The doors to Disney’s Vault have hardly been shut in the recent years as more and more animated classics are getting live-action makeovers. First came Alice in Wonderland and Maleficent, now The Beauty and the Beast, and an astounding 21 further remakes are in the pipeline.
Of course, this is not Disney’s first foray into non-animated films as its repertoire includes The Chronicles of Narnia and the delightful self-parody Enchanted. But why is the spotlight on stories we have already seen? Is anything really different?
Unsurprisingly, the main driver is profit. Whilst Disney still continues to create new stories like Frozen and Moana, remakes offer a unique potential to capitalise on what attracts people to Disney the most – nostalgia. Not only a wistful championing of the past, nostalgia is an incredibly effective way to connect to people’s experiences and memories. As Disney made sure to infuse these with magic all those years ago, it is an all the more powerful tool for reigniting a desire for repetition and, of course, parting with cash in the process.
The remakes also bridge the gap between child and adult audiences, yielding a much broader market. Disney is no doubt banking on creating new classics that, who knows, might continue to be cyclically remade in VR and holograms for future children and new generations of reminiscers.
Live-action also allows Disney to capitalise on the fandom of some of the biggest film and television stars (e.g. Angelina Jolie, Emma Watson, Helena Bonham Carter), and directing heavyweights (Tim Burton, Kenneth Branagh). By giving the animated characters real human faces, however, Disney is introducing contingency in the audience’s relationships with them. Emma Watson as Belle invited some backlash, whilst others’ soft spot for Luke Evans made Gaston an unexpected favourite. The characters no longer exist in a Disney-only universe, but have adult lives outside the fairy tale that can be read about in magazines and followed on Instagram.
The changes, however, are not confined to formats. Disney is conscious of the changing social sensibilities and aims to flesh out its characters for a more three-dimensional storytelling experience. Most recently, Beauty and the Beast was claimed to introduce feminist sentiments to the traditionally stereotype-heavy Disney universe.
Some remakes are set to offer an explicitly fresher perspective, adding depth to otherwise two-dimensional characters. Maleficent turned the original fairy-tale on its head as it offered an origins tale of Sleeping Beauty’s antagonist (perhaps because not much action was to be expected from a titular character that spent most of the original film asleep). There is also talk of origins stories for Genie, Cruella de Ville and even Fantasia’s demonic gargoyle Chernabog.
Whilst these may be attempts to humanize some of the hitherto despised characters (and with it, perhaps make their merchandise more desired), in many cases, however, the audience already know that there will be no traditional happily-ever-after. Maleficent took a particularly dark turn as its wing-tearing scene was widely discussed as a metaphor for rape. Sure, a touch of sinister may draw in adult audiences, but for a corporation that showcases its animated creations in ‘the happiest place on Earth’, a noticeable move towards darker subject matter is somewhat counterintuitive.
As Disney attempts to strike a balance between the diverse demographics it is targeting, it is perhaps losing not only creativity, but also some of its character. Whilst Disney’s purported innocence has been previously contested on the grounds of its commercial interests, its loss is becoming all the more visible in the live-action remakes.
In the era of content proliferation, Disney is perhaps offering a comfortable respite in known stories that have been updated to fit the cultural milieu. In the process, however, it is becoming just that little bit less magical.