could be fleshed out, turned into a much more balanced story of two magical beings competing against each other, perhaps even as a love story involving Mim's desire to stop Merlin from going with Wart. Those who know the legends know that his tutelage of the future King ends up with him trapped forever by Nimue... not the happiest of endings. The adventures as animals and the development of Wart would take second place to the life of the wizard, which would also ensure that an older and established actor would be the star.
Another option would be to tell Kay's story. Rather than the brutish and lumbering young man we saw in the original, it would be interesting to see a young man who watches as the orphaned boy he grew up with goes on great adventures without him. The tournament that was meant to be his moment of glory turns to one where he and his father are forced to kneel to a child they called Wart. While this would still be a very male dominated film, it would be interesting to see another sympathetic "villain" out of a Disney film - especially one as universally loved as King Arthur.
The one place I wouldn't like to see it go? Straight up King Arthur, complete with round table and Guinevere. While I'm all for multiple takes on famous legends, I doubt that anything would be able to immediately top seeing Charlie Hunnam swing his sword in the upcoming Knights of the Round Table. (Check out the first look at him in the role here.)