Recently I got into a discussion about the announcement of the new Disney “reimagining” of Home Alone.
My philosophy was that the original was fine just the way it was – a product of its time? Certainly. But it was an expertly-produced, heart-warming movie nonetheless.
I also thought about the challenges with a modern “reimagining”. How is the family going to get through heightened airport security? What does it even mean to be “Home Alone” in an age of Facetime and social media? Could we get another future-President cameo?
I got wound up over viewing this Disney remake as a replacement to the 90s classic – when in reality, it isn’t. We will still have the original, and this is more of a way to breathe new life into the franchise.
The discussion I had was with an experienced transmedia producer, who was far less “they’re-going-to-ruin-my-childhood!” as me.
And looking at it from a business perspective, it makes sense to reboot an inert piece of IP like Home Alone … even if nobody can replace Macaulay Culkin (No doubt there’s a group of eight-year-olds out there with no clue who Macaulay Culkin even is.)
So, before I feel like an old, cynical, 20-something, I figured it was worthwhile exploring the Disney-remake phenomenon, to see just what’s going on with these revenue-generators that have received a mixed response from today’s film-goer.
Consider this a follow-up to my previous look at Tim Burton’s Dumbo, and just why studios have become increasingly risk-averse.
WHAT IS A REMAKE?
Perhaps this is a dumb question, but a needed question nonetheless.
There are four types of remake: the re-adaptation, the update, the homage, and the elusive “True” remake.
I’m going to give a brief overview of each before seeing what’s going on with our current load of Disney’s glut of their recent re-releases.
Firstly, there is re-adaptation, although I personally don’t consider this to be a “remake” so much as it is adaptation – or drawing from the original source material. This is also something that happens more with public domain properties, with something like fairy tales or A Christmas Carol.
Secondly, there’s the update. This is where the film significantly changes the meaning, time, place, culture, or location.
The homage, where the original is acknowledged and respected within the remake.
Finally, there’s the true remake. This is where a film is updated to coincide with improved technology with the goal of making something newer and better. Think about the updates from silent films to talkies, or black and white to color.
The big question is … where does Disney fit in? It’s tricky, but I would argue it’s a cross between an update and a “true” remake.
This doesn’t go for all of their remakes. Maleficent feels like an “original” story, and Pete’s Dragon (2016) and Dumbo (2019) differ greatly from their originals, with different structures, characters, and premises.
Honestly, they’re probably my favourite of these; purely because they changed so much and were free to reimagine.
Then again, I don’t think there are too many out there who look back at the 1970’s Pete’s Dragon as the pinnacle of Disney movies.
The films are updated to be more socially relevant to today’s audience, perhaps most obvious in the recent films of Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast.
Both of these “tried” to coincide with modern social-politics.
Beauty and the Beast (2017) for example sees Belle being more overtly opposed to the patriarchal “Little Town”.
Emma Watson is shown actively inventing things, and defiantly teaching a girl to read … despite the fact that this wasn’t an issue in France, and the original La Belle et la Bête was published at a time when young women were encouraged to read and be educated – somehow, that really got to me. I guess it has to do with respecting the original source material.
Aladdin is arguably more interesting. Agrabah has transformed from a fictional Middle-Eastern, Islamic nation into a secular cross between the Middle-East, South-East Asia, and Bollywood.
Jasmine sees the most change, now wanting not just to be a Princess but have a political governing role.
It’s still a monarchy … but a socially-progressive monarchy?
The social trend is certainly prevalent. Beauty and the Beast (2017) made a big deal about having the first openly-gay … handshake (I think?).
And of course, the upcoming Little Mermaid stars and African-American lead as a push for greater diversity in the Disney Princess lineup.
It’s not just the technology that’s getting updated, but the characters.
As for Lion King (2019), this is the one that’s really got people talking – and had perhaps the least-well received.
THE MOVE AWAY FROM HAND-DRAWN
I’m honestly surprised that Lion King is getting as much criticism as it has – at just 53% on Rotten Tomatoes.
I think that’s because people are starting to re-evaluate realistic CGI and hand-drawn animation. I don’t think it’s just about “it’s new so I hate it”. I think it comes down to the characters fundamentally being unable to convey as much expression or emotion.
I mean … they’re lions. They communicate through scent, animal body language, and occasional mounting – stuff that I don’t need to see in my Disney remake.
There is only so much you can do with soulless warthog eyes telling you “it means no worries.”
I would describe it as a technological misfire. The technology is undoubtedly amazing, they look like real animals to the point where it almost looks like a nature documentary.
You can tell that a lot of work went into it, but the choice to make it “realistic” seems weird. I just don’t know who saw the animation of “Just Can’t Wait to be King” and demanded it to be more realistic.
Other than grumbling about how things were better in my day, it did breathe new life into the franchise and used its celebrity voices well.
Naturally, critics abound, questioning whether these remakes are even “good” – something that I don’t think is fair, as I believe each movie varies in quality.
There’s no denying that the 90s Lion King is very 90s. It has an all-star 90s cast the music is very 90s. Elton John … 90s.
Having voices like Seth Rogan, John Oliver, Beyoncé, and Donald Glover certainly places it more in the modern-day market.
More importantly, an adaptation can certainly work. Lion King on Broadway is a fantastic production that moves away from animated animal faces to choreographed dancing and African art aesthetics.
It’s different and I like it.
But Lion King (2019) feels like it’s not actually trying to surpass the original, but to draw attention to it.
Which means …
IT’S NOT A FILM; IT’S AN ADVERT!
I think I first noticed this with the marketing of Beauty and the Beast. There were videos and interviews of the actors reacting to the original animated film, what it personally means to them, how socially-influential the original was, and how audiences can “re-experience the tale“.
The same thing happened with other Disney-renaissance remakes. Aladdin had more behind-the-scenes marketing, and Lion King especially sought to promote not only the technology, but the legacy of the previous blockbuster phenomenon.
Even the trailer is designed as a shot-for-shot remake of the original iconic scenes from the 1994 blockbuster … but in CGI.
They’re not trying to surpass the original, they’re trying to breathe new life into the IP.
I’m happy to say that the original Beauty and the Beast is my favourite Disney movie, but only after hearing the technologically updated autotune of the remake and watching it, did I go back and re-watch the original on Sky Disney.
I’ll admit, I fell for it. I was able to go back and appreciate the original more, and (perhaps for parents with their own children) these movies serve as an introduction for a new generation.
So, whilst we cynical 20-somethings struggle to wrap our heads around how someone’s first experience of Aladdin is with the CGI Will Smith genie, we have probably not thought about how great the classic was in a long time.
Financially, it makes perfect sense as well. Nostalgia is a big draw and with Lion King grossing over $1 billion … it’s hard to argue with results (even if it can feel soulless).
Most importantly, this has all happened before …
A TECHNOLOGICAL REVOLUTION
When it comes to remakes technology is undoubtedly a factor.
Studios will adapt to better serve the dominant medium. Whether it’s black and white to color, silent film to talky, this is a common feature.
The most notable changes followed a change in markets; with one of the biggest shifts being from film to television and home media.Films were re-released for syndication, the VHS and later the DVD saw the birth of straight-to-video sequels and a new content-hungry market came into being.
Naturally, Disney sought to capitalise off this. We got a massive amount of straight-to-video Disney sequels, starting with 1992’s The Return of Jafar, and later additions to just about every Disney IP that had a theatrical release.
We got such greats as the Hunchback of Notre Dame getting a girlfriend, the Fox and Hound starting a band, and I still can’t figure out how Christmas fits into the Beauty and the Beast timeline.
The animation was cheaper, and it really did feel like a spin-off medium. The same criticisms levelled at these direct-to-video sequels are very much the same as what we’re getting with the live action remakes.
- “It’s just a cash grab.”
- “It’s not as good as the original.”
- “It’s just a gimmick.”
Whilst these are debatable, they still made a lot of money for the studio. Most importantly, they were symptomatic of a shift in media markets.
And the change now? Streaming; specifically Disney+.
What better way to “look back” on a classic than by doing a rerelease that’s going to make the studio a ton of money?
After watching the live-action IP-reminder, you can then go back home and watch the original.
Or, even if you refuse to give into the Disney money-making machine, you can watch your childhood favourites on their Disney+ system.
The remakes aren’t designed to be the same as a talky replacing a silent film, it’s a live-action commercial drawing attention to a Disney legacy.
“NOT MY DISNEY”
I don’t want to sound like a grumpy old man. I don’t want to just yell about how “Disney was better in my day, dagnabit!”
There are some Disney-remakes that I do thoroughly enjoy, but I think that has to do with the ‘need’ for a remake.
Originally, remakes functioned as more of a supply and demand arrangement. Improved, technology to give something an update.
A Star is Born has been remade multiple times, each time updated to reflect the technology, the culture, and the social changes of the era, and it’s worked out excellently. But these remakes were also decades apart.
The remakes I most enjoy from Disney have been where they were so lost to time, that it was good breathing new life into it.
Pete’s Dragon follows in the same footsteps as the classic Hollywood remakes, updating itself to better reflect modern technology and society.
But alas – it was nowhere near as much of a box-office smash hit as the remakes of Beauty and the Beast or Lion King; that’s the power of nostalgia.
Now the term “reimagining” is being used, especially to describe remakes for things like Home Alone and Night at the Museum. Honestly, this is probably for the best.
Sure, Home Alone may be considered a “perfect” movie, but the technology, society, and socio-economics of the world has fundamentally shifted. At the very least these “reimaginings” are going to shine a new light on IP that was otherwise inert.
Regardless, we can all rest easy knowing there’ll be some form of Home Alone for us each Christmas on Disney+.
I titled this post as a defence of Disney remakes, and whilst I certainly acknowledge an economic change in the media landscape, I like to think that we could see some greater risks being taken with some of these beloved properties.
It may not be my Disney, but it is a Disney for a new generation.