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The Disney live-action remakes we actually want to see

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Mar 28, 2019

The Walt Disney Company remains not only one of the most powerful media entities on the planet but the most beloved by the general public. To be a Disney fan is a marker of a certain kind of wholesomeness. It is to warm yourself with the soft and welcoming embrace of nostalgia. The studio that made its name through princesses, fairy tales and happy-ever-afters managed to turn those stories into a multibillion-dollar business model that’s the envy of the world. Walt would be proud!

Nowadays, Disney’s strength extends well beyond the properties it made its name with. The company owns both the Marvel and Star Wars franchises, making it a pop culture titan, particularly in the geek sphere. That doesn’t mean Disney has stopped making those fairy tales or animated features that helped to elevate it beyond the ranks of a mere Hollywood studio. The business model may have evolved, but those stories are still bringing in the audiences.

The studio isn’t just making new family films — it’s reviving the ones that helped to define the Disney brand through the magic of the live-action remake. This isn’t a new trend for Disney, of course. The live-action remake of 101 Dalmatians, written by the legendary John Hughes and starring Glenn Close, premiered 22 years ago to surprising critical and commercial success (although the sequel didn’t reach such heights). The most recent boom of Disney’s reboots happened when Tim Burton’s take on Alice in Wonderland grossed over $1 billion. At that time, that made it the fifth-highest-grossing film of all time, and so Disney knew what it had to do. If there’s one thing Disney has excelled at above all other studios, it’s its ability to spark nostalgic bliss in the hearts of audiences of all ages.

Soon came more remakes that brought in the big bucks and renewed interest in classic fairy tales. A reboot of Sleeping Beauty that rewrote the story of Maleficent as a misunderstood victim; a Cinderella with lavish production values and scene-stealing Cate Blanchett dressed to kill; a dazzling special effects extravaganza in The Jungle Book that toed the line of even being defined as "live action"; and, of course, Beauty and the Beast. Critics have had mixed opinions on each film, but audiences never seem to mind.

Disney’s remakes of its own properties have had to toe a strange line in the adaptation process: They must make something audiences want to see, something that appropriately updates material that’s often decades old, but ensure it adheres to familiar story beats and iconography enough to still be definably Disney. This is especially important when the remake in question is also an adaptation of previously existing material, be it a fairy story or classic literature. There are countless versions of The Jungle Book, but Jon Favreau had to remake the Disney one specifically, so of course it had to include the fan-favorite characters and those beloved songs. Beauty and the Beast adaptations are a dime a dozen, but the Disney live-action remake has to be one that obsessively follows the cues of the 1991 classic.

This can present some basic storytelling problems, and nowhere was this more evident than in last year’s Beauty and the Beast, a film too afraid to be its own thing. Minor changes were made and plot holes were filled in, but large chunks of the film felt like a shot-for-shot remake of the animated film, in the vein of that time Gus Van Sant remade Psycho. You mostly spent the running time wondering why you weren’t watching the original, but regardless of whether you loved or hated it, the ball always ended up in Disney’s court. You loved it and wanted more, or you didn’t and just returned to the other film. Making films for brand synergy isn’t exactly great for creative purposes, but Disney has turned it into a fine art.

There is immense potential in this age of live-action Disney remakes. It allows filmmakers to update questionable politics and characters. Tim Burton's re-imagining of Dumbo, out this week in theaters, has received mixed reviews but is thankfully free of the original movie's racist crows. The upcoming remake of Aladdin, inexplicably directed by Guy Ritchie, could be an opportunity for the very problematic exoticizing of Arab culture to be given a more sensitively handled take (but then again, Guy Ritchie). But mostly, Disney has decided to stick to bringing back the movies that were wildly popular and critically adored in their day, making few changes and hoping the sparkle stays in place with a live-action sheen.

This seems like a missed opportunity for Disney, when this formula could be used to give those films that didn’t do so well the first time around a second chance. They certainly have plenty of options available. In that spirit, here are the Disney live-action remakes we actually want to see.

Treasure Planet

Disney Treasure Planet

John Musker and Ron Clements, legends of the Disney animation wing, spent over a decade trying to make their dream project a reality: a remake of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island set in space. Unfortunately, the end result became one of the biggest flops in Disney history. While the film is seriously flawed, it is visually fascinating and has some great ideas behind it. Now that the technology has caught up to the point where making a Jules Verne-style Victorian space opera look realistic in live action is a reality, it seems as good a time as any for Disney to give this one another go. A vibrant retro-futurist caper with its roots firmly in the tradition of classic literature shouldn’t be this tough to pull off, and it would give Disney a chance to build its own sci-fi world separate from everything its team at Lucasfilm is doing. Can’t you just imagine what the Wachowskis would do with a story like Treasure Planet?

Atlantis: The Lost Empire

Disney Atlantis

After the Disney Renaissance of the ‘90s, the studio decided to step away from its princess formula and try stories with more old-school adventure styles. Atlantis: The Lost Empire feels like something ripped straight from the serials of the 1930s that inspired the likes of Indiana Jones. With a unique animation design — inspired by no less than Hellboy’s Mike MignolaAtlantis had all the allure of a well-worn pulp novel, and about as much narrative cohesion. Sadly, this one felt a little too ahead of its time, and maybe a bit too grown-up for its intended audience. Yet out of everything in the Disney animated canon, this is the film whose potential feels the most unrealized. With an eclectic cast of adventurers, a Jules Verne-inspired story, and surprisingly deft themes of anti-colonialism and anti-capitalism — at least, for a Disney film — Atlantis could make a stirring Spielbergian romp.

Hercules

Disney Hercules

Opinions are divided on how good Hercules actually is. The film reeks of a studio mandate, with product placement jokes that inspire cringe, and a plot that makes no damn sense, but it’s one of the underrated visual pleasures of the Disney era that has a fascinating hodgepodge of ideas, a super-catchy gospel and girl-group pop-inspired soundtrack, and one of the best heroines of the decade in Megara. The joy of Hercules is in how unabashedly cartoonish it is; its elastic reality, abstract character design, and vibrant color palate place it firmly in the realms of the unreal. Why not embrace that in the live-action format? Imagine the unique slapstick stylings of Stephen Chow taking on this material or Joe Dante at the height of his Gremlins 2 powers. Embrace the stuff that doesn’t make sense, play up the clashing cultural influences, and make something unashamedly fun!

The Black Cauldron

Disney Black Cauldron

The Black Cauldron was the film that almost killed Disney animation. It was a massive creative risk — an adaptation of a fantasy series, with no musical numbers, the introduction of computer-generated imagery in Disney animation, and a PG rating — and it earned less money than The Care Bears Movie. While time has been kinder to other Disney films, this one has not aged well. There are moments of startling darkness and ingenuity, but they're swamped under a dull hero, an exceptionally annoying sidekick named Gurgi, and a distinct lack of fun. It's a shame, because the books it's based on, The Chronicles of Prydian by Lloyd Alexander, could make for a wonderful movie. A Welsh mythology-inspired fantasy with a skeleton baddie should be more interesting than this! That's exactly why Disney should remake it. There's little nostalgic fondness for the original, so they wouldn't have to worry about adhering to the source so heavily. Hard fantasy is lacking in big-budget cinema since the Hobbit trilogy wrapped up, and The Black Cauldron could be the perfect gateway drug for a whole generation of kids if done right. This is material that cries out for the fantastical touch of Guillermo del Toro. In 2016, it was reported that Disney had reacquired the rights to the novels, so this remake is a strong possibility.

What Disney films would you like to see live-action remakes of? Let us know in the comments.

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