When Beauty and the Beast gets its international release this Friday, it will mark the first of the impressive seventy-seven film roster that Disney reportedly have lined up (currently in either pre, present or post production) for the next decade. Thirteen of these are sequels and seventeen don’t even have titles yet. Most interestingly, however, eleven will see the House of Mouse return to their own animated back-catalogue to remake them anew as live action films. Coming up are Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin and Tim Burton’s Dumbo, with Niki Caro’s Mulan next year. If you listen very closely, somewhere beneath the sound of money belts jangling and pixie dust sparkling, the distant scraping of the bottom of a very large barrel can just about be heard.
Have Disney lost the plot? Or has a six year old me’s wish-upon-a-star – that all films in the future will feature random bouts of singing and talking animals (and randomly singing, talking animals) – finally been granted? Moreover, how did such blatant cinematic recycling become so prolific?
Remakes are themselves hardly a new phenomenon. As early as 1938, Edmund Goulding was remaking The Dawn Patrol of eight years prior, whilst in 1998 Gus Van Sant produced an – utterly unnecessary – shot-for-shot copy of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 classic horror Psycho. Furthermore, Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows (1955) directly inspired both Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974) and Todd Haynes’ Far from Heaven (2002). Delve too deeply it becomes a challenge not to get lost amid remakes of remakes of remakes. Disney, too, have a history of dipping their toes into the past. In 1996 Glenn Close led a rehash of 101 Dalmatians, whilst The Jungle Book had been remade twice before the turn of the twenty-first century.
The present tide can be blamed on 2010’s Alice in Wonderland. Despite receiving mixed reviews – I really liked it as it goes – Burton’s darkly hued retelling of the 1951 animated feature went on to storm the worldwide box office, stacking up over $1bn (currently listing as the twenty-fourth highest grossing film of all time) and winning not one, but two Oscars. By the end of this barnstorming run, it would be safe to say that Alice wasn’t the only one loving life in Wonderland. Next to see release in this not-quite-new canon, and taking a similar aesthetic to Burton’s blockbuster, was the Angelina Jolie vehicle Maleficent. Not that Disney find safety in repetition, Burton was himself at one point attached to the Wicked-esque restyling of 1959’s Sleeping Beauty before it was taken on by Alice’s award-winning art director, Robert Stromberg. Whilst Jolie shone in the role, Maleficent was a troubled picture; the first twenty minutes prior to Jolie’s appearance are truly awful. But despite this, and a poor Rotten Tomatoes score almost identical to Alice in Wonderland’s, the film went on to rake in a profit big enough to land it at number four in the highest grossers of 2014.
After two box office hits, Kenneth Branagh finally brought the venture critical respectability a year later with his remake of Cinderella starring a picture-perfect Lily James, alongside Cate Blanchett as her wicked stepmother. Though it made $200m fewer than Maleficent and only managed half the box office of Alice in Wonderland, Cinderella proved much closer to its source material than its predecessors.
Taking the box office and Oscar success of Alice in Wonderland and combining it with the critical warmth granted Cinderella, Jon Favreau’s Jungle Book last year set the high mark of live action animation remakes. The film saw newcomer Neel Sethi inherit the role of Mowgli from 1967’s Bruce Reitherman, with supporting roles by the likes of Bill Murray and Sir Ben Kingsley, and has so far brought Disney a whopping $966m and won Best Visual Effects at the 89th Academy Awards. Quite whether you can regard a film featuring one real actor in an entirely computer generated world as being ‘live-action’ is a matter for another time; regardless, it is in the wake of The Jungle Book’s success that live action remaking has really accelerated. Coming up are remakes of – deep breath – Pinocchio, Peter Pan, The Little Mermaid, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, One Hundred and One Dalmatians (again!), The Lion King, and Winnie the Pooh. Expect a live-action Frozen commission to hit the headlines before the year’s out. Which brings us to 2017 and Bill Condon’s Beauty and the Beast. So, how do you retell a tale as old as time?
Twenty-six years ago Beauty and the Beast made history for Disney by becoming the first animated feature film ever to receive a nomination for Best Picture at the Oscars, and winning Best Original Song. Beauty’s success was such that in 1994 it became Disney’s first animated film to translate to Broadway and in 2002 was selected for preservation in the American National Film Registry by the Library of Congress. Just a little bit of pressure for Condon and co then. Before finding the form that cinemagoers can experience from Friday, Disney had planned their new Beauty and the Beast to sit more in line with Alice in Wonderland, a much darker fantasy piece and certainly not a musical. Things shifted somewhat with the success of Frozen proving that the genre still had commercial capability. But it was not until Condon threatened to walk from the project that the film became a full-blown musical, Disney previously hoping for the more half and half style utilised by The Jungle Book and, to some extent, Cinderella before it.
As such, to go with the original’s playlist of winning tunes Alan Menken has returned to score four new songs, with lyricist Tim Rice filling the shoes of previous writer Howard Ashman who sadly passed away mere months prior to the animated Beauty and the Beast’s big screen debut. Emma Watson plays Belle, envisioned here as every bit the ‘twenty-first century heroine’, with Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens as the Beast, and Emma Thompson, Ewan McGregor and Sir Ian McKellen lending their voices to Mrs Potts (the teapot), Lumière (the candlestick) and Cogsworth (the clock) respectively. It really is hard to imagine a more idyllic cast. As Belle, Watson not only looks the part but imbues it with the strong feminist protagonist rooted within the original, whilst the film sees a delightfully joyeux turn from McKellen.
Commercialist interests aside – Beauty and the Beast has already seized the title of Fandango’s fasted-selling family film of all time and is predicted to make over $100m in its opening weekend alone – there’s no denying that Disney are treading carefully with these remakes. Any horror that followed the announcement Favreau’s The Lion King’s adaption was quickly tempered by the announcement that Donald Glover will voice Simba whilst James Earl Jones is reprising his role, from the 1994 original, of Mufasa.
But anticipating each of Disney’s remakes is a little like approaching a dental appointment with perfectly cleaned teeth: you know that logically things should be okay, but that doesn’t mean you’re not sat in the waiting room gnawing at the inside of your cheek in fear. At the end of the day, they are only films, but in each of these cases the audiences have an intensive personal investment. There’s also the unavoidable feeling that it all seems very calculated and profiteering from a company that normally hides its capitalism behind a mouse and mantra that dreams can come true. A remake isn’t inherently a problem, but when you announce eleven in one fell swoop it would be naïve not to anticipate scepticism.
Last year, The Jungle Book was a truly wonderful experience and there’s no denying that there’s something warmly ameliorative in such turbulent times about being able to see A-listers reimagine and return you to your childhood, but it does all smell a little stale. Disney have it in them to give us modern classics – Zootopia, Moana, Inside Out to name a few – so why so heavy a reliance on their past? Fair enough if these remakes are helping to fund originality in a challenging marketplace, but please know when enough is enough. Sure, I’ll be first in the line on Friday, but I’ll be there with Cogsworth’s 1991 line: ‘if it aint baroque, don’t fix it’ tumbling nervously in the back of my mind.