At first glance, all might look right with the Disney brand. They're one of the most powerful companies in the world, with a spokemouse more recognizable than Santa Claus and a killer row of studios under their umbrella (like Lucasfilm, Pixar, and Marvel) who've been racking up the hits. As of April 2nd, their live-action remake of Beauty And The Beast has grossed $874 million dollars, becoming the highest grossing live-action musical of all time. With numbers like that, it's not surprising that we're headed for a never-ending onslaught of live-action Disney remakes. At some point, they will undoubtedly amass enough money that our entire concept of currency becomes obsolete and we are forced to sing "Let It Go" in stores in exchange for goods and services.
But Walt Disney Animation Studios, the iconic branch of the corporation that makes their "classic" films like Snow White, Cinderella, and The Fireman's Pole: An Assventure, is sliding into the biggest creative spiral they have ever had. But here's the rub: That's not a bad thing. Almost thirty years ago, Disney was floundering helplessly, like an annoying animated sidekick who wasn't a Jamaican crab. The loss of Walt Disney's leadership and vision after his and his brother's deaths created a vacuum that sucked up money and animated hits like a black hole of bad business decisions.
Walt Disney Productions
All of Disney's failures compounded and sparked what is known as The Disney Renaissance, a ten-year stretch of creative genius that resulted in The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and Beauty And The Beast, the first animated film to be nominated at the Academy Awards for Best Picture.
So how is 1989 like now, aside from a rise of neo-conservatives to power, a wealth of politically conscious hip-hop, and a weird amount of denim jackets in circulation? Well, for example, Disney has been prioritizing everything else they own over their own movies for years.
While their subsidiary studios are hitting home runs, their proprietary studio is lucky to get a Zootopia once in a while. Since the failure of their "traditional" Disney style film, The Princess And The Frog, Disney has been making their junior studios a priority, simply because they know they can't compete. At this point, Disney is treating its most legendary arm like an afterthought. Marvel gets feted at Comic-Con every year and every Pixar release is a cultural force.
Compared to the output of those studios, their release of animated films has been at a crawl. Even the success of Frozen, the closest they've come in decades to reaching cultural saturation with their trademark animated fairy-tale music formula, has yet to be followed up on. Heck, when they absorbed Pixar in 2006, they named John Lasseter (who they had once fired for his ideas) as their new overseer. Think about that: They fired the man who came up with The Brave Little Toaster and years later, he's their boss. Which ... is kind of the plot of that movie. Metaphorically. If you think hard enough. Yeah, I don't care if I'm forcing meaning there.
When a company is forced to put their arch-rival and former cannon fodder in charge, it doesn't usually mean they have a lot of good ideas of their own. However, it does mean that they're at least willing to acknowledge that he might know something they don't. Which is good, since all they seem to do anymore is churn out an endless barrage of live-action remakes of movies that were hits decades ago.
Depending on reports, there are between 19 and 22 live-action remakes of classic Disney films scheduled for the next ten years. Keep in mind, they don't seem to have any plan to make this all an enormous shared-universe concept, like Marvel Studios has done and Warner/DC is attempting. Disney seems to be fully prepared to spend the next decade of their existence as the most iconic animation studio in the world doing nothing but re-hashing their old films for nostalgia points. If Beauty And The Beast, their most successful live-action remake thus far, is any indication, they're going to tell exactly the same story, down to costuming and choreography. They'll throw a gay character in there for some overhyped, underwhelming inclusivity, but that's it. Nothing new.
At best, Disney is trying to add a touch of spin to some of their warmed-over remakes, and here's the bad news about something I was already telling you was bad news: They're already running on fumes.
The height of creativity for modern-day Disney is Tim Burton's increasingly hackish vision for Alice In Wonderland, and Maleficent, a prequel to Sleeping Beauty. Burton's been spinning the same Goth-lite visuals and Johnny Depp antics for decades now, and there might be no cinematic storytelling technique as despised as a prequel, even one starring Angelina Jolie's CGI cheekbones. They can thank George Lucas for torpedoing that concept before selling them every other good idea he ever had.
But even those relatively minor tweaks (A gritty reboot! A grim origin tale!) are already being repeated. Their new live-action 101 Dalmatians story is going to be a dark origin story of Cruella De Vil starring Emma Stone. It could not possibly be clearer that they saw the relative success of Maleficent and then went digging through their files, mumbling, "what other skinny villainess we got to work with? Emma Stone is available, great, slap some two-tone wigs on her and we're gold."
Now we're being offered a live-action Winnie The Pooh that's all about an adult Christopher Robin returning to his childhood fantasies, which sounds ... familiar ...
They're re-using their own minor tweaks so quickly that they've begun to run out of ideas to wring dry. Case in point: One of their live-action remakes in active development is based on Chernabog, that classic Disney character we all know and love.
Disney Animation is planning to build an entire movie around a wordless character in a single segment of Fantasia, a movie that bombed so hard in 1940 that Walt called himself a pretentious "smarty-pants" for having made it.
Beauty And The Beast's enormous success is spurring Disney to lose all ambition and just fall back into what they know, hoping audiences will love the same thing forever. It might be the worst thing that could have happened to Disney's artistry ... in the short term.
Back to The Disney Renaissance. After sucking for a good long while, Disney was exhausted. They were being bested by competitors Bluth Animation, then Pixar, and their work was diminished to the point where they branched out into low-budget TV animation, just like they're now wasting their energy on profitable but creatively limp remakes.
Then Disney rallied. They were desperate to try new things, whatever it took. They teamed up with one of their biggest competitors, Steven Spielberg, to create the groundbreaking hybrid animation film Who Framed Roger Rabbit. They hired edgy new talent like Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, two songwriters who were primarily known for writing the weirdo off-Broadway hit Little Shop Of Horrors, a musical about murder, sado-masochism, and the destruction of human civilization. They began dabbling in new technology, like the acclaimed CGI work in the original cartoon Beauty And The Beast.
The Disney Renaissance of the '90s has become a high-water mark for animation, and it's all due to the fact that they ran out of ideas so hard that they got desperate. Disney may make some enormous piles of cash right now, but audiences won't be fooled into watching the same old thing over and over again for long. Sooner or later, they'll realize they're being conned into paying for the same movies, and Disney will have to wake to the prince's kiss that's known as "failing box office receipts." And when they do, hopefully they'll have another happily ever after. So yeah, as weird as it is to say this: I'm actually hoping for some Disney failure so we can see some Disney innovation. And maybe a sequel to The Fireman's Pole: An Assventure.
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Movies are never more unrealistic than when they're showing us exactly what a dollar can buy.