The “Disney remake” is grounded in the premise that adapting an animated story in the live-action medium updates a story. The studio seems to believe that new technology is enough to “update” these films, which are often celebrated for their timelessness, for a new generation. This assumption falters on multiple counts. First, it represents a grave overestimation of how much viewers, particularly young children, prioritize visual effects when evaluating a film. It is hard to recall an instance—in any film made by any studio—in which beautiful cinematography or advanced graphics saved a poorly written film or a plodding storyline. Secondly, although some Disney remakes have been successful in their own cinematic rights, overall, these remakes have not matched the quality of their source material by any measure. The most likely reason for this is thus: the original animated films thrived by being created in the animated medium. These remakes’ overwhelming mediocrity is due to their creators not understanding what made the remakes’ source material great: the animated medium itself.
Every animated Disney film is imbued with a story created specifically for the animated medium. Although the vast majority of animated Disney films are adaptations of existing literature, Disney has rarely hesitated to completely revamp their source materials, taking out the darker bits and leaning into their trademark saccharine romanticization. In fact, The Lion King has taken its place in the trivia books as the “first-ever Disney film ever based on an original story,” although this is a staggering mischaracterization that makes Shakespeare and Moses roll in their graves. Animation is the correct medium for these types of stylized stories. Therefore, when removed from the medium in which it is told, these stories cannot succeed on behalf of the same reasons as the original work. The story within The Lion King, for example, is not about the fact that the characters are lions, it is about the human conflicts that the characters must grapple with. While remaking The Lion King with photorealistic imagery is a potentially intriguing concept, interpreting the story by merely changing the way it appears to the viewer did not add to the story in any significant way. Did the “live-action” approach make The Lion King somehow more believable, or “realistic?” I’d answer this by quoting Screen Rant’s Pitch Meeting Guy from The Lion King webisode: “It’s important to make the singing lion cub scene as realistic as possible.”
This, however, is not to say that a successful live-action or photorealistic remake is impossible to achieve. For example, critics seemed to think The Jungle Book (2016) was the greatest thing since sliced bread. Rotten Tomatoes reviewers deemed the film “a Darwinian miracle...bursting with humanity,” and praised director Jon Favreau for “expertly navigating the line between reverence and reinvention.” While the special effects are a major focal point of the film’s critical praise, its entertainment value and writing are also central to the film’s positive reception. Although I don’t necessarily agree with these critics’ conclusions, these reviews demonstrate that the medium in which a film is told does not matter if the characters are not engaging or relatable, or if the storytelling is dull. Children, arguably Disney’s foremost audience, won’t fully appreciate the nuances of a film’s VFX. They latch onto characters that are relatable and entertaining, cute or conniving, silly or scary. No child will come out of a Disney remake and say, “While the characters and storyline didn’t appeal to me, the CGI was dazzling, and that ultimately saved the film.”
Fundamentally, the purpose of a “remake” is to adapt an existing piece of media by incorporating something significantly new or different. The existence of a film that does not inject the source material with new life, be it through technology or the alteration of a character or plot point, cannot be justified. These remakes might show how it would actually look if a French girl really married a dog-man in a real French castle with real British talking clocks, but if the viewers’ goal is to see Belle as a real human woman, they can accomplish that by seeing the trailer. Similarly, if the goal in Lion King was to show off the translation of the animated movie’s most memorable and technically complex scenes in CGI, Disney could have just made Mufasa’s death scene (and cloud scene) photo-realistically and been done with it. Favreau, I can’t see the lion if you only give me occasional flashes of vaguely lion-shaped lightning.
From a directorial, cinematic standpoint, seeing an existing story told in a different medium isn’t enough of a reason to embark on the multi-million-dollar, multi-year journey of creating a film. The only standpoint left from which making these films would make sense is the financial perspective—and making a film, an artifact meant to entertain and intrigue, for primarily economic purposes, is not a recipe for great art or even a decent night out at the movies. Perhaps adapting Disney’s 2-D animated films into CGI would preserve the cartoon expressiveness of the original hand-drawn movies while also showing off the technical innovation that Hollywood animators have achieved. This solution would seem to accomplish the technological update of older films that studios seem intent on delivering while also retaining much of the artistic integrity of the cartoon medium.
What makes the new Mulan adaptation intriguing is that it is an actual re-make (“making something again,” hopefully differently this time), unlike the other attempted adaptations of the last decade. Removing Eddie Murphy’s Mushu and Mulan’s love interest Shang is a gutsy move. Apparently, Disney is attempting to adapt the 1998 animated musical into the form of classic martial arts cinema. Adapting an existing story into a different genre—effectively taking it out of its existing cultural space—is an example of exactly what a remake could and should do. I’m hoping that Mulan doesn’t trip in its execution.
Eric Goldberg, the legendary animator of Aladdin’s genie, was able to manipulate the hand-drawn line to create a beloved character that has stood the test of time. I won’t get too technical, but there are twelve principles of 2-D animation, which, among other aspects of the 2-D art form, have made these hand-drawn movies so beloved. A computer cannot replicate the vast majority of what the animator’s mighty pencil can. Ultimately, this issue is symbolic of the larger problem of Disney remakes: mere replication is not enough to make a good film, and even the most advanced technology cannot replicate the particular magic of the hand-drawn animation Disney used to catapult itself to fame.