Maui and Moana on beach

Moanin’ over Moana? Disney’s been doing remakes for 100 years

The Moana live-action remake is very on-brand for Disney.

It’s been a weird year to be a Disney fan. Putting aside the corporate drama — like Bob Iger’s return as CEO in November and the continuing feud in Florida with Gov. Ron DeSantis — we’ve seen the company struggling at the box office, despite several high-profile releases. The once-untouchable Marvel Cinematic Universe isn’t selling tickets like it used to, The Little Mermaid failed to make a splash, and Pixar’s return to theatres, Elemental, is underperforming financially (so far, anyway) despite pretty strong reviews. It’s unsurprising, then, that news of Walt Disney Studios developing a Moana live-action remake elicited an unenthusiastic response.

You don’t have to look too hard to find people online griping about Disney’s over-reliance on established IPs. The “Disney live-action remake” has become somewhat of a regular gimmick. The last decade saw a pattern of the studio updating beloved classic animated films for live-action and then melting box offices worldwide with red-hot ticket sales. In 2019 alone, both Aladdin and The Lion King earned over $1 billion each at the box office.

Disney live-action remakes sell tickets

The Lion King remake 2019
Credit: Walt Disney Pictures

Even taking into account the budget, marketing, and other expenses, these movies are almost absurdly lucrative for the studio. Heck, 2020’s Mulan didn’t get a traditional theatrical release in the U.S. and Canada because of the pandemic but still somehow earned almost $70 million internationally, as well as VOD sales (some reports say as much as $260 million). To put that in perspective, Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves — also based on an established IP and rated highly by critics and audiences alike — earned just over $200 million. Disney has found a film formula that’s like printing money, and gosh darn it, they are going to spill some ink.

And the truth is, as much as we may hate to admit it: making remakes is very much what Disney does — and what the company has always done.


Disney’s live-action remakes are just the latest stage

Alice comedies Disney
Credit: Walt Disney Studios

The Walt Disney Company has a history founded on remakes — and not just adapting fairytales for animation (although, obviously, that’s a big part). Back in 1923, Disney Brothers Studio (later renamed Walt Disney Studio and then Walt Disney Productions) began production on its Alice comedies, which were inspired by both Alice in Wonderland and Max Fleischer’s Out of the Inkwell cartoon series. This was followed by Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, an original cartoon series that took more than a few cues from Pat Sullivan’s Felix the Cat animated shorts. But, the biggest hit for the studio was also the most blatant remake: Steamboat Willie.

Every wonder when the short was called Steamboat Willie and not “Steamboat Mickey”? True, it features the song “Steamboat Bill,” but also, it’s a parody of the then-popular 1928 Buster Keaton film “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” Even if you’ve never heard of it, I guarantee you’ve seen at least one scene: Keaton’s famous falling house stunt is from this film.

Taking inspiration from popular culture was Walt Disney’s M.O. in the 1920s. As Neal Gabler notes in his biography Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination, all three of the original Mickey Mouse shorts were spoofing pop culture. The first, Plane Crazy (1928), referenced Charles Lindbergh’s famous flight from New York City to Paris in 1927. The second, The Gallopin’ Gaucho (1928) was a parody of the Douglas Fairbanks picture The Gaucho (1927). By the third attempt at a hit short, Walt was still relying on topical references as a source of comedy, but with the added benefit of sound: Steamboat Willie.

Hollywood loves to adapt

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, old woman and apple
Credit: Disney

When it was time for the company to explore feature-length animations, the instinct was to use established source material. To be clear, this was — and still is — a very common practice. Investing in projects with a built-in audience is always a safer bet than gambling on a purely original idea. If you look at Universal Studios’ hits in 1930 and 1931, it’s a lot of adaptations: All Quiet on the Western Front, Dracula, and Frankenstein are the obvious titles, but there are others too, like The Cat CreepsWaterloo BridgeHeaven on Earth and Strictly Dishonorable.


According to Gabler, Walt Disney considered three projects before ultimately deciding to go ahead with an adaptation of the Snow White fairytale. The earliest consideration was to adapt Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, which was available in the public domain. In 1933, Mary Pickford was pushing Walt to make a hybrid live-action and animation adaptation of the story, offering to help finance. Douglas Fairbanks expressed interest in collaborating on a Gulliver’s Travels feature, while publisher M. Lincoln Schuster — co-founder of Simon & Schuster — was pressuring Walt to option the Felix Salten novel, Bambi, A Life in the Woods.

Why the Disney animations are (mostly) adaptations

Disney's Pinocchio 1940
Credit: Disney

Making a feature-length animated film was a costly endeavour, so it makes sense that the studio was only really considering adapting well-known and popular stories. In the 1930s, the animators at Walt Disney Productions could experiment with the Silly Symphonies shorts, but when it came to feature-length productions, the projects were predominantly adaptations. This trend continued for decades: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio, The Reluctant Dragon, Dumbo, Bambi, Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, and Cinderella are all based on books. The outliers were the music-based or anthology features like Fantasia and Saludos Amigos. Lady and the Tramp adapts the short story by Ward Greene titled “Happy Dan, The Cynical Dog,” while 101 Dalmatians adapts Dodie Smith’s 1956 children’s novel, The Hundred and One Dalmatians. Even the cult-favourite The Black Cauldron was based on an established book series: The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander.

The Disney Renaissance films? Those are all adaptations too — Aladdin is adapted from a Middle-Eastern folk tale while The Lion King was inspired by Hamlet. Beauty and the Beast is an adaptation of Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont’s novel of the same name. The Emperor’s New Grove started as a project titled Kingdom of the Sun that was loosely based on The Prisoner of Zenda and The Prince and the Pauper. The studio didn’t even really try original screenplays for animated features until after Pixar proved that formula could work with Toy Story and A Bug’s Life. The post-Renaissance animated films Dinosaur and Brother Bear were completely original stories, and we all know how that turned out for Disney.

The Hollywood remake

Show Boat 1936
Credit: Warner Bros. Digital Distribution

The typical Disney live-action remake uses photorealistic CGI tech to “update” beloved classics. This too is part of a long-standing tradition in the industry. The idea of a studio remaking an existing movie adaptation with new technology has been around since the early days of cinema. Universal released The Phantom of the Opera in 1925 to much acclaim, then made another version with sound and technicolor in 1943 — the latter even reused an original set built for the 1925 film. Universal also remade Show Boat in 1936, just seven years after the first attempt in 1929. Basically, the first movie is a part-sound film based on the novel, but the 1936 version, directed by James Whale, is a full sound feature based on the hit Broadway adaptation.


Despite 1936’s Show Boat being a hit,  Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer bought up the rights and withheld the film from circulation. MGM eventually released its own colour remake of the musical in 1951, which became the dominant version in popular culture (RIP James Whale — they did you dirty). This sad factoid, besides being an excuse to celebrate one of my favourite directors, helps illustrate another key point: Before the days of home media, going to see a remake was sometimes the easiest way to revisit a beloved story.

A Star Is Born… four times

A Star Is Born (1937)
Credit: Warner Bros

Perhaps the best example of this is A Star Is Born, which has four versions, each following the same basic plot but updated for the next generation. In the original, a sweet aspiring actress, Esther (Janet Gaynor) crosses paths with the established (but fading) star Norman (Fredric March); they fall in love and marry, but as Esther’s dreams come true, Norman spirals into alcoholism, hurting his career. The 1954 remake starring Judy Garland and James Mason as Esther and Norman respectively follows the same story beats but with the addition of musical elements to capitalize on Garland’s immense talent. The last act closely follows the original and even ends on the same line.

The 1976 A Star Is Born remake features a skilled singer for Esther (Barbra Streisand), but the story focuses on the music industry rather than Hollywood. This makes sense given that film musicals weren’t nearly as popular then as they were in the ’50s. Norman (Kris Kristofferson) is reimagined as John, an aging, alcoholic rock star. This update changed the story considerably, including tweaking the tragic ending to be a bit more open to interpretation (was the car accident truly an “accident”?). The Bradley Cooper version repeats the musician angle but also changes the story further — although it keeps the same basic love story and tragic ending found in every version. Also, all four versions have the male lead drunkenly making an ass of himself at an awards show (it’s literally my least favourite scene, yet it keeps comin’ back).

Being a cinephile before VHS was challenging

A Star Is Born Kris Kristofferson and Barbra Streisand
Credit: Warner Bros.

Back in the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s, audiences were dependent on theatre schedules, and films felt much more ephemeral as a result. Technology was changing rapidly too, so remaking a beloved film to fit the new standards made sense. In the ’50s, television emerged as a new avenue to revisit old movies (every Canadian reading this has seen at least one episode of Saturday Night at the Movies). Still, it wasn’t until the VHS format took off that people could revisit films on their own. By the late ’70s and ’80s, studios began to release home media options for films, including restored versions of classic pictures.


There is about a 2o-year gap between the initial three versions of A Star Is Born, making each roughly a generation apart. Once we got into the era of home media, however, it took over 40 years to remake the film again. Part of this is because the project ended up in development hell — but does that really matter? Clearly, if Warner Bros. felt it was a reliable prospect, it wouldn’t have languished so long.

A good Disney live-action remake is possible…

101 Dalmatians Glenn Close as Cruella de Vil
Credit: Walt Disney Studios

All of this is to say, essentially, that Disney remaking its own movies is not an inherently bad thing — it really depends on the individual merit of the remake. When Disney produced 101 Dalmatians in 1996, it not only translated the animated film into the new medium, but it also updated the story to be appealing to contemporary audiences (sort of — at least it made a lot of money, though). In this version, the dogs don’t talk, Roger designs video games, and Glenn Close’s villain Cruella de Vil plays a much more prominent role in the narrative. Critics and audiences alike enjoyed Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella Disney live-action remake in 2015. The movie offers a fresh take that honours the traditional story elements without defaulting to a beat-for-beat recreation of the animated classic. So a strong Disney live-action remake is possible.

The problem with virtually all other Disney live-action remake attempts over the last decade is that they’ve felt uninspired and derivative — and with the beloved classics just a click away, it’s much harder to justify rebooting the originals. The trick will be to identify properties that no longer feel relevant, and update them to increase appeal. Sarah Polley is in talks to direct a Bambi reboot, and given her track record with adaptations, this is a promising prospect. Bambi has the strength of being a familiar story, and its core environmentalist themes are extremely relevant to today’s audiences, but the movie itself does feel outdated. The same can not be said for Moana.

…but a Moana live-action remake faces unique challenges

Moana Te Fiti
Credit: Walt Disney Studios

The biggest challenge Dwayne Johnson faces in producing the Moana Disney live-action remake is finding a way to enhance the movie with realism. Moana is easily one of the best original movies to come out of Disney Studios in the last decade. It’s endlessly rewatchable, visually stunning, and unforgettable. What’s more, much of the appeal comes from the comedic tone, which draws from physical gags and the vibrant, colourful design. Would Te Fiti really look better as a photorealistic moss-covered giantess? Will Johnson dancing around and singing “You’re Welcome” look better than the animated Maui? What about his transformations, the coconut-like Kakamora, or the giant crab monster Tamatoa?


It’s not enough to just translate these elements into live-action — it has to be superior to the original to make it worth watching, or at least distinct enough to justify being a standalone film. With budgets inflating and ticket sales down, Disney has to make some decisions fast about its business strategy going forward. Audiences are only going to show up for Moana in 2025 if the movie offers something new and exciting — otherwise, we’ll be saving our money and booting up the original on Disney+.

Moana is scheduled for release on June 27, 2025.