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Disney's 'live action' remakes will need to evolve as Millennial favorites run out

By Josh Spiegel
The Lion King Simba Timon and Pumbaa

Nostalgia is the lifeblood of the Walt Disney Company, but it's not an infinitely renewable resource. The first half of that sentence is unavoidable when you think about the films that Disney releases through its live-action unit, especially in the past 18 months.

Films inspired by or directly remaking Fantasia, Dumbo, Sleeping Beauty, Aladdin, The Lion King, and Mulan have either arrived in theaters or will arrive soon enough. (And that's not counting the streaming-only remake of Lady and the Tramp.) Last week, two more films were put on the path to being remade: Bambi and Pinocchio. But announcing the possibility of these remakes doesn't make them a sure thing, creatively or financially.

As Disney skates away from its most recognizable animated titles, it finds itself on much shakier ground.

Bambi IMDb

Last month, there was a one-two punch of industry news for Disney remakes: Robert Zemeckis has officially signed a deal to direct and co-write a long-in-development remake of Pinocchio, and Disney announced it was moving forward with a script for a potential photorealistic, computer-animated remake of Bambi. (You will see some people dub this a "live-action" remake. The initial announcement implies that this film will be designed in the style of Jon Favreau's remake of The Lion King, which of course means that it will not in any way, shape, or form be a live-action film. Just like that film, it will be a computer-animated remake.)

On one hand, the announcement of more remakes is inevitable for Disney. In 2019, its remakes of Aladdin and The Lion King each made more than a billion dollars worldwide; hell, The Lion King is almost certain to outgross Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker at the domestic box office, an outcome few at Disney likely would have guessed or wanted last year.

Add to that the fact that Bambi and Pinocchio are two of the most well-known older Disney animated films, too. Why shouldn't Disney remake these titles?

The answer requires a bit more nuance. As mentioned above, yes, the past 18 months included the massive box-office numbers for Aladdin and The Lion King. They also marked the arrival of films such as Dumbo, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, and The Nutcracker and the Four Realms. Each of these films takes their cue from older Disney animated classics. Who among us doesn't remember the joy of watching Dumbo fly for the first time, or of watching the fairies dancing in an animated "Nutcracker Suite" in the original Fantasia?

Yet all of these films, even Mistress of Evil, the follow-up to the 2014 hit film Maleficent, did mostly quite badly at the box office. If anything, the hit status of Aladdin was able to alleviate the underperforming of Dumbo this past spring. What is it that made these films, boasting recognizable actors and source material, do poorly where others have soared?

Aladdin Will Smith as the Genie Disney

Yes, people know about Fantasia, Dumbo, and Sleeping Beauty. Yes, these films have iconic moments that were recreated in some capacity in live-action/CG form. But there's one other distinct similarity they have: They weren't released in theaters during the era of Millennial children. The peak of hand-drawn animation in the '90s — often referred to as the Disney Renaissance — came courtesy of films such as Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King, which have now all been turned into massive, billion-dollar-grossing remakes. The children who fell for Belle, Aladdin, and Simba as characters are now adults with children of their own, thus allowing for them to pass on their nostalgia to a new generation.

It's not that Millennials such as myself don't like or love films such as Fantasia or Sleeping Beauty. (I may be the rarer case, in that I think Pinocchio and Fantasia are not only two of the best Disney animated films ever, but two of the greatest visual cinematic achievements ever.) But whatever nostalgia we may have for these films is secondhand. We learned about them through theatrical re-releases and VHS.

Moreover, the older Disney animated films were shorter by design — Dumbo is barely more than an hour long, which explains why the Tim Burton-directed remake from last spring spends most of its two hours telling a different story onto which parts of the original are randomly grafted with little thought. (For example, the now-controversial "When I See An Elephant Fly" song is no longer sung by a stereotypical murder of crows but recited at a circus by... boxing announcer Michael Buffer.)

It's obviously very early days for the potential remakes of Pinocchio and Bambi. The former title, based on the Carlo Collodi novel of the same name, is one of those family-film ideas that's been banging around Hollywood for a while. In recent years, figures such as Robert Downey Jr., Guillermo del Toro, and even Paul Thomas Anderson were attached to a rival remake, which also hasn't come to fruition.

But Disney has yet to fully test the waters of how far it can push people's nostalgia in successful ways. The remakes of the aforementioned Renaissance-era titles are largely similar to their inspirations, to the point where The Lion King often feels like Gus Van Sant's Psycho remake: A shot-for-shot recreation of a beloved classic adding nothing new to the conversation.

Liu Yifei Mulan

Mulan, arriving in theaters on March 27, will be the first full test of how far Disney can push its nostalgia.

The upcoming Niki Caro-directed live-action film is ostensibly a remake of the 1998 animated film released at the tail end of the Disney Renaissance. Yet from the early marketing, it seems as though this film will take an approach evinced most recently and most successfully by the 2016 remake of Pete's Dragon: Take the core premise of a story without recreating all of its elements. So far, there's no reason to presume that Mulan will be accompanied by a talking dragon named Mushu, or that there will be musical sequences. (Caro recently confirmed that Mushu won't be in the film, nor will characters burst into song.)

This Mulan may take the premise — a young Chinese girl impersonates a man in the army to save her older father from serving in the war — without the details. Creatively, that approach worked for Pete's Dragon, but the film was a mild sleeper hit at the box office because audiences didn't have a lot of nostalgia for the 1977 hybrid of live-action and animation, different story or not.

Mulan has plenty of affection among Millennials. But the version of the story that does engender affection is all about a girl who has a chirping cricket friend, a wisecracking and tiny dragon (voiced by Eddie Murphy) at her side, and a love story with a character who isn't among the cast list for the remake. If this Mulan is a hit, the remakes of Pinocchio and Bambi may be allowed to explore things differently than their inspirations did.

Right now, the co-writer of the Bambi script, Lindsey Beers, says that the idea she and her co-writer pitched is meant to be "something more epic and suited to modern audiences." (I'm not making a random supposition here: This is literally what she said to me on Twitter in response to my... shall we say, moderate disdain at the announcement.) If it's not, they may be forced to stick to the script of the originals.

The Little Mermaid IMDb

But will it matter? What made the Renaissance remakes do well at the box office was their inherent recognition value to Millennial audiences, as well as their kids and their now-older parents.

If there's a surefire hit among Disney's future remakes, it's the in-production The Little Mermaid, the final entry of the quartet of animated films that helped re-solidify Disney's status as the benchmark for feature animation in modern cinema. That film will do well not because it's well-directed, acted, or conceived; it'll be a success because people know that story, and they love it.

Disney can tap into that nostalgia with ease. But not all animated films offer a similar financial fountain of youth. Disney may find the hard way that it's tapped the fountain for all it's worth already, and there's no more nostalgia to be found.