Dumbo hits UK cinemas this week, and it promises a stellar cast, some tear-jerking animation, and a hopeful return to form by Tim Burton. While judgement cannot yet be passed on the film itself, the most recent addition to Disney’s live action remakes of its canon, our brave writers Katy Moon and Calum Baker have weighed into the merits and pitfalls of the overall phenomenon with two wonderful, nuanced takes – read on, and then see how Dumbo stacks up later this week!
Katy Moon: The Situation is More Nuanced
Beauty and the Beast’s billion-dollar box office is proof positive that we don’t mind paying for the same thing twice – and it certainly looks like Aladdin and The Lion King are headed the same way. But can we really throw all the remakes into the same Lazy Cash Cow category?
Take Maleficent. In Sleeping Beauty, heroine Aurora has around 18 lines of dialogue. This puts her second only to Dumbo as the Disney character with the least number of lines in their own movie, and allows dashing Prince Philip to become the film’s de facto protagonist. Shifting focus to become a Wicked-style reassessment of its notorious villain, Maleficent recentres the story around its female characters. The Mistress of Evil becomes a damaged woman finding love and redemption through her relationship with another woman, as Linda Woolverton’s script soundly rejects the traditionally accepted definition of True Love. It’s not the kiss of Heterosexual Romance that awakens Aurora, but the kiss of Familial Love – and not even blood family at that. Whether or not you enjoyed the final product, that should be a pretty big deal in anyone’s book. It’s a bold and important reimagining, and a solid argument for the merits of remakes in general.
But drastic rewrites aren’t the only way in which certain Disney remakes distinguish themselves. Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella didn’t substantially alter its source material like Maleficent, but didn’t slavishly recreate it either. Addressing the oft-repeated criticism that Cinderella is a passive damsel, the film emphasises that the story isn’t about waiting to be rescued, but about surviving. Forgoing the Snow White Warrior Princess route, the film champions a different type of strength. Ella’s mantra, “Have courage and be kind”, alludes to her fight to stay good and kind in the face of hardship and appalling cruelty. This is brilliantly offset against a more humanised Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett), no longer simply a Wicked Stepmother™ but a woman who has allowed her own pain to turn her callous and coldhearted. The result is a beautifully earnest fairy tale, creating a sense of modernity without feeling anachronistic or insincere.
Perhaps the most visually similar to its source material, The Jungle Book is another great boon for the merits of live-action remakes. Sure, Jon Favreau panders to us a little with Christopher Walken’s wonderfully sinister rendition of ‘I Wan’Na Be Like You’, but he steers clear of making the film a full-blown musical. It’s a good call, because here the name of the game is realism. The stunning photorealistic animation juxtaposed with sole human actor Neel Sethi emphasises the dangers of the jungle in a way the original never did. It’s a darker take, without being senselessly so. Favreau draws as much from Kipling’s original novels as he does the 1967 Disney classic, creating something that is both recognisably a remake and a whole new film in the process.
Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella and The Jungle Book all hail from Disney’s Silver Age (1950-1967). Their limited runtimes and comparatively less-developed plots offer both the space and scope for modern revisions – which is precisely what their remakes offered. That’s why Dumbo – a 64-minute cartoon from 1941 with minimal human characters – is a natural candidate for a great remake. It’s also why Beauty and the Beast, a beloved Academy Award-nominated classic, becomes a lacklustre retread when brainlessly rehashed a couple of decades later. It’s not the act of remaking itself that’s the problem, but rather the choice of what gets remade and how.
Calum Baker: Disney has Created a Delightful Hellscape
Remakes are not inherently bad, in quality or on principle, and even remaking “recent” movies has made some greats: Disney’s second Aladdin is soon to arrive a mere, er, quarter-century after its inspiration, but this is nothing on that film’s forebears, the classic Thief(s) of Bagdad 1924 and 1940.
And in this case of Disney specifically, it can often (as Katy explained above) be important to provide updated rehashes, with reconsidered themes and messages – it sure beats erasure and revision – and so it is that Aladdin and the upcoming Mulan strive to reverse a century of iffy whitewashing.
Meanwhile there’s nothing about the remake qua remake that has to be an insult to viewers: each of the last 17 years’ Spider-Men – Maguire, Garfield, Holland, and now Shameik Moore (plus that film’s other Spider-People) – have brought different ideas and different pleasures to our screens, rarely anything less than engaging.
And if we’re talking spectacle and pleasure, then actually, Disney haven’t done too badly: Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book (2016) deservedly won an Oscar for its grand CG work (its sound, too, was brilliant); the Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast remakes (2015 and 2017) have proved deft cover versions, their existences perhaps mostly justified by the production and costume designs on offer – the kind of cinematic art worth paying for even when everything else feels perfunctory; David Lowery’s Pete’s Dragon (2016) was a leftfield delight; and early word on Tim Burton’s Dumbo suggests it has managed a genuine expansion of and response to the 1941 original, once again perfectly worth a watch.
And yet. How to say this without sounding a killjoy? How to express this without sounding paranoid, or without accidentally falling into cultural-studies-101 cliches, and sounding less like writing from the heart than searching for an intellectual point? I mean, it’s Disney. We all love Disney. And one cannot get grumpy about these remakes without sounding a bit of a snob.
That said, if Disney’s actions are broken down into the starkest possible terms, the result is essentially the satirical premise for a dystopian novel. Actually, it resembles David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (published 1996, set in the 2010s), in which events are driven by a videotape that provides such a potent neural rush that it destroys the viewer’s faculties; this entertainment, needless to say, is a sought-after political weapon. And out here, in the real 2019, we have seen Bill Condon’s megabudget TV-special version of Beauty and the Beast, with all the hits trotted back out, and we have seen Jon Favreau’s reimagining not of Rudyard Kipling but of Disney’s Rudyard Kipling, and this year there will be three of these things coming down the line with a combined budget pushing a billion: there is passive viewership and then there is the weird psychological effect generated by being literally given a mega-studio-conglomerate’s creative recycling.
There is nothing wrong with remakes per se, but the cumulative effect here is just disquieting. Think about what it means that this company, who have done so much over the last 80 years to shape the dreams and assumptions of generations, can now, at the same time as acquiring assets upon assets of yet more collective dreams and desires, recycle these things back into our minds with even higher overheads while actively boasting – as they essentially did with the recent Ralph Breaks the Internet – that this is what they are there for, and they are going to be allowed to do it. The question regarding these remakes is no longer “what’s the point?” but rather “what are we trapped in?”
These films are all perfectly watchable. They are a little bit of fun; they’re a real corrective to the strange darkness of the outside world – whatever oddness Burton brings to Dumbo is still geared at entertainment. But paradoxically they’re from the same hyper-capitalist madness that birthed and feeds all these scary outside-world monsters we’re escaping. Right here, inside the wonderful sanctuary of the cinema, the dystopia is bleeding in, and it feels so good to so many of us. In some ways it makes sense that Hell is so technically accomplished. Prince Ali, yes it is he… but not as you know him.