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Credit: Walt Disney Pictures

Why Maleficent is the only live-action Disney remake that will stand the test of time

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Mar 24, 2019, 9:00 AM EDT (Updated)

When Disney announced that Will Smith would be playing the Genie in a live-action remake of Aladdin, I don’t think any one of us anticipated that the end result would end up looking like what we saw during the Super Bowl. Live-action Disney remake fatigue is setting in, and setting in hard, to the degree that Walt Disney Studios chairman Alan Horn already seems to be talking very carefully about the film’s prospects.

It’s the kind of reaction that could make you wonder: Uh, exactly why is Disney making these again?

The answer is that these remakes aren’t meant to be movies in the traditional sense of being artistic products that more or less stand on their own. They’re just the latest and greatest way for Disney to invest in their most valuable intellectual property — the Disney animated canon.

Disney has been doing this since World War II, when the 1937 Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was rereleased in 1944 to drum up some wartime profits for the studio. This began a tradition that lasted until the dawn of home video (and beyond, if you count 2003’s IMAX release of The Lion King). In a media landscape with few dedicated children’s films and little to no home video access, a rerelease of a Disney film could pull in the same kind of numbers as a brand-new release.

When VCRs (sorry, Betamax) became more accessible to the general public in the '80s and '90s, Disney created the Disney Vault, a phrase that will send shudders down the spine of any '90s kid. This policy saw Disney films being released and re-released on home video and, later, DVD with a limited availability window (after which point they would be shackled in the Disney Vault, as threatened by commercials for their release) every 10 years or so. As Marcelle Abraham, then executive director of public relations for Buena Vista Home Entertainment, explained in a 1997 interview with Animation World Magazine, “[The Little Mermaid] came out on video in the Spring of 1990. Now there's a whole new generation of young people who haven't seen it.” When a large part of your audience is children, it’s just good business to take advantage of the fact that that market eternally renews itself.

The Little Mermaid.jpg

Credit: Walt Disney Pictures

This artificial scarcity controlled not only distribution but saturation, reinforcing the concept of the Disney animated canon being a cut above other animated features by virtue of its rarity. In a weird way, it made Disney films special. As a child hell-bent on Glen Keane and completionism, I may have furiously gnashed my teeth at the Vault (“MOM WE HAVE TO GO TO BEST BUY RIGHT NOW!”), but I sure knew every single way The Lion King was available on DVD.

However, the advent of streaming completely changed things. In a landscape predicated on the seeming availability of any media for a very reasonable rental fee, how do you set yourself and your products apart? Disney’s answer comes in two parts. There’s the upcoming Disney+, a proprietary streaming platform for the upcoming Marvel television shows and the Disney animated canon, ending their seven-year-long deal with Netflix.

And then there are the live-action Disney remakes. Placed in this context, they make a lot more sense. Their purpose as a product is not to create a separate film that can stand alone; they’re a big-budget version of a theatrical rerelease, guaranteed to make money and reinvest in the Brand. They’re not there to do anything other than reinforce the brand for the next generation, regardless of their quality.

All except the very first one: Maleficent.


Walt Disney Studios

Over the years, I’ve come to think of the Disney live-action remakes as a decidedly American riff on the British Christmas tradition of pantomime. If you were not raised nearly exclusively on PBS and BBC America as I was (or, y’know, actually British), the Christmas pantomime is a bit of a cross between The Rocky Horror Picture Show and children’s theater, using a fable or fairy tale as a loose plot to hang topical references, musical numbers, and audience participation on. As the name suggests, they’re usually holiday entertainment. They’re big, they’re splashy, they’re delightful, and they evaporate as soon as you consume them. One of the major draws is seeing what celebrity will be cameoing as one of the traditional roles, such as the Dame.

And so it is in the world of the live-action Disney remakes. The films are often built around the biggest star in the film. The entire point of Cinderella is to watch Cate Blanchett chew the scenery as Lady Tremaine in Sandra Powell’s truly inspired 1950s-meets-1850s costumes. Beauty and the Beast is predicated on the immaculate high concept of casting Hermione as Belle (even though the true MVP of that movie is Luke Evans as Gaston). And, of course, Aladdin is built around the only thing that could even touch Robin Williams’ wattage: casting Will Smith, whose charisma is as blinding as it is difficult to fit into a vehicle not expressly built for him (see A Winter’s Tale out-of-time Lucifer).

Similarly, Maleficent is built around Angelina Jolie in the eponymous role. But the alchemical blend of Jolie’s star power and Linda Woolverton’s screenplay means that Maleficent isn’t a delightfully rendered panto but a radically feminist story about two very different women teaming up and literally taking down the patriarchy.

Maleficent completely reframes and rewrites Sleeping Beauty. Maleficent is the protector of the Moors, the fairy kingdom bordering the human kingdom we know from Sleeping Beauty. After King Stefan assaults her, literally using her body (he drugs her and cuts off her wings) to gain power, her powerful mind turns to revenge, especially after the birth of Aurora. But over the course of the film, Maleficent and Aurora forge a remarkable bond. Aurora even tells Maleficent her most fervent wish is to live with Maleficent in the forest so they can look after each other. Maleficent realizes her quest for vengeance is predicated on abusing Aurora’s agency, just as Stefan abused hers, and tries to reverse the curse she put on her. But the only thing that can break the curse, as we all know, is true’s love kiss … which Maleficent gives to the comatose Aurora, kissing her on the forehead as she promises to protect the sleeping Aurora forever. Together, they topple the kingdom (killing Stefan in the process), Aurora gives her her wings back, and Maleficent crowns Aurora the Queen of both kingdoms.

(Phillip is like … around? But he has like three lines. He is superfluous to this narrative.)

I remember being utterly floored in the theater, before grabbing a one-sheet and booking it to my work shift. Maleficent suffers from some of the same problems plaguing its siblings — rushed pacing, photorealistic CGI effects that will likely not age well, and aggressively busy production design — but I truly wish we had more films like it on every level. Adaptations and remakes not afraid to really leave their stamp on the original and stories for little kids about unconventional families, films that discuss love other than heteronormative romantic love, and, of course, films that encourage tearing abusive institutions down to their foundations. If Disney’s intent was to re-up on Sleeping Beauty, the effect was quite different. If the other Disney live-action remakes are pantomimes, Maleficent is true drama. It is to Sleeping Beauty what Wide Sargasso Sea was to Jane Eyre.

The other Disney live-action remakes have pursued a much less radical tone, hewing closely to their originals, despite Maleficent’s financial success: It was the biggest opening weekend of Jolie’s career and it made more money than Cinderella, its immediate successor. While I see the obvious value of doing that in service to Disney’s continuing investments in its canon, it’s to the detriment of their long-term goals. In five, ten years’ time, it’s Maleficent that people will still be discussing. Because, alone among its siblings, it actually has something new to say. Here’s hoping its sequel does too.

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