Photo Credit: Walt Disney Pictures
Beauty and the Beast carries on a newfound Disney tradition of remaking its own animated classics. Afterwards, the likes of Dumbo, Mulan, Aladdin, The Lion King and Cruella de Vil will be remade in live action form as well, so this remake/reboot/ripoff tradition isn't ending anytime soon.
Since it isn't going away and since Beauty and the Beast will be the biggest animated-to-live-action reboot yet, it is worth looking back at Disney's past efforts to remake its animated past, to see how different and similar the reboots really were from their predecessors, and to figure where Beauty and the Beast may fall in that spectrum.
Under these guidelines, Nicolas Cage's version of The Sorcerer's Apprentice doesn't count despite a cameo from Mickey's walking brooms, and neither does last summer’s Pete’s Dragon remake since the original was only partly animated.
Disney has spent the last several years updating their old animated classics, yet the trend technically started back in 1996. The first Disney animated film to have a live action counterpart wasn't one of its old 1930s and 40s classics, but 1961's 101 Dalmatians. Nonetheless, it really sold itself on turning Glenn Close into Cruella de Vil herself.
By the end, the biggest influence on the remake may not have been Disney, but Home Alone. With John Hughes as the writer, the puppies and their animal friends took several pages from Macaulay Culkin in defeating Cruella and her now Wet Bandits like henchmen in the third act. Between that and not having any of the puppies talk, this wasn't quite the 101 Dalmatians of old.
Nonetheless, the live action version did beat out the animated one in getting a sequel. In fact, to this date 102 Dalmatians is one of only two sequels from a live action remake of a Disney animated film, although that will change pretty soon when Jon Favreau's next Jungle Book movie comes out.
Even so, when the Dalmatians franchise ended with a new puppy, a parrot with Eric Idle's voice and Gerard Depardieu mispronouncing 'puppies' it looked like Disney had finished a one-off experiment in remaking its 2D classics. Yet in 2010, it dipped its toes into bigger and more visually extravagant waters.
Alice in Wonderland
There have been several versions of Alice's famed journey into Wonderland, with Disney animating one of the more weirder and psychedelic versions back in 1951. Tim Burton might have made an even weirder version if he did so during the 1990s, but he was long past his oddball days when he finally got the chance in 2010.
This technically isn't a remake of the Disney Alice in Wonderland as much as it is a sequel, despite both projects having the same name. In truth, this Alice in Wonderland does what 101 Dalmatians did and borrowed its big hooks from another non-Disney movie, only in this case it was Steven Spielberg's Hook.
Yet just as making Peter Pan a grown up who has lost his memory of his past had its pratfalls, so did doing the same with an older Alice returning to Neverland, especially with Johnny Depp as an orange haired and occasionally Scottish version of the Mad Hatter.
Financially, Alice in Wonderland was a massive hit, and most likely paved the way for the string of remakes Disney has today. What it might have been like if it hadn't been made after Burton and Depp passed their peak and started to jump the shark is unknown. At the least, it might not have resulted in Alice Through the Looking Glass six years later.
If anything else, Disney’s reimagining of Sleeping Beauty is the gold standard for doing things far differently than the original, and is certainly the first and likely last Disney film to allude to genital mutilation.
One could call this Wicked without the music, in terms of taking a legendary female villain and making her out to be a fallen hero. Yet the darkness still lingers in Maleficent’s rise and fall, from Angelina Jolie’s wardrobe and cheekbones, to turning Sleeping Beauty’s father into Maleficent’s evil ex-lover, and even to Lana del Ray’s vaguely sinister cover of “Once Upon a Dream”
Nonetheless, redemption comes not from being saved by a prince, but from the familial love between a heroine and a scapegoated female ‘villain’, leaving aside how Frozen had just subverted this time-honored Disney cliché months earlier. Maleficent didn’t have Frozen like numbers or adoration for its efforts, but there is still no Disney remake of an animated film quite like it now or perhaps in the future.
With Maleficent dark and unsettling by Disney standards, it might help explain why the next remake of one of their classics was far more traditional. In fact, the retro storytelling of Cinderella was one of its calling cards, especially compared to Disney’s last reboot and to its take on Cinderella in Into the Woods months earlier.
Kenneth Branagh updated Cinderella by leaving out the music, giving Cate Blanchett’s version of the evil stepmother more material, adding more of a backstory and a lot more extravagant costumes, and even giving Prince Charming a name. Otherwise, it was the polar opposite of a revisionist take on an old Disney favorite.
Yet the response from critics and the big box office numbers suggested this was more of a strength than a weakness. Cinderella was a more decisive winner for Disney than Maleficent, if not quite at Alice in Wonderland box office levels, and seemed to seal Disney’s decision to keep the remakes of their past hits coming.
The Jungle Book
If Cinderella didn’t convince Disney to keep this trend going, The Jungle Book surely did last spring.
Favreau’s take on the story kept the animated version’s most iconic songs, even though it really wasn’t a musical. It was more dramatic and certainly more fiery thanks to man’s “red flower” and didn’t require Mowgli to give up either his jungle life or his human “tricks” like the original did.
Nevertheless, the biggest improvements to the original weren’t with storytelling, but with visuals, as Favreau and his crew created an Oscar winning CGI jungle where the only real live action element was Mowgli. Not only did it stand out as a Disney remake, it became one of the few 3D movies viewers really needed to see in 3D.
For that, Favreau will get two more chances to add to that list, with a Lion King remake and another Jungle Book film. By the time he gets around to the latter, Beauty and the Beast will likely have been three or four Disney remakes ago.
On first glance, Beauty and the Beast would look to be quite different from its Oscar nominated predecessor. It is almost 40 minutes longer, has a new backstory for Emma Watson’s new Belle, has a few new songs from Alan Menken, and has the already famous personal revelation about Gaston’s toady Lefou.
While this doesn’t appear to be a Maleficent like reimagining, it wouldn’t seem to be a virtual shot for shot reboot either. Nonetheless, the harshest critics so far have lamented it as a “re-enactment” as Buzzfeed’s Alison Willmore states, further claiming that the term remake “doesn’t do justice to just how beholden the new film is to the older one.”
There is one problem a new Beauty and the Beast has that its past remakes didn’t, since it is drawing from a far more beloved classic. Although the original 101 Dalmatians, The Jungle Book, Alice in Wonderland, Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella have been loved for decades, the 1991 Beauty and the Beast is more on the upper echelon of Disney lore, leaving far more pressure to do it justice. What’s more, the original is only 26 years old, so the remake doesn’t have the kind of space to breathe on its own as past reboots have.
This is most likely going to be a bigger problem when Disney remakes The Lion King, Mulan and Aladdin, and when Burton takes his shot at the older but even more legendary Dumbo. Reimagining classic but not quite sacred Disney animation films is one thing, yet scrutiny and potential backlash for getting the greatest films in Disney history wrong is something else.
Many other critics don’t think Beauty and the Beast got it wrong in live action so far, but it doesn’t appear to have the raves of The Jungle Book and Cinderella either. Nonetheless, the box office may well be huge enough to overshadow that, at least for a weekend, although a big opening only held back Alice in Wonderland’s divisive reviews for so long.
Disney is nowhere near done remaking and revamping its animated past into a live action future, no matter what Beauty and the Beast does or doesn’t do. Even so, it has been up and down in doing justice to its old classics in a new form, and probably can’t afford to be down too much in the remake-fueled future to come.