With the much-talked about release of Beauty and the Beast in February, starring Hollywood favourite Emma Watson and Dan Stevens as her romantic counterpart, Disney’s live-action remakes are once again the talk of the town. The CGI-animated remake comes 26 years after Disney first released their animated film version in 1991, which is itself an adaptation of Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont’s 18th century fairytale.
No one does adaptations on centuries-old classic fairytales quite like Disney. In fact they’re basically known for it; with the likes of animated films like Cinderella (1950), Alice in Wonderland (1951) and Mulan (1998) enthralling countless generations of children, including myself with stories of poisoned apples, glass slippers and females at war.
Surprisingly, live-action remakes initially got off to a rather slow start. Only in 2010 did Disney launch their first ever live-action remake: Alice in Wonderland, with the added ubiquity of the gothic twist that came courtesy of director Tim Burton. Despite the movie’s overwhelming success, it would be 4 years till the next remake emerged – Maleficent. While it was worth the wait, the movie took an obvious risk by upending the beloved story of Sleeping Beauty by means of humanising Maleficent and effectively turning the ending around to a happy one for both Aurora and her.
Since then, Disney haven’t bothered with the brakes, churning out one live-action remake after another: Cinderella, The Jungle Book and Beauty and the Beast in quick succession; and this is far from the end as audiences are promised the arrival of at least 17 new Disney remakes over the next decade.
One must wonder, how do Disney do it? Despite legions of die-hard Disney fans and an immensely loyal following, live-action remakes aren’t a guaranteed hit, especially at the rate they’ve been released at. This isn’t another installation of Fast and Furious, mind you; these are characters whom we’ve all grown up with, wished we could be, and whose songs we have memorised by heart. So how has Disney managed to successfully bring back age-old tales of princes and princesses from the 400 years ago and sell them to 21st century audiences for $8 a ticket?
Is it the use of CGI? Fancy orchestras? A-list celebrities? Or is it something else?
I think it’s a combination of a whole lot of creativity + a dash of Disney magic (kidding about this one).
Creativity came about not just in the marketing and cinematic scale, but in reworking plot lines and in reinventing character profiles which all proved crucial in staying relevant to modern audiences and in tune with socio-cultural concerns and audience preferences.
This is most evident in Disney’s modern portrayals of its female fairytale protagonists – it has not gone unnoticed how the female leads at Disney are increasingly empowered and independent. Aurora’s (Maleficent) “true love’s kiss” did not come from the handsome prince she met in the woods for five minutes as per the original fairytale, but instead from Maleficent’s motherly love. Tim Burton’s take on Alice (Alice in Wonderland) turns down her arranged marriage to pompous businessman Hamish Ascot, all the while defying the stifling expectations of the society in which she lives. More so, Disney’s next live-action release, Mulan presents a character who in the animated version exhibited both masculine and feminine influences, being both physically and mentally strong. Audiences should thus expect no less and perhaps even a stronger-headed, stronger-willed Mulan in the 2018 version.
Critics still caution against seeing these characters as feminist role models; after all Belle (Beauty and the Beast) invents and reads widely but is still deemed useless by society if unwed. Even Mulan too still needed to become a man to accomplish the things she did! Disney, in line with changing societal expectations and demands, appear to be edging ever so gradually towards more egalitarian and self-determining character portrayals, all the while retaining its fairytale-esque appeal.
I myself would be happy to be see more character advancement and improvement, however, I am even happier to see that Belle didn’t fall in love with the Beast after just one romantic ballroom dance.
Some may question just how long Disney’s remake magic can last given that much of its success in recent years has been based off its existing intellectual property and tried-and-true fairytales. But at the same time, some forget that it is Disney we’re talking about. The very Disney who launched careers the likes of Miley Cyrus and Selena Gomez, who operate theme parks all across the world, and whose magic castle is one of the most recognisable logos around. Knowing Disney, it’ll be a long, long time before the well runs dry.
Besides, we haven’t even seen live-action Lion King yet!