How Disney is trying to create a new cinematic universe with its old classics

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Aug 7, 2018, 12:10 PM EDT

The prevailing trend in American entertainment is the cinematic universe. So far, Marvel has achieved what other studios struggle to do, but keep trying to create: Universal tried and failed to get a Dark Universe of horror-action films off the ground last year, Warner Bros. is still attempting to build out cinematic universes with both LEGO and DC (and only barely succeeding with the former), and on and on.

But if Marvel has succeeded most of all, the corporation that controls Marvel is doing a pretty decent job itself. Maybe we ought to dub this the era of the Disney Extended Universe, too.

If nothing else, Disney is trying to turn a franchise out of live-action remakes, revivals, or sequels of its animated fare. If a film is part of the Disney animated-feature canon, it’s fair game for the live-action or computer-animated treatment. This past weekend, the Disney version of Winnie the Pooh became fodder for the relatively lifeless live-action/CG hybrid Christopher Robin, which dares to pose the question: “What if we brought back a lovable group of stuffed animals, but with the grown-up version of the kid who owned those animals as the main character?”


But Christopher Robin is just the latest example of Disney’s burgeoning new Universe. In 2010, they got a major hit in Tim Burton’s garish Alice in Wonderland revival, which introduced us all to the fresh and foul horrors of the Futterwacken. (I will not include a clip to that dance in this essay. You’re welcome.) Since then, they’ve had redos of Pete’s Dragon, The Jungle Book, Beauty and the Beast, and Cinderella, as well as the Sleeping Beauty-adjacent Maleficent. Next year alone, we’ll get new versions of The Lion King, Dumbo, and Aladdin, with Mulan and Maleficent II to come in 2020.

A couple of these films have had their charms; the 2016 family drama Pete’s Dragon is unquestionably the best of the bunch to date, in part because the level of fandom people have for the original 1977 film is fairly minimal. As such, director and co-writer David Lowery was able to expand upon the notion of a boy in the woods and his possibly-not-imaginary dragon without the potential of an intensely disappointed fanbase. Just about every other film adapted so far, as well as those to come, has dealt with whether to be a beat-for-beat remake or being bold and different. (Except for Alice in Wonderland, which was just hideous.)


Maleficent boasted a genuinely fascinating and charismatic lead performance from Angelina Jolie, but it also had to deal with the fact that everyone familiar with Sleeping Beauty expected Maleficent to be, as she put it in the 1959 film, “the mistress of all evil,” not an antihero. It is, perhaps, not a coincidence that the best scene in Maleficent features Jolie reciting, line for line, the originally villainous character’s dialogue from the christening scene in the animated film.

Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book utilized its massive amount of special effects very well, but also had to balance the lighthearted songs from the 1967 animated film with its attempt to be somewhat darker than its predecessor. His upcoming computer-animated remake of The Lion King may yet have similar struggles. (Some people may tell you that film is going to be a live-action remake, which is technically unlikely, considering the absence of human characters and the usage of blue-screen and computer-animated effects.)

Christopher Robin is mostly live-action; the eponymous adult character walks around the Hundred Acre Wood with computer-animated characters like Winnie the Pooh, Tigger, Eeyore, and Piglet, but the woods themselves either are real woods or some of the most excellent computer effects ever. Much of the film’s attempts at humor come from fish-out-of-water-style jokes because of Pooh’s struggle to understand how post-World War II London works. Yes, Pooh and friends enter London in this film.

Frankly, much of Christopher Robin is less about Christopher (Ewan McGregor, acquitting himself far better than he did as Lumiere in Beauty and the Beast) exploring the Hundred Acre Wood as much as it is about him dealing with family strife and his old friends helping him by entering the real world. Some of the film feels like it wants to grapple with the characters in a mature fashion, but then there are wacky car chases in London in the third act that feel ported over from a goofier, sillier film.

It’s a microcosm of what has creatively held this Disney Extended Universe back so far: Should these movies be straight-up remakes trafficking in nostalgia, or something darker and deeper? The latter might be more creatively intriguing, but the box-office results of films like Beauty and the Beast and The Jungle Book suggest that nostalgia may be enough to make this a cinematic universe with a long shelf life, even if it doesn't produce many classics of its own.