Why Disney keeps remaking so many of its animated movies
Disneycontinues to remake some of its most beloved classics.
- More than a dozen are reported to be in the works, including retellings of "The Little Mermaid" and "Hercules."
- Why is Disney remaking so many of them?
- They're easy four-quadrant wins. Four have grossed $1 billion at the box office.
- Their dependability allows the studio to take a chance on riskier original ideas.
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Since 2010, Disney has remade a number of its animated classics ranging from "The Jungle Book" to "The Lion King," and they're only going to keep coming. At least a dozen more are reported to be in the works.
Why does Disney keep remaking so many of its animated classics?
The majority of them are lucrative cash cows.
Similar to the studio's well-oiled Marvel Cinematic Universe, the live-action and CGI remakes provide Disney with a cushion to offset any potential box-office upsets in any given fiscal quarter. Four of them have crossed $1 billion at theaters, while another two crossed $700 million.
We also have Johnny Depp and 2016's "The Jungle Book" to thank for the influx of remakes. But before we get to that, it's important to remember we could have had a resurgence of Disney remakes years ago.
An influx of Disney remakes could have taken over theaters 20 years ago
Before Disney's animated reimaginings became commonplace, the studio remade three
They just weren't much to brag about.
1994's "Jungle Book" grossed $43.2 million worldwide. Though "101 Dalmatians" brought in $320.7 million worldwide, its sequel, released four years later, didn't break $200 million at the box office. These weren't exactly sure-fire hits, and, aside from "The Jungle Book," critical reviews of the films were negative. (The two "Dalmatians" sit at 42% and 31% on Rotten Tomatoes, respectively.)
Disney didn't attempt another live-action adaptation of a classic until 2010 with Johnny Depp in "Alice in Wonderland."
Why the Disney remake train finally took off: Big stars, good reviews, and box-office wins
The difference this time around? Depp was already a part of Disney's very popular "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise, which at that point had released a trilogy of films. Depp's presence as the Mad Hatter helped the film cross $1 billion worldwide. Again, the reviews weren't great, but the film achieved what the three previous remakes hadn't by being a runaway success.
It was the most money a Disney live-action adaptation had made at that point. The success of the next remakes was critical to making sure "Alice's" box-office intake wasn't a fluke because of Depp's stardom at the time and to prove there was an audience who wanted these films.
Disney's next three releases were "Maleficent" (2014), "Cinderella" (2015), and "The Jungle Book" (2016). While the latter two, more or less, delivered pretty straight-forward adaptations of the originals, "Maleficent" offered something different by telling 1959's "Sleeping Beauty" from the perspective of the villainess.
That original spin on the fairy-tale, along with a convincing performance from Angelina Jolie, helped "Maleficent" take in $758 million. "Cinderella" made a bit less with $542 million worldwide, but it was the best-reviewed live-action adaptation at that point by both critics and audiences. Then came "The Jungle Book."
After the '94 release didn't perform as well, the new adaptation demolished box-office expectations. Great reviews and word of mouth helped the film overperform by roughly 40% opening weekend. Some even ccalled it better than the original 1967 movie. By the end of its theatrical run, "The Jungle Book" took in over $966 million.
The film's success was important to Disney for a few reasons.
It cemented the studio could continue rolling out more re-imaginings of its classics and aim to re-do some of its more popular titles. Up until this point, Disney was arguably remaking B-level classics at best.
Yes, "Cinderella," "Sleeping Beauty," and "The Jungle Book" were all recognizable intellectual property, but they weren't the studio's A-list material from the Disney Renaissance. Those are the string of movies released between 1989 and 1999 that are considered some of Disney's top-tier titles. It includes the likes of "The Lion King," "Beauty and the Beast," "Aladdin," "Mulan," and "The Little Mermaid." All five of these movies have either been released since 2017 or are set for a theatrical release.
The "Jungle Book's" success was especially important because it suggested Disney could move forward with a "Lion King" remake. The 2016 film used an early version of the technology that would be used to create Favreau's 2019 "Lion King" film.
If "The Jungle Book" didn't perform well, we probably wouldn't have a new "Lion King," or at least not in the way it was delivered to us. Favreau was named as director of "The Lion King" remake in September 2016.
Why these remakes are important to the company: They're sure-fire wins that allow the company to take risks on new potential franchises.
Remaking Disney classics is an easy way for the company to print money at the box office. They're four-quadrant films, meaning they're films that appeal to men and women below and above 25. Disney was able to deliver something nostalgic for fans of the originals while offering something new for young children, many of whom may be children of fans who grew up with the originals.
Before its streaming service, Disney Plus, launched in November 2019, Disney limited how often some of the original animated films were in circulation. Unless you have some of the classics on VHS or on DVD/Blu-ray — if it was even released in that format — then you may not have had access to it.
The outpouring of successful Disney remakes and Marvel movies have also allowed the studio to try out more original — and perhaps, risky — properties.
If Disney wants to make "A Wrinkle in Time" and it doesn't perform as well as hoped, you can bet that it will be flanked by the likes of at least one big Disney win so any loss is less visible. In this case, "Black Panther" debuted right before it ($1.3 billion worldwide) and "Avengers: Infinity War" ($2 billion worldwide) came out a month after it. "A Wrinkle in Time" grossed $132.7 million worldwide. It was the studio's only miss in its Q2 2018 earnings report.
Another example is 2015's "Tomorrowland," starring George Clooney, which was wedged between "Avengers: Age of Ultron" ($1.4 billion worldwide) and Pixar's "Inside Out" ($857.6 million worldwide). The Clooney vehicle, directed by Brad Bird ("The Incredibles"), was supposed to kick off a franchise, but wound up making $209 million worldwide. The film's budget was estimated at $190 million.
Bird addressed Hollywood's penchant for leaning towards sequels and safe franchises directly after "Tomorrowland" flopped.
"Every studio should, like an allowance, allow themselves a certain number of franchise things, and then as an investment in the future, try these risky things that are unproven. At one time, Star Wars was a risky venture," Bird told Entertainment Weekly in 2015.
As of April 2020, five releases through 2022 are labeled as "Untitled Disney Live Action."
A "101 Dalmatians" spinoff, "Cruella," starring Emma Stone, is expected to be released May 28, 2021. "The Little Mermaid" is also in the works with Lin Manuel Miranda on board to write some new music for the film.
You can view a full interactive graphic of all of the planned and reported Disney remakes on the way here.
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