Cinderella, The Jungle Book, and now Beauty and the Beast – Disney is certainly making a mint by remaking its most beloved films in live-action, complete with the biggest names in Hollywood. However, could this be a task too ambitious for even the giant of classic fairy-tales? The general reaction to Disney’s latest offering, The Jungle Book (an impressive 94% on Rotten Tomatoes) suggests that this is not the case.
Angelina Jolie, Sir Ben Kingsley, Scarlett Johansson, and Cate Blanchett are only some of the lovely people headlining Disney’s foray into live-action films. Their latest offering, Beauty and the Beast due for release in March 2017, sees Emma Watson cast off her wizarding robes and don the trademark golden ball-gown of Belle, the beautiful bookworm who tames the heart of a Beast. Dan Stevens (Matthew from Downtown Abbey and the nasally challenged Lancelot in Night at the Museum 3) will be hiding his blue eyes behind a mountain of makeup and fantastic CGI effects to become the titular Beast, and Disney has done a fantastic job at transforming a handsome man into a creature as horrifying as his animated counterpart.
But Disney’s ambitions have not ended there: a live-action Mulan (featuring an all-Chinese cast) is set for release in 2018, with The Little Mermaid and Walt Disney’s very first brainchild, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, also in the pipeline. One can only imagine the feast for the eyes Disney will create by remaking Ancient China, especially if the staggering success of The Jungle Book is only a stepping stone in the technical greatness that Disney can achieve on-screen.
These direct remakes, in which the core stories remain the same, are only part of the live-action reinvention. Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland was a star-studded continuation of Disney’s original version, garnering much praise for the visual spectacle of Underland, while Maleficent told the story of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty through the eyes of the antagonist, also creating a magical fantasy world on-screen with CGI.
Disney has clearly hit gold with its magical live-action campaign. Every title announced has been met with elation and anticipation: the Beauty and the Beast teaser trailer nearly broke the net with a whopping 91.8 million views, making it the most-watched teaser trailer in history. With this kind of exposure, every star in Hollywood is vying to play their childhood hero or favourite princess, and even bigger names are vying to direct them. Even the great Kenneth Branagh hung up his Shakespearean pantaloons to direct Cinderella.
Jon Favreau (director of the massively successful aforementioned remake of The Jungle Book) seems to have a soft spot for animals, as he is set to direct the remake of The Lion King. This is a project that could either make or break Disney’s winning streak; directing and starring in remakes of classic Disney films is one thing, but bringing to life one of the most beloved of all animated films is another. The Lion King has a slew of awards to its name, and even a hugely successful stage production was adapted from the original film by Julie Taymor, which is arguably just as (if not more) popular than its namesake. Can Favreau live up to the hype and expectation of literally billions of fans? I will say this: I was not expecting much from The Jungle Book, but when I saw the film, I realised what CGI is capable of. I could have sworn that Bagheera, Shere-Khan and all the other creatures in the film were living, breathing, talking animals. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that with the team Favreau had to bring that spectacle to life, that lions would be a piece of cake. Neel Sethi (Mowgli) had to act through an entire film talking to no one but a green screen. The Lion King has no human characters, which may be a blessing or a curse, because they will have no need to micro-direct an actor regarding spatial logistics. However, without a human, will they still have the hearts and souls of the audience invested in computer generated animals and VFX?
To be blunt, The Jungle Book was essentially an animated film with a human at the centre. Without the “live” in “live-action”, will the remake of The Lion King simply be another animated film with updated graphics? There is no doubt that Favreau, with the help of the entire Disney team behind him, will pull out all the stops, but whether they fascinate or fail us, remains to be seen.
Coupled with the public’s appreciation of the magic of CGI and the more thoughtfully developed backstories of our favourite Disney heroes and heroines, one might say that Disney live-action is no passing fad, but a “whole new world” of possibilities (which reminds me that Aladdin, too, will be getting a realistic face-lift, rumoured to be directed by none other than Guy Ritchie, so we can assume that the film will be quite a lot darker than its animated original).
Disney has recently also added a feminist flavour to its remakes, much to the appreciation of its female audience. Alice in Wonderland saw a feisty young lady with a strong mind fight (a frightening realistic) Jabberwocky with a Vorpal Blade; Maleficent made the audience realise that ‘true love’ is more often familial than it is the prince-and-princess-live-happily-ever after cliché; and Jon Favreau even changed the gender of Kaa (the gargantuan python in The Jungle Book, voiced by Scarlett Johansson) because he thought that the cast was too male-heavy.
Breaking stereotypes seems to be the name of Disney’s game. It is no secret that engaging backstories and emotional connection to the characters makes them far more likeable. Identification and empathy with a character allows for the audience to connect to a film that was essentially made to elicit emotion. Disney has finally realised that the prince is not always necessary (as comically demonstrated in Maleficent), and that the princess does not always need to be saved, because she can save herself. In the same vein, male characters also have been made more emotionally accessible to the audience. Whether they want to admit it or not, men do cry, as illustrated by a teary-eyed Prince Charming lying in the foetal position next to his dying father in Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella. It was a truly touching moment, as well as surprising, because princes are not meant to have emotion. There is but one prince in the classics that the audience actually got to know, that being Prince Eric (The Little Mermaid), literally the only prince that was truly developed in terms of his personality, even if it was a shallow one.
Thus, Branagh ingeniously forced emotion into even his most emotionally-hardened viewers – whether you felt disgust at the prince’s emotional weakness, or you felt pity and empathy, at least you felt, which is the most essential characteristic of any Disney film. When a director is remaking a classic, and the audience already knows the story, sometimes a few emotional surprises need to be inserted in order for the audience to feel that pang of nostalgia, taking them back to the very first time they saw the original, especially when ground-breaking visuals distract you from the heart of the film itself. The Jungle Book would never have been as successful as it has been without the real emotion conveyed by the voice actors: we could feel Shere Khan’s hatred, and Raksha’s love and concern. Without the sincerity behind the CGI, the film would simply be pretty, without Disney’s trademark emotional engagement.
I suppose it’s the circle of life that has caused this evolution in Disney, as it is taking tales as old as time, and giving them a whole new world of visual and emotional possibility, and essentially making them a part of our world. So as they say, Hakuna Matata (it means no worries), and let it go, because Disney is prepared to go the distance, not only bringing our childhood favourites to life, but improving them with better morals and more engaging characters, that will always be in our hearts.