Disney pioneered its own form of family entertainment in 1937 when Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the company's very first fully animated feature film, was released. The projects that followed were nothing short of magical. Over the next six decades, Walt Disney Animation Studios became the epitome of family films and a household name. Disney has continued to prove itself as a powerhouse brand, bringing in billions every year in film revenue alone.
What sets Disney apart from other similar company is its ability to captivate audiences across generations. Those who grew up awaiting the release of would-be classics like Alice in Wonderland and Sleeping Beauty shared these films with their children, while they in turn anxiously prepared for the premieres of The Fox and the Hound and The Little Mermaid. I remember the night my father took me to see my first Disney animated film, The Lion King, when I was 5 years old; I remember it like it was yesterday. It was a bonding experience I would never forget. We laughed, we cried, we became more aware of the importance of our relationship. It was then that I became interested in seeing the Disney films he grew up watching — and the cycle continues. I'm still amazed by the ability of a great Disney movie to spark such emotion in people, young and old. However, as these classics age, will they keep their staining power? Is there a way to keep these stories alive for those that grew up loving them while also reaching the hearts of our newest generations? Disney seems to believe that live-action remakes are the answer.
I'd like to take a deeper look into Disney's live-action reboot timeline and point out some of the key benefits that make these films a passing of the torch instead of the easy money they are sometimes accused of being. Love them or hate them, no one can deny the major impact these reimagined Disney classics are having on the modern family.
The Circle Of Life: Bringing Modern Families Together
While this cycle of sharing Disney classics is beautiful and heartwarming, I noticed something changing as my generation began having children: A big portion of them had yet to see Sleeping Beauty, Alice in Wonderland, Aladdin or even The Lion King. I figured maybe parents just weren't showing their children these iconic films as much as the generation before us did. It wasn't until I had a child of my own did I understand that some of today's children simply aren't pulled in by classic animation anymore. I couldn't get my 5-year-old son to sit down and watch The Jungle Book or Peter Pan, but he loves films like Big Hero 6 and Monsters, Inc.
Upon recognizing this trend, I began to wonder if maybe, just maybe, these classic animations aren't as timeless as I once believed. Sure, I'm certain that my son will watch the classics when he gets older out of curiosity to see how far Disney has come (I'd like to think I'm raising a budding cinephile), however, presently I can't keep that kid's attention on a classic Disney film for more than 10 minutes.
After thinking about that for a tad bit longer than would be considered healthy, I had an idea. I sat my son down to watch the 2010 live-action reboot of Alice in Wonderland, thinking the updated visuals and special effects might appeal to him more — and I was right. Little dude was loving it! He loved how the Red Queen's head looked "like a balloon" and adored the Mad Hatter's transformation-like mood swings. He even adorably compared the Hatter's conflicting emotions to my own "mommy moments." This movie helped him identify my mental illness in the best way he could. I saw my son trying to understand me in the only way a 4 year old can. That's a gift that has no identifiable value. He was glued to his seat from start to finish and gave me his stamp of approval in the form of a question: "Can we watch it again, Mom?"
This experience made me respect Disney's reboot agenda even more. I was already invested in the remake schedule because I had seen the originals as a child. What I first believed to be a quick cash grab became so much more to me, a way to share the magic with my child without forcing him to watch older versions that didn't appeal to him as much. With all the remakes that have come since and have yet to be released, Disney has once again captured my heart — this time, as a mother instead of a child. The magic that is Disney is truly a family experience and I am now old enough to realize that.
I don't think any of the live-action reboots have devalued the originals. In fact, I believe the opposite — that these reimaginings are performing double duty. They are reaching a new generation that is seeing these stories for the first time, in the modern format they are used to, while giving their parents a fully upgraded case of the feels so many years later.
Through Another's Looking Glass: A Fresh Perspective
When I think about the Disney live-action lineup, I think of two different types of reboots: The "modern retelling" and the "shifted perspective." What made Alice in Wonderland and Cinderella so special is that they took the original story and told it in a way that kept modern audiences entertained, with some creative license, of course. These films were total nostalgia for adults and a whole new adventure for kids. One of these remakes trod a more risky path; it took the original story and told it from the perspective of a different character. I'm talking, of course, about 2014's Maleficent. This film went boldly where no one expected it to — into the mind of a classic Disney villain.
There are those that feel Maleficent's dive into the workings of such a mysterious Disney villain has in some way ruined the appeal of 1959's Sleeping Beauty. I am not one of those people. I was excited for this film from the moment it was announced. Angelina Jolie brought such a balance of roughness and raw emotion to the role that both impressed and moved me. As a child, I had always wondered what made Maleficent so cruel and why she hated Aurora so much. Eighteen years later, I was given the gift of an answer that sends an invaluable message: Even the most evil of people feel pain and sometimes all evil needs is a little love. I was in tears while identifying with Maleficent's heartbreak and broken trust. I began to understand why she was so angry and full of hate. I love a story that can take a villain and humanize them. Disney did just that with this film.
While my son is still too young to understand the core concept of this film, I know that one day he will be able to learn the valuable lesson that it has to teach — that evil isn't always born and is sometimes made. I think many children can benefit from seeing Maleficent and witnessing how the actions of others can mold a person into who they are. Maybe they'll begin to think about how others will feel before they act or speak, and that's something any parent would be proud of.
I'm curious to see what other stories Disney will choose to retell this way. We've already been teased with announcements of a reboot centered around Cruella de Vil aimed for a 2017 release (I cannot deal!). I'd be interested to see even more Disney classics remade in this fashion as well. Seriously, I'd like to know why Jafar is so manipulative and nefarious, or why Cinderella's stepmom is so obsessed with money and power, or what led to Ursula being the Rumpelstiltskin of the sea. These are the things that keep me up at night.
A Whole New World Of Filmmaking: Bringing Classic Animated Magic To Life
The classic Disney animations that we all know and love had an appeal unlike any other in their time; they were groundbreaking when they were made. People couldn't wait to see the next Disney film because they looked so amazing in comparison to the films they were used to. This classic animated format continued to receive praise and success for decades, creating the foundation on which Disney stands today. However, nowadays that type of filmmaking has become outdated and ordinary for moviegoers around the world.
Many have been wondering why Disney has now chosen to begin establishing its remake repertoire. I don't question this at all. With technology advancing at an exponential rate, I believe, like Disney, that there's no time like the present. The science of filmmaking hasn't seen growth at this scale in a long time, and new techniques and editing practices are becoming the new basis of the art. I believe that Disney is making a smart move in recreating these classic films for the current generation, taking advantage of advancements in moviemaking magic that make a live-action Alice in Wonderland or The Jungle Book possible. Attempting to do this a mere decade ago might not have seen such overwhelming success. Could you imagine what the animals of The Jungle Book or the creatures of Wonderland would have looked like if the reboot was made in 2006? I doubt these films would be as memorable.
The biggest compliment I'm hearing about Disney's newest live-action film The Jungle Book is that the animals truly came to life and were surprisingly realistic. This is no accident and would not have been possible without today's technology. In an interview with Fandango, director Jon Favreau explains how filmmakers used a delicate blend of animation and motion capture technology to give the creatures of the jungle the most accurate look possible. He even reveals a few secrets regarding keeping Neel Sethi (Mowgli), the film's only live human actor, in character despite being surrounded by green/blue screens and having to interact with animals that weren't really there. Did you know that when Mowgli and Baloo are in the river singing "Bare Necessities," Neel is actually splashing and singing with Favreau himself? Cool, right? That's modern Disney magic for ya!
Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo: More Modern Magic From Disney To You
Love them or hate them, Disney live-action remakes are not going anywhere. The massive success of The Jungle Book proves the point that Disney will always be that powerhouse brand it has worked so hard to be. With Alice Through the Looking Glass set to hit theaters this year, many more families of all sizes and walks of life will fill cinema seats and get lost in the silver screen once again. I will continue to be moved by these classic stories, share them with my kids, learn from them myself, and hopefully do it all over again with my grandchildren, sharing the grown-up feels with my sons. The circle of Disney magic.
Other Disney remakes to look out for include Pete's Dragon (2016), Beauty and the Beast (2017), and of course the rumored Cruella (2017). We can expect even more if Disney keeps riding such a tidal wave of success with not only its live-action remakes, but the rest of its wildly popular and profitable content to include the Star Wars franchise, Pixar animations and even a highly anticipated adaptation of The BFG (the beloved children's novel penned by Roald Dahl).
What Disney remakes are you most excited to see? Which classics would you love to see remade in this way? Let me know in the comments!
Illustrations by Stephen Webster