Often when we grow up, we look back at our parents’ lives and think that we can do things better than they did. Sometimes we are right, but not always. New technologies lead to different ways of telling stories. My parents listened to radio. I had TV. My sons had video games (hooked up to a TV). My grandson has all kinds of things I’ll never grasp on a handheld device. What is better and most imaginative? It’s a matter of perspective, I think.
But when a big media company grows up, it may think its technology outshines what has come before it. The Walt Disney Studios are currently working on a number of live action remakes of earlier animated features. They have already done Beauty and the Beast¸ Jungle Book (really more computer animation than live action), Dumbo, Aladdin, and currently the Lion King (also computer animation). In the pipeline in various stages of development or discussion are live action remakes of Mulan (coming next March), The Little Mermaid (currently getting a lot of buzz from casting Halle Bailey as Ariel, causing some racist backlash), Winnie the Pooh, Pinocchio, The Sword in the Stone, and a number of spinoffs from Disney cartoons, such as a Tinkerbell film.
My question is whether or not this is a good thing. The cynic in me might say, Disney just wants the money that comes with a ready-made audience. But actually, I think that that is not enough of an answer. I think that the extent of this live action remake trend reminds me of those generational difference I note above. It’s like my thinking TV is better than radio, or my grandson thinking his tablet is better than my TV.
I don’t think I’m just being a grumpy old guy. I liked the live action Dumbo better than most reviewers. I think Mulan could be an intriguing remake that works especially well in live action. And I expect Lin-Manuel Miranda and Alan Menken will make some wonderful songs to enhance The Little Mermaid. But overall, I think Disney is making a mistake in making all these remakes. The underlying premise to these remakes is that live action (or in the cases of Jungle Book and The Lion King, computer animation) is intrinsically better than the animation of the originals. I find it only slightly ironic that the studio that bears Walt Disney’s name, no longer makes any of the kind of animation that Walt Disney was the master of. The new versions of animated classics essentially diminish the originals. They say by their very existence that those older versions are not good enough for today’s world. I dissent.
Animation—both computer and hand-drawn—makes for an excellent medium for storytelling. Many of the original Disney classics were based on fairytales or other stories that were especially conducive to the use of animation: Snow White, Cinderella, Pinocchio, Peter Pan. Each of these could easily have been made as live action films at the time, but the choice was made to do it with animation. And I believe that was the best choice. These stories and the magic they weave for the audience is enhanced by being told through animation.
Of course the studio continues to tell stories with animation under both the Disney and Pixar names. These are almost always well received and of great quality. (Although I personally mourn their decision to rely entirely on computer animation. I still love to see traditional animation as we get from Studio Ghibli and Cartoon Saloon.) This format is still an important tool in the studio’s storytelling. But just as I’d hate to see Disney’s classic Old Yeller made into an animated feature, I wish that they would respect the animated gems of past generations enough to let them be the wonders that they are.