Have you seen the recent live-action Jungle Book movie? I went to see it while it was still in theaters. It took aspects from the animated movie–as well as elements from Rudyard Kipling’s original tale–and overall it was a fun moviegoing experience. It was clear to me that the creators of this version really loved the story and wanted to do it right, and while it was told in a new way it retained (some of) the heart that made its cartoon predecessor so special. Sure, I still personally prefer the original, but I think this new take was worth seeing. Bill Murray made an awesome Baloo. I didn’t go in with high hopes, though, and therefore I was honestly (and pleasantly) surprised when it turned out to be better than I expected.
Why didn’t I go in thinking I was going to see a good movie? Because, in my opinion, the recent live-action Disney films had set up that fairly low expectation.
In particular, I’m referring to the remakes of other animated classics, Cinderella and Maleficent. I was excited for them both, I saw them in theaters, and I was disappointed each time. Instead of thinking that Disney had wondrously revitalized these classic tales, I mostly just wondered why we needed these new versions at all.
Spoilers ahead for both Maleficent and Cinderella, by the way.
I really did want to like Maleficent. I thought that the concept–the story as told through the eyes of the villain (especially one of the most iconic of Disney’s baddies) was really cool. In the animated feature we never learned anything about her other than that she’s evil and she’s miffed over not being invited to Aurora’s birth party (from what I’ve read, the original fairy tale didn’t add much more to that). So in the live-action version they added in an elaborate backstory for her, which included a history with Aurora’s father Stephan, to try and explain how she became the evil character that we know from Sleeping Beauty. It was a bit forced at times, but it wasn’t overly terrible, and it succeeded in actually making her into a sympathetic character of sorts. In the animated movie, of course, Maleficent turned into a massive dragon and went head-to-head with Prince Phillip. She lost, she died, and everybody (else) lived happily ever after. In Maleficent, however, she was redeemed in the end and became all happy and cheerful. Angelina Jolie did a great job portraying the character, and it was all very visually stunning, but ultimately I was more than a bit disappointed. I just felt that the new ending was too much of a deviation–even though I was willing to accept all of the other changes–and it was too drastic a departure for the character. I mean, she didn’t even turn into a dragon, and that’s pretty much what she’s known for!
Sure, some changes are to be expected in a remake, but altering the entire ending is a pretty big one. Then again, keeping Maleficent alive and giving her that redemption does allow them to make even more money off the franchise with the sequel that’s apparently happening.
Cinderella I really didn’t like. In the animated movie, we meet the character of Cinderella when she’s already a young adult. We’re given enough history to understand what’s going on, and then the movie is all about her eventually becoming a princess (with the help of some talking mice). The live-action version starts further back, though, and shows us her childhood. Her early life is fleshed out, and… sorry, it just doesn’t work. They try to add depth, and yet she just comes off as a one-dimensional character. We’re introduced to her parents in this version, and early on she’s told by her mother to “have courage and be kind”. This advice carries her through her childhood and her adult life, and it becomes basically the reason that she lets these bad things happen to her. You’d think that maybe “be nice but, y’know, stand up for yourself now and again” would have been a better life lesson. When her wicked stepmother and mean stepsisters are wicked and mean to her, she just recites her mom’s words and then keeps letting it all happen. True, her being abused by her step-family is the basic plot in every version of the story, but the addition of her oft-recited “mantra” made her (in my eyes) less of a sympathetic character and more of a doormat. I just couldn’t root for her. The animated movie added a healthy dose of Disney whimsy to her journey (again, talking mice) and it’s an important element of fun to what’s basically a rags-to-riches tale. Without that, the live-action version simply isn’t very interesting.
Let’s look at another recent example: Pete’s Dragon.
I may have, prior to its release, called the remake of Pete’s Dragon an “abomination” on my Facebook page. I really like the original (I’m not saying that it’s a great movie, but I’m saying that I personally find it entertaining) and in the trailers the new version looked to be a pretty drastic departure. The original was a bizarre, over-the-top campy musical, and the remake appeared to take itself far more seriously. Plus, no singing. I’ll admit that, based on my limited information, I was dubious.
Well it turns out that, while definitely very different from the original in just about every way, the new Pete’s Dragon wasn’t an abomination. It’s not actually that bad at all (even if there’s no Doc Terminus, who’s my favorite part of the 1977 film). It’s the story repackaged for modern audiences who may not be as receptive to a snake-oil salesman singing about chopping up a dragon to sell its part for medicine, or alcoholism used as a comedy device, or people who basically bought a child to use as slave labor.
OK, I think I get why they opted to go in a different direction here…
What’s interesting about Pete’s Dragon is that many people I’ve talked to didn’t even know that there WAS an ‘original’ version. So while some moviegoers may have gone to see the remake because they saw the old one, others were seeing this story (in any version) for the very first time. In that respect, Disney’s decision to make a new Pete’s Dragon was definitely a smart one. It put the franchise back on the map. It may be very different in tone, but it’s a new version of the story for a new generation.
This is all probably a bit (or a lot) grumpy and get-off-my-lawn sounding, I know. Though I think it poses an interesting question: when watching a remake, are we going in hoping to see a shot-for-shot recreation of the original, or are we expecting a new take on the story and are willing to accept the changes that are made? Jungle Book kept pretty close to the original, while Pete’s Dragon was very different (it had Pete, and a dragon, and that’s about it), and both were decent films. They took on the subjects in their own way but, like their predecessors, at their core they both had heart. Cinderella took that heart out almost completely, and the result was a bland retelling of the story. Maleficent had its moments, and they managed to add some real depth to her saga, but in redeeming her at the end they managed to just stray too far from the true soul of the character.
So what’s coming next for Disney live-action remakes? Everything, it would seem. Beauty and the Beast is slated for release in March of 2017. From what I’ve seen in teasers and photos, this one looks like it’s sticking pretty close to its source material. I’m sure that there will be changes, but I’m actually optimistic about it and I’m looking forward to seeing it. Jon Favreau is remaking The Lion King in the same live-action/CGI style as the recent Jungle Book (which he directed and co-produced). Tim Burton is recreating Dumbo, which is probably going to be… weird. There are also live-action remakes of Mulan, Sword in the Stone, Winnie the Pooh, Peter Pan, and Pinocchio in the works. A movie about Genie from Aladdin is coming, plus a remake of Aladdin itself. There’s one about Tinkerbell, and another about Cruella De Vil. There’s even one about Chernabog from the “Night on Bald Mountain” sequence of Fantasia, and supposedly there’s also going to be a movie about Snow White’s sister–dubbed Rose Red–coming at some point in the future. Additionally, sequels to Maleficent and Jungle Book have been announced.
It appears that, for better or worse, the live-action remake train has no intention of slowing down.
I mean, I guess I get why they’re remaking their classic films. They want a new generation to enjoy these stories (and, more cynically, to continue to make money off of these franchises) and remaking them is a way to do that. Entertainment has changed over the decades, so recreating these tales with modern sensibilities is a way to bring them to a new audience.
I think my issue with some of these live-action remakes can be summed up like this: when watching the animated originals, there’s a sense of magic about them that makes them special. They have a heart that captures the imaginations of kids and adults alike, and when those kids grow up they can’t wait to show the films to the next generation. It’s why they’ve remained so popular so long after their release. Most of these new versions, though, lack that spark. They feel kind of like many big-budget movies that have come out in recent years, lots of style but not much substance.
Will any of these live-action remakes still hold up years from now like the originals have? Recently, a local movie theater showed the original Sleeping Beauty on the big screen and the house looked to be mostly sold out with people from all ages there. Sixty years from now, will Maleficent garner that same kind of attention?
I don’t know if I have any answers to the questions I’ve posed here (or even if I have a real point to this rant). I’ll still go see the remakes when they get released. I’ll probably still walk into each one with low expectations, I’ll be pleasantly surprised when they turn out to be decent movies, and I’ll be disappointed when I don’t think they work.
Ultimately, though, I just don’t know if I’ll ever see them as exciting new takes on these classic tales, or if I’ll keep thinking they’re just largely unnecessary and then go back and watch the originals.