Who doesn’t love Disney? Ever since Snow White and the Seven Dwarves was released in 1937, the company have been responsible for some of the most successful films of all time, all the while helping to shape and mould young children’s emotional, and intellectual development. Sure, thier back catalogue of films have some questionable stereotypes when it comes to race and sex, telling young girls and boys what’s attractive and what their roles in life should be, from the age of zero upwards. Sexism and racism aside though, the majority of Disney films are undeniably fabulous, with films such as The Lion King, Aladdin, and Beauty and the Beast- all released during the company’s unstoppable run of hits in the 90’s- were prevalent through my childhood. Even now, I vividly remember going to see The Lion King at the age of six, and following it up with a happy meal from McDonald’s, complete with tie-in toy. I’d probably never been happier; just a six year old boy, taking a big bite into a consumerist society, with a side of burger and fries.
Over the years, I’ve seen Disney’s popularity wane during the noughties, only to grow exponentially over the last few years, with films like Tangled, Wreck It Ralph, Frozen, and Big Hero 6, proving a return to form. Add to that the acquisition of Marvel, as well as Lucasfilm, and the company, perhaps more than ever, seem on course to take over the world, or at the very least, our cinema-screens. Not content with superheroes and Star Wars, Disney seem to have come up with another way to take millions worldwide; an idea that’s simple, but brilliant. Re-makes of their own animated properties. The idea was toyed with in the late 1990’s, with the Glenn Close-starring 101 Dalmations, which took enough money to warrant a sequel in 2000. It’s only recently that the concept of a live-action ‘re-telling’ has taken root in Disney’s plans for box-office dominance, with Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland taking over one billion dollars worldwide. Whether or not the film was any good (I think it’s Tim Burton at his self-parodic worse) clearly didn’t matter much to the studio when taking into account its financal success; so much so that, despite a critical backlash, a sequel has been green-lit, due for release next year.
Alice In Wonderland proved that the market for re-makes was huge, and since it was released, Disney have aimed to capitalise on its success by doing the same with thier other classic films. In the past year, we’ve seen the release of Maleficent, which aimed to re-tell Sleeping Beauty from the villains’ point of view, and the upcoming Cinderella, which as far as I can see, seems to be a re-make in the traditional sense of the word. That’s barely scratching the surface though; when you take into account this year’s Into The Woods, which heavily featured characters such as Rapenzul, and Cinderella; not forgetting 2010’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, which gave Fantasia a modern day setting; the revival of Disney’s classic stories, is clear to see. This looks to be just the beginning too, with a new Beauty and the Beast due out next year, and a Tim Burton directed Dumbo currently in development. So why are Disney so reluctant to ‘let it go’ and leave their back catalogue alone?
The nice, soft answer, would be that in re-making their films, some of which were made over fifty years ago, they are bringing that magic and wonder to a whole new generation. Whilst that may very well be part of it, the massive cash injection from worldwide sales, is an understandably tempting prospect. After all, film-making is a business, isn’t it? Mark Kermode, the UK’s most trusted film critic, and all round wittertainer, has been dealing with this very aspect of the industry in the recent BBC Radio 4 show; The Business of Film. In the first episode, he speaks with the head of Film4, David Kosse, who describes the industry as “an almost break-even business, except for the sequel business”, adding that studios that are part of a conglomerate “are looking to create brands they can create and exploit worldwide, that they can grown into theme parks, games, television shows…”. If this is indeed the case, then surely Disney are the biggest example of it, with mass merchandise often accompanying their releases, to the delight of children, and to the dismay of parents. However, could it be a case of if not Disney, then who?
As we’ve come to associate fairy tales such as Pinocchio, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, and Beauty and the Beast with Disney, it’s easy to forget that the source material can be dated back to folk-lore and literature from as early as the 18th century. In the case of Beast, the studio were even beaten to the punch by a whole forty five years, with the 1946 adaptation, La Belle et la Bête. With a vast amount of material, such as Grimm’s Fairy Tales, embedded into our childhood, sometimes even before Disney, can we really blame the studio for capitalising on it. After all, other studios such as Warner Bros. currently have Jungle Book and Peter Pan re-imaginings due out over the course of the next years. I suppose it all really comes down to each films worth, not strictly in the sense of money, but narratively too. With re-makes in general, their success usually hinders on what it does differently to the original. In this aspect, Disney’s are a bit of a mixed bag. With Burton’s Alice In Wonderland, the focus on its darker themes arguably justifies its own exsistence. Maleficent has probably been the most successful in bringing something new to the classic story, playing with the traditional Disney notions of good and evil. I may not think the film was very good, but at least it tried to be different; immediately earning my well earned cinema money there and then.
When you look back at the live-action 101 Dalmations on the other hand, a film that added nothing to the original animation (except an excellent Glenn Close) and you can’t help but question the studio’s motives, as anything other than financial gain. I’ve yet to see the new Cinderella, but from what I’ve seen so far, I fear that it could suffer from similar problems. One thing is for certain though; the film is on-course to take lots of money all over the world, which will more than likely encourage further re-makes of Disney staples. It may be cynical of me, and who really cares what the reasoning behind the re-makes are, as long as they maintain that traditional Disney magic, that captivates and sparks so many young children’s imaginations. Make no mistake though, that giving their classics new life, comes with it big bucks; a ‘financial circle of life’ which shows every sign of blossoming until people have had enough, or just gotten plain confused by the different versions of one story. I can’t see that happening anytime soon though, whether that’s for better, or worse.