Journey to the past

weighs in on Disney’s live-action remake loop

disney “Round like a circle in a spiral….”

Those might be the words to a Dusty Springfield pop song but they seem an apt theme for the way things are going at the live-action section of Disney Studios lately.

A few weeks ago, online film writers were abuzz with the teaser released for the upcoming Beauty and the Beast 10 months before its slated release date in 2017. A new version for a new audience. It was in keeping with the consensus that this new Beauty and the Beast, like recently successful The Jungle Book, or last year’s Cinderella, offers us a new version of the stories we used to love: very similar but with peculiar differences. But, to what end is this trend heading?

With the exception of Mary Poppins (still, easily the best live-action film to come out of Disney), the Disney brand has been built on its excellent animated films. From the first instance with Snow White  in 1937 Disney has made their name by their family friendly iterations of fairy tales. They’ve never been truly able to zero in on the live-action market, not in the golden age during the 60s and not during the Renaissance of the late 80s and 90s.
For the last six years though, the studio has turned to using their animated classics as a template for live action success. It feeds into the contemporary movie culture of remakes and sequelitis that Luke Rix-Standing wrote about in our January issue.

But, it’s more than a culture of remakes. Fairytales have always enjoyed multiple iterations and all remakes arent bad. The issue is Disney’s self reflexive role in the equation. Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, The Jungle Book: Disney live-actions filmed based on animated ones. Dumbo, Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, Mulan: a smattering of those in pre-production. Is it enough to be creating copies of copies of copies that have a few aspects that make them memorable? Is the height of artistic creation that Disney is interested in creating films that are “not bad”?

And even if, IF, a great film is to come from a slated remake, what does it mean that Disney’s way of moving into the future is by clutching to its past?

The publicity line on the trend of remakes is that they will present a version of these films relevant to contemporary society. An “updated” version. But what does that mean for our larger cultural situation when it comes to engaging with the past?

In its own way an updated version suggests that things from the past are only significant as spectral inspirations and not legitimate being on their own. The willingness to release a newer, fresher version of these tales seems nothing more than Disney bizarrely rendering their own past obsolete. It’s not befuddling just because these old versions have their own charm, oftentimes difficult for the newer versions to capture, but because it points to a larger cultural issue within film culture – erasure of the past. And with the erasure of the past comes a situation where the audience is being continually let off the hook.

To be clear, an original story does not necessitate a good one, but Disney’s implicit erasure of its filmic canon to reinvent itself as newer and more relevant condescends to those unwilling to open a door to the past. The fact is that the cursory film watcher is unlikely to decide to watch two versions of the same film with negligible differences.

Audiences will reach for the next thing before them, and overburdened with the new live action Disney it becomes the thing before us that people reach for, sometimes just for ease. True, Disney has no ethical responsibility to challenge the audience. They’re just out to make money. And that is what they’re doing. Making money.

And perhaps this cycle of reinventing their own is just as simply explained, albeit sadly, as an effort to make money. An argument for this indicating a legitimate artistic desire to create seems specious. So, with  the love of money on their mind, the live-action part of Disney studios are currently taking Ouroboros to a whole new level with their cyclical meanderings.

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