What started as a one-off, auteur-branded, live-action remake of a Disney animated classic, Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland (2010), quickly turned into something else altogether: A consciously deliberate strategy by C-suite Disney executives to use, exploit, and otherwise strip-mine Disney’s animated assets. A plan to maximize tens of millions in production costs to produce a reliable return-on-investment (ROI) unrivalled by Hollywood studios over the last decade. Disney shareholders were—and remain—happy with not just the box-office returns, but with all the ancillary merchandising (e.g. toys, books, clothing) that provides a steady stream of reliable revenue and year-over-year profits that remain the envy of every other movie studio.
Nostalgia, however commercially beneficial or continually viable, has significant, real-world costs. Not to mention the growing sense or belief that art or artistry, always a secondary concern where profit-driven Hollywood studios are concerned (with some exceptions, of course), is all but lost or will be soon. Given Disney’s decades-long drive to monopolize popular culture through billion-dollar purchases of 20th-Century Fox, LucasFilm, Marvel Studios, and Pixar, it’s certainly a valid concern. It’s a concern borne out, at least in part, by the variable quality of Disney’s live-action remakes and their ability to control and/or dominate social and cultural conversations for weeks or months at a time. Too often it feels like it’s Disney’s world and we just rent space in it.
Disney’s first major misstep wasn’t in giving Tim Burton, a filmmaker who has mainstreamed a specific brand of outsider quark, carte blanche to remake Alice in Wonderland. It was the decision to trade location shooting and physical sets for green-screens, CGI sludge, and worst of all, 3D post-conversion that subtracted more than it added to what should have been one of the most visually inventive or imaginative films of Burton’s oeuvre. A billion dollars of worldwide box-office receipts later and a sequel, Alice Through the Looking Glass, was not only given the green-light but, in effect, set the template for any live-action remakes that followed—everything from Maleficent, less a direct live-action remake than the kind of pernicious origin story that’s marred fantasy and non-fantasy properties alike, through Cruella, another redundant origin story for a hissable villain whose apparent loss- and failure-filled backstory didn’t need to be explained, let alone made central to a live-action remake/prequel.
Only David Lowery’s Pete’s Dragon, arguably outside the scope of this article given the original’s status as a live-action/traditional animation hybrid, and the Kenneth Branagh-directed Cinderella, a throwback to old-school adaptations or remakes, managed to avoid the over-reliance on CGI and empty spectacle of Burton’s contribution to Disney’s live-action remake catalogue. Cinderella, however, proved to be a one-off, a commercial dead end. In its unabashed embrace of classical filmmaking, Cinderella may have been too familiar, too unoriginal for audiences trained to expect a combination of CGI-delivered spectacle and nostalgia with every live-action remake. The closest analogue in Disney’s output over the last decade, Beauty and the Beast, was both a semi-literal remake of its animated predecessor, substituting artificial sets and characters for relatable characters and genuine emotion. That, of course, didn’t stop Beauty and the Beast from becoming another box-office hit for Disney, even as its long-term pop-culture influenced dwindled within weeks.
For every Pete’s Dragon or to a lesser extent, Cinderella, unfortunately, there’s a Jungle Book, a Lion King, an Aladdin, or a Mulan live-action remake that does little with the source material except transfer said source material, sometimes even beat-for-beat, from traditional cel animation to live-action simulation (Mulan), a live-action/CGI hybrid (Jungle Book, Aladdin), or near-seamless/faux-photorealism (Lion King). Each one, in their own way, may have been technically complex or technologically innovative, boldly pushing beyond the accepted boundaries of computer animation, but all the shiny tech that corporate money can buy can’t change what are otherwise disposable, soulless remakes that only exist because they’re dictated by Disney’s reactionary, risk-averse business strategy that puts a premium on commerce at the expense of art (even at the margins).
Only a few years into embracing its new “remake everything” strategy, Disney veered moderately off-course by giving Oscar winner Angelina Jolie, a talented filmmaker in her own right, a standalone film of her own, Maleficent. Taking a few pages from Wicked, Maleficent retold Sleeping Beauty from the title character’s perspective, giving her a tragic backstory (wronged, betrayed, wounded) as justification for the curse that usually sets the “Sleeping Beauty” story in motion. That modest attempt at originality inevitably led to a lesser sequel, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil (spoiler: she wasn’t really), and somewhat indirectly, Cruella, a prequel that no one wanted except Disney executives eager to duplicate Maleficent’s earlier commercial success.
They might just repeat that success, though that might more to do with a combination of the Disney brand, Academy-Award winner Emma Stone’s pitch-perfect camp performance, Emma Thompson’s Meryl Streep-like contribution as the uber- or ur-villain to Stone’s deeply misunderstood, mistreated, marginalized Cruella, Jenny Beavan’s nomination-worthy costumes/looks (357 by one count), and finally, Fiona Crombie’s Swinging ‘60s and ’70s London-inspired production design. Unsurprisingly, the story plays it absurdly safe, though the ludicrous, ultimately laugh-inducing explanation for Cruella’s pathological hatred of Dalmatians took five credited screenwriters to concoct. As a sign of Disney things to come, however, Cruella points to a creatively bankrupt future, one where artistry, if it’s allowed at all, can only exist at the margins and only if and where Disney’s IP preexisting can be involved.