One of the highlights of my childhood were the dozens of Disney videotapes purchased by my parents over the years, as I was too young to buy such masterpieces on my own. I had (almost) all of them: The Lion King, Mulan, Dumbo, Cinderella, The Sword in the Stone, The Aristocats, The Jungle Book, you name it. I loved these movies, as most (Western) children of my age did too. However, I am not a particularly nostalgic person. Today I treat these films with moderate sympathy, the kind of sympathy you reserve for an old friend from elementary school with whom you totally lost touch.
Regarding nostalgia, there are many who disagree with me, most notably the heads of the studio that created these movies. Simply put, Disney is doing it all over again. The studio has more than 20 remakes planned or in the making for the upcoming years, some of which are sequels or based on existing films. A live-action version of the movie Mulan is expected to be released in 2018, as well as a Mary Poppins sequel; we can also expect remakes of films such as The Lion King (directed by Jon Favreau, who also directed the 2016 version of The Jungle Book), Dumbo (reportedly to be directed by Tim Burton), The Sword in the Stone, A spin-off for the Genie from Aladdin, and also a remake for Aladdin (Guy Ritchie is supposed to direct, that one actually sounds cool), and Emma Stone is to portray Cruella de Vil in a live-action spin-off Cruella. But perhaps the most talked-about film of the past few weeks is the live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast, released in March. Very talked-about, though it all seems a bit familiar.
It was around 1989 when The Little Mermaid marked the beginning of what is known as the Disney Renaissance. The studio returned to making animated, more musical films that became trademarks for the studio and box-office successes. It was a creative resurgence that gave rise to some of Disney’s most notable products. One of these movies was Beauty and the Beast, directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirke Wise, released in 1991. It is the musical tale of a young woman, considered strange by the villagers for reading books (what?), enchanted by a prince trapped in the body of a giant bison. With a budget of $25 million, the 1991 version grossed about $425 million. Besides the critical acclaim, this was an important commercial milestone for the studio: at the time, it was the most successful Disney movie ever made, and the first film to cross the $100 million threshold in North America. The latest version, starring Emma Watson as Belle, had a budget of $160 million, and as to mid-April 2017 grossed more than a billion dollars. Yes, you are reading that correctly. A Disney remake of a movie from 1991 grossed more than a billion dollars, the highest grossing live-action musical to date.
It is somewhat odd when a remake of an iconic classic manages to sell more tickets than the original, but remakes answer an immediate demand by audiences for further supply of their favourite movies. One of the reasons for the success of a remake lies in the nostalgic tendencies of its viewers – which is especially true for a Disney remake, whose older viewers wish to share the experience of a childhood classic with their own children, 20 years later. Remakes are successful because they have a ready-made fan base with strong loyalty to the brand. It is important to note that Hollywood has been re-making its own creations for decades, sometimes with the same directors: Alfred Hitchcock’s 1956 The Man Who Knew Too Much is a remake of his own movie of the same name from 1934. Golden-age Hollywood producers understood immediately that remakes are less risky in terms of production and investment. They may be called “industrial products”, for their ability to provide financial guarantees based on tested formulae. Re-telling a story relies on the fact that tickets are sold even before the movie is released, or at least that its narrative is well known. Real people portraying animated characters is a no-risk investment for Disney, and no-risk investment seems to be the business plan for upcoming years.
It is also clear that the audiences are hungry for remakes, although we must not disregard the massive Disney marketing apparatus, drawing in the crowds. Disney spent around $140 million dollars on marketing for the new Beauty and the Beast in addition to the film’s budget, while capitalizing on social media, as exemplified by the teaser trailer of the movie being shared millions of times. But the masses filling the cinemas are captivated for an additional reason; technology. The modern take on the classic story is combined with higher production value, providing the innovative cherry on a familiar sundae. As technology improves, filmmakers are able to incorporate advanced and truly exciting techniques to express their artistic visions. George Miller, the creator of the Mad Max franchise, had created the latest movie in the series, Fury Road from 2015, out of sheer admiration to what filmmaking technology has become. He praised the modern camera, the number of shots possible, the sophistication of the visual effects, all of which allowed him to bring to life a new vision. “We never dreamed we could do that,” he told TechRadar, regarding the special effects and techniques that simply did not exist during the 1980’s. Indeed, modern technology amazes filmmakers and audiences alike with its accuracy and imaginative force. The new Beauty and the Beast was made with a complex mixture of CGI and motion-capture, and the effects are indeed mesmerizing. Director Bill Condon has said, “It is 25 years later and technology has caught up to the ideas that were introduced in the animated movie” and that says it all.
As technology evolves so quickly, the gap between the classic and the remake diminishes: the Beauty and the Beast version from 1991 seems almost anachronistic in its style although it was made only 26 years ago. It is as if the rapid improvement in computer imaging technologies is forcing the studios to speed up the pace of their own remakes. Imagine this: every time there is a new technology in the market, film studios will create a more persuasive, engaging and real-life version of a “classic”. Could we be expecting a new Beauty and the Beast in 5 years, introducing holograms of actual bisons?
Managers and producers at Disney are obviously contented with where things are going: in the age of multi-billion-dollar grossing superhero movies, Disney needs to redefine its niche and solidify its position among film studios. The numbers align: over the past five years, the Disney stock has gone up by 160.87%. Appealing to a captured audience, motivated by nostalgia and cutting-edge technology, is a safe move in an industry where no one bails you out if you fail. The result is a refined product with a reliable story and some technological innovation. Remakes remind us of our childhood, and in such troublesome times, even grown-ups look for some comfort in singing teapots. I would even dare to claim that Disney remakes appeal to our current fears of a changing and divided world. People are not looking for something new when they engage with nostalgia.
And what does all of this mean for creativity? Originality is a tricky concept when it comes to Disney: most of its classics are based on popular children’s books and fairy-tales into which the studio brought animated life. In the past years Disney had come up with some original stories turned into highly successful films, such as Frozen, but not as part of a larger trend. The Disney Renaissance in the 1990’s is called so for a reason: a burst of creativity and clever storylines that defined the cultural references of a whole generation. Whether such a burst is possible in the remake climate of financial safety nets is doubtful, and when the vast majority of resources are directed towards the re-making of classics, creative potential may be overlooked. In other words, we might not be seeing a new Disney renaissance of movies in the near future. No worries children, at least we have remakes!
 Verevis, C. (2006). Film remakes. 1st ed. Edinburgh: Edinburgh Univ. Press.