How Disney is succeeding with its live-action remakes
The much-anticipated release of the new The Lion King this weekend marks the third remake of a classic Disney film to hit theaters just in 2019. For the most part, the box office results have been staggering: Aladdin has grossed more than $963 million worldwide, which incredibly makes its star Will Smith’s biggest movie ever. On top of that, The Lion King — voiced by a starry cast that includes Beyoncé — could end up being one of the highest-grossing movies of all time, according to Comscore analyst Paul Dergarabedian.
“The Lion King is poised for a monumental run in movie theaters. Given the nostalgia, excitement, and anticipation by audiences of all ages around the globe, it’s going to roar like Simba at the box office,” he says. “We should stop underestimating these remakes. They’re Teflon.”
Not always. Tim Burton’s Dumbo, the other Disney remake released this year, only made $352 million worldwide. But unlike The Lion King and Aladdin, the original Dumbo does not hail from the popular ‘90s era known as the “Disney Renaissance.” Burton had a lot more work to do to bring the 1941 animated film about a flying elephant into 2019.
“Dumbo is a special case because the film constraints of the time only allowed for eight-minute film reels. So the original Dumbo film is 64 minutes long because there were eight-minute reels and that’s all they could afford at the time,” says Johnson Cheu, an assistant professor at Michigan State University who has edited essay collections about diversity in Disney films and Burton’s filmography. “Of all the live-action remakes, Dumbo is the one most divergent from the original story, for that reason. Tim Burton had to make a movie by today’s standards.”
One of Burton’s innovations was to add a new villainous figure in the form of an exploitative circus entrepreneur played by his old Batman collaborator Michael Keaton. It was certainly interesting to see an amusement park owner cast as a villain in a Disney film, but the change didn’t resonate as strongly with audiences as the updates to Aladdin. There, Naomi Scott’s 2019 version of Jasmine not only keeps her midriff covered, but she also aspires to become Sultan in her own right rather than just waiting for a good marriage. Linda Woolverton, the screenwriter of the original Beauty and the Beast and the upcoming Maleficent: Mistress of Evil starring Angelina Jolie, compares the change in Jasmine to the way she originally designed Belle.
“I didn’t think that anybody would accept a throwback victim/princess,” Woolverton says. “If they had not reinvented Jasmine’s whole MO, her agenda and attitude, it wouldn’t have been as successful as it is. That has a lot to do with why people like it so much.”
There’s more where that came from. The trailer for the live-action Mulan, due out next spring, quickly racked up millions of views after debuting during the Women’s World Cup finals. With no Eddie Murphy-voiced dragon in sight, the new film looks like it might focus entirely on the journey of Mulan proving herself as a soldier capable of defending China from invasion.
But it’s not just about girl power. Disney classics are slowly becoming more diverse. Twitter exploded when it was recently announced that R&B star Halle Bailey would star as Ariel in the upcoming live-action reboot of The Little Mermaid, following in the foosteps of her mentor Beyoncé’s casting as Nala in The Lion King.
Still, it’s not an exact science: Films have to hit that sweet spot between resurrecting a beloved classic and modernizing it.
“Disney didn’t necessarily trust that people knew and loved the movies as much as they did, because there was an urge to reinvent: either darkening things, changing them, taking the music out,” says Jon Favreau, who directed The Lion King remake after his success with 2016’s The Jungle Book. “But then you see with Beauty and the Beast especially where it really embraced the animated film that came before it, that that was part of the fun was seeing it transposed to this new medium. And so they embraced the music, they embraced the tone and imagery. Jungle Book started off I think as a darker film that didn’t have the music, and then slowly we introduced those elements to it, and then the audience really seemed to appreciate when we referenced what came before.”
The Lion King hits theaters Friday.