It’s no secret that the Walt Disney company has been relying on remakes of their more popular older movies a lot lately. 2019 saw not one, not two, but four of them! (Aladdin, The Lion King, Dumbo and Lady and the Tramp.) These are typically referred to as live action remakes since the original movies being remade were animated, but considering how much CGI they use, it’s more accurate to describe them as photorealistic remakes. Actually, that’s not the best label either as many of the films that get lumped into discussions of this trend, reasonably so, aren’t so much remakes as spinoffs, sequels, prequels or Perspective Flips of old Disney properties. And at least one of them, Mary Poppins Returns (2018) is of a (mostly) live action movie. For my money, the best description of these films is nostalgia bait movies.Pete’s Dragon (2016) is another recent remake of a live action Disney movie, but while it is part of the trend of Disney doing almost nothing but remakes, there’s not enough cultural … Continue reading
It’s also no secret that the internet is less than pleased with Disney’s recent line of nostalgia bait. Searching for Disney Remakes on YouTube gives you a long list of video essays proclaiming them all to be terrible. You don’t have to be a Disney hater or a Disney lover to hate Disney nostalgia bait. Ardent fans of the original movies tend to despise them for daring to even attempt improving on them and people who are indifferent or even hostile to the originals despise the trend out of an aversion to remakes in general. Both parties consider it pathetic that the Disney company has come to rely so much on repackaging old material again and again as an easy way to make money.
And that’s a very valid accusation to make. In the past seven years or so, I’ve made and laughed at my share of jokes about the death of originality at Disney. But having watched most of these nostalgia bait movies, I think all this criticism and cynicism deserves some pushback.I haven’t watched all of them and I have no wish to do so. That’s why I’m doing this post now before too many more come out. It’s certainly pathetic for a major studio to rely on nostalgia bait to this extent, and it’s a pain to always have to clarify what you mean now by Disney’s Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, etc, but that doesn’t mean everything about these films is pathetic. Not all of them are great, but plenty of talented artists had a hand in them, as well as bean counters, and they’re hardly the unending trainwreck the YouTube critic community would have you believe. You can probably guess from the fact that my blog is about adaptations that I don’t demand every piece of art I enjoy to be an original concept. Humanity has probably been retelling stories as long as it’s been telling them. It’s common knowledge that most of the old Disney movies getting the nostalgia bait treatment were already based on something else. Whatever may be truly said against the producers who greenlit all of these remakes/spinoffs, for at least some of their directors the originals seem to have been a real inspiration. That doesn’t automatically mean they’re good of course.For that matter, it doesn’t mean the nostalgia bait movies that the directors did solely for a paycheck are automatically bad. But enough thought and effort went into enough of them that I think they deserve a little defense.I should clarify that when I speak of defending Disney in this post and the following three, I speak of defending their movies from an artistic perspective. I’m not trying to defend any immoral … Continue reading
Firstly, the idea of photorealistic remakes of hand drawn animated movies is not without an appeal. Maybe it’s a dumb appeal, but it’s a real one. Usually, when people do a film entirely in animation, it’s because that film tells a story that could only be done that way. Isn’t it exciting that special effects have the reached the point where they can bring the fantastic imagery of old Disney animated movies to life in such a real-looking way? Try to put away your anti-remake bias and pretend there hasn’t been such a glut of Disney nostalgia bait lately. Doesn’t the idea sound cool? At least to the little kid inside you?
People tend to assume all Disney nostalgia bait movies are the same, but I divide them into four categories.I’m not including the 1996 live action 101 Dalmatians because it was from the 90s and isn’t really an example of modern Disney nostalgia bait culture. Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle … Continue reading
Type A. These are movies like Maleficent (2014) and its 2019 sequel, Mistress of Evil, Christopher Robin (2018)Not to be confused with Goodbye Christopher Robin, the 2017 biopic of Winnie the Pooh creator, A. A. Milne, and his son. Apparently, something was in the air in the late 10s that made people want to … Continue reading, Mary Poppins Returns and Cruella (2021.) They take familiar Disney characters and try to put some kind of a fresh twist on them, usually telling a story that takes place years after the original, or reconstructing the villain as a misunderstood antihero.If I were to include Alice in Wonderland (2010) and its 2016 sequel, Through the Looking Glass, as part of this discussion, I would classify them as Type A nostalgia bait movies. I won’t since … Continue reading
Type B. When people complain that Disney’s recent remakes are lazy reproductions of the originals, these are the ones they usually mean. They’re movies like Beauty and the Beast (2017), Aladdin (2019), (surprisingly) Lady and the Tramp (2019)Or at least that one fits in better into this category than any other. and The Lion King (2019.) They rearrange a few scenes here or there but tend to stick very close to the original movies, including several lines of dialogue from them and most of their musical numbers. Even their scores reuse largely the same themes as the original soundtracks.To be fair, I consider Alan Menken’s score for Beauty and the Beast (1991) and Hans Zimmer’s score for The Lion King (1994), by which I mean the background music, not just the songs, to … Continue reading When critiquing these, it’s easy to fall into the trap of criticizing them for mindlessly recreating what was done before, on the one hand, and then whenever they do something different from the original-as they all do at some point-criticizing the change for making them worse. That’s because all but one of them are remakes of movies from the 90s that hadn’t really aged badly enough yet to cry out for remakes. The main update all of them do is to try to be more feminist-friendly than the originals. Even The Lion King, the most boring and paint-by-numbers of recent Type B Disney nostalgia bait movies, takes a few uninteresting stabs in this direction.I call it boring not only because of the script but because the vocal performances, to an unusual extent, seem like they’re trying to replicate those from the original movie. John Kani sounds … Continue reading For all that can be said against them, there is an argument to be made that they benefit from inheriting strong stories, which can’t be said of every type of nostalgia bait movie.
Type C. These are The Jungle Book (2016) and Dumbo (2019.) They include most of the iconic scenes from the originals, but arguably tell their own stories, even being somewhat revisionist with their endings but nearly as much so as something like Maleficent. Dumbo ends with Dumbo and his mother going back to the wild rather than becoming circus stars and The Jungle Book ends with Mowgli continuing to live in the jungle where he grew up rather than moving … Continue reading They include a few memorable lines from the originals (“They’ll ruin him. They’ll make a man out of him.”), but not as many as Type B remakes do. They also include a few of the songs, but they’re not really musicals. It usually comes across as the characters just singing songs for their own pleasure as people do sometimes in real life.The Bear Necessities in The Jungle Book works very well in this regard. I Wanna Be Like You works less well as it’s harder to interpret it as anything other than a musical number in a generally … Continue reading It can be argued that these films represent the best balance between nostalgia and originality of any of the recent Disney nostalgia bait movies though neither is my favorite.Since the 2019 Dumbo was one of the few Disney nostalgia bait movies to underperform at the box office, probably because there wasn’t enough nostalgia at this point in time for the original, I … Continue reading
Type D. These include Cinderella (2o15) and Mulan (2020.) They feel more like new adaptations of the stories upon which the old Disney movies were based than remakes of those movies. The plot points they retain from them, like killing off Cinderella’s father and giving Mulan a love interest, tend to be the common changes made when adapting these stories. Their costumes are the least interested in evoking those from the original films, and they only use the songs from them in the end credits.Cinderella can briefly be heard singing Sing Sweet Nightingale but that’s easily missed. I wouldn’t classify them as remakes at all if it weren’t for little details like the names of Cinderella’s stepsisters or the mice that help her or the scene where Mulan’s comrades describe their ideal women to her disgust and discomfort or the phrases, “bibbiddi bobbiddi boo” or “honor to us all” or….OK, fine, they’re obviously remakes! But they suffer less from remake-itis than any of the other Disney nostalgia bait movies except for the Type A ones, which aren’t really remakes-and arguably they even suffer from it less than those!
If all these movies feel like they’re coming off an assembly line, they’re not all coming off quite the same assembly line. It’s interesting (to me anyway) to analyze whether a Disney nostalgia bait movie is an example of a Type A, Type B, Type C or Type D. And that’s not the only thing about them I enjoy analyzing.
Clearly with many of these movies the writers looked not only at the old Disney movies but also at the source material for them. Thus, we get things like Cinderella asking her father to give her the first branch he brushes against on his way home,Technically, that plot element came from the Brother Grimm version of Cinderella, Aschenputel, and both Disney movies take the Charles Perrault version, Cendrillon, as their source material. I feel … Continue reading Sleeping Beauty having an evil mother-in-law (in Maleficent: Mistress of Evil), Mulan not being an only child, and Cruella De Vil getting kicked out of school in her youth. As in the fairy tale, Beauty’s family now has a backstory where they have to leave the city to live in a rural area, she asks her father to get her a rose and he invokes the Beast’s wrath by plucking one from his garden. The most notable example of this is The Jungle Book which combines the broad plot, broad characterizations, and some of the comedy of the 1967 movie with the action-adventure elements and a good bit of the worldbuilding of the Rudyard Kipling stories. Considering how opposite the wacky (a detractor might say juvenile) cartoon and the solemn (a detractor might say pretentious) books were, this would seem doomed to failure. But the result is actually a nice happy medium that’s neither too juvenile nor too pretentious and seems to have been one of the more well-liked pieces of Disney nostalgia bait.
Another intriguing trend in these movies is the preoccupation with parents. Most of the original Disney movies getting the nostalgia bait treatment had protagonists with at least one absent parent. Actually, stories in general tend to have protagonists with at least one absent parent. But these nostalgia bait movies seem to want to really explore the implications of this. The death of Jasmine’s mother matters in the 2019 Aladdin in a way it doesn’t in the original and Aladdin’s mother gets a mention, which isn’t much but more than she got in the original.By original, I mean the 1992 movie. In the literary story, she was a major character. The death of Belle’s mother is dwelt on at some length. The Beast’s relationships with his parents are also implied to have shaped the person he’s become, though this addition to the plot is so underdeveloped I’m not sure why they bothered with it. Mowgli’s adopted wolf mother has a bigger role in the 2016 Jungle Book than she had in 1967 and his biological human father makes an appearance. Cinderella’s biological parents are the biggest example. Not only do they get multiple scenes at the beginning of the 2015 movie, but they remain an unseen presence throughout it. The prince’s parents and even the biological father of the stepsisters also play important, if sometimes offscreen, roles.
Neither of these trends automatically makes the movies good of course. But they demonstrate that either Disney executives are giving filmmakers bizarrely specific mandates or that some kind of thought and effort is going into the nostalgia bait.
Speaking of parents, I like the character of Maurice, Belle’s father, better in the 2017 Beauty and the Beast than in the 1991 one. While he’s less obviously comedic, I find him funnier and his relationship with his daughter, which is vital to the plot for both versions, to be more touching. I also think it made more sense in that movie to have Belle be borrowing her books from a learned man in her village rather than from a bookshop. (Having a bookshop in a town where being a bookworm makes you a pariah is really bad business move, especially when the local pariah can’t afford to actually buy the books.) And having her be an inventor makes it more believable that her neighbors would so vehemently dub her odd. (Loving books would certainly get a woman branded as lazy and impractical in that environment, but I doubt she would have really been considered crazy or unfeminine.)Though I think it tells against the movie that this idea apparently came not from the screenwriters, but from the actress. Inventing doesn’t come up much in the plot, which, to be fair, neither … Continue reading I appreciate that the 2017 Beast apologizes for his treatment of Maurice and he tells his household staff that he’s sorry his releasing Belle means they’ll never be free of the curse he brought upon them, so his redemption doesn’t just involve loving one person.To be fair to the 1991 Beast, his reaction to the news of danger to Maurice can be interpreted as empathy for him as well as for Belle and he’s clearly overjoyed for his servants when … Continue reading And it’s nice that the movie tries to be more nuanced in its portrayal of the shallow and bigoted villagers, showing some of them resisting Gaston’s propaganda or becoming disillusioned with him.
Does any of that mean I prefer Beauty and the Beast (2017) to Beauty and the Beast (1991) on the whole?
Bwa ha ha ha! No. That’s like a really, really big no.I’m writing to defend Disney nostalgia bait, not condemn it, but here’s a quick rundown of the movie’s problems. While the cast is stuffed with charismatic stars, none of them are … Continue reading
But I’m not going to act like the artists that made the 1991 movie were perfect or that those that made the more recent one brought nothing good to the table.
As little as I blame critics for rolling their eyes and throwing up their hands over how the Disney company has come to rely on nostalgia bait for fans of their old hits, looking at recent box office history, I can’t blame Disney much either. So many of their original live action, non-Marvel films, such as John Carter, The Lone Ranger and The BFG, have underperformed at the box office lately.Of course, these movies weren’t original in the sense that they weren’t based on anything but they weren’t remakes of old Disney movies either. And what’s more, they weren’t really beloved by critics any more than the Disney nostalgia bait movies. The choice before the higherups at the studio was between making movies that critics disliked and made no money and making ones that critics disliked but which made money. I can hear a lot of readers scoffing and objecting that I’m leaving out the obvious choice for Disney to make great original movies that draw crowds, but I’d like to challenge those readers to come up with a good original story at the drop of a hat. It’s not easy.The choice I’d probably make if I were in the producers’ position would be to quit producing and get another job. Maybe as a plumber or something.
Maybe we should blame audiences for not taking more risks with their entertainment and financially supporting more non-nostalgia bait movies from Disney…but I’m not even going to do that. I’m not convinced mainstream audiences aren’t enjoying the nostalgia bait movies which they’re paying to see, at least not more than the original ones they’re not paying to see. And they have the right to pay to see what appeals to them. It pains me a bit to say this because I love Disney’s The BFG and I wish it could have been a gigantic hit.I also enjoyed Queen of Katwe quite a bit though I confess I haven’t felt like watching it more than once. But there are plenty of other viewers who didn’t love it. During my theatrical viewing, I noticed a lot of kids in the audience were restless in a way I don’t remembering sensing at any of the matinees for Disney nostalgia bait movies I’ve attended, and I doubt the kids who didn’t see it would have been less restless.
A concern I’ve heard about these photorealistic remakes, with which I really sympathize is that, with hand drawn animation becoming increasingly niche, today’s kids are just going to watch the new versions and not bother with the old ones into which so much work and talent went. You may be surprised by this, considering my first argument in Disney nostalgia bait’s favor was that it was cool to see photorealistic reimagining of iconic hand drawn images, but I love the medium of hand drawn animation. The magic trick of making a drawing come to life enchants me and it pains me to see it on life support. I’m gratified when I hear of a modern kid preferring a classic Disney animated movie over its recent remake. But I think movie fans need to resign themselves to the inevitable changing of audience tastes. Certainly, no one has to agree with the those changing tastes and many of the critics who prefer the originals to the remakes have valid points. But look at how the consensus on Disney animated movies has evolved over time and is still evolving. Critics of the old school tended to consider the first five of them, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo and Bambi, to be masterpieces and all that came afterwards to be inferior, though some would make an exception for Beauty and the Beast. There are critics out there who still hold this view, but among YouTube critics who are Disney fans the consensus seems to be their animated movies from the 90s were the greatest with The Little Mermaid (1989) sometimes being counted as an honorary 90s movie. I, myself, take the third option that the 50s were the time period with the most consistently great Disney animated moviesI’ll grant the first school of criticism that the earliest Disney movies were more ambitious (in some ways anyway) and had more dramatic and emotional range than the ones from the 50s, with the … Continue reading and I imagine the rising generation will revere the ones from the 2010s the most. While it’s true that there might be more people watching the originals right now if it weren’t for the nostalgia bait, I’m not convinced those people would be loving them any more than they are now. Fans can write blog posts and make video essays explaining why they believe their preferred movies to be the best and good for them, but in the end, that’s all they can do.
I know this post hasn’t been up to my usual standards. That’s because I’m arguing that something isn’t particularly bad. It’s hard to make that interesting or convincing. Making a case that something is either great or terrible is easier. I really do believe that the recent line of Disney nostalgia bait has gotten a worse reputation than it deserves though. I just don’t feel nearly passionate enough about this to do analyses of every single entry in it. While that would be the most convincing way to make my case, it would also end up boring both me and my readers. You can only take so much, “it’s not the best thing ever, but it’s not the worst.” What I am going to do is write posts about each of my top three Disney nostalgia bait movies, in order from weakest to greatest, the ones I regard as superior, equal to or only slightly worse than the originals. These are the ones about which I believe people, once the dust has cleared and we can look back on this strange period of cinematic history with something like neutrality, will say, “yeah, those were really good.” (Well, OK, maybe not people in general but some will.) I thought it would be good to do this introductory post first to provide context for the discussion.
|↑1||Pete’s Dragon (2016) is another recent remake of a live action Disney movie, but while it is part of the trend of Disney doing almost nothing but remakes, there’s not enough cultural nostalgia for the 1977 version for me to really consider it nostalgia bait.|
|↑2||I haven’t watched all of them and I have no wish to do so. That’s why I’m doing this post now before too many more come out.|
|↑3||For that matter, it doesn’t mean the nostalgia bait movies that the directors did solely for a paycheck are automatically bad.|
|↑4||I should clarify that when I speak of defending Disney in this post and the following three, I speak of defending their movies from an artistic perspective. I’m not trying to defend any immoral actions or policies on the part of the Disney company, like their infamous cooperation with and implicit endorsement of the CPC in the making of the 2020 Mulan. Stuff like that is above this blog’s paygrade.|
|↑5||I’m not including the 1996 live action 101 Dalmatians because it was from the 90s and isn’t really an example of modern Disney nostalgia bait culture. Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book (1994) is actually more of a remake of the 1942 Korda brothers movie than the 1967 Disney one.|
|↑6||Not to be confused with Goodbye Christopher Robin, the 2017 biopic of Winnie the Pooh creator, A. A. Milne, and his son. Apparently, something was in the air in the late 10s that made people want to make movies with “Christopher Robin” in the title.|
|↑7||If I were to include Alice in Wonderland (2010) and its 2016 sequel, Through the Looking Glass, as part of this discussion, I would classify them as Type A nostalgia bait movies. I won’t since they’re based on Lewis Carroll’s Alice books, not Disney’s 1951 animated adaptation. Still, since the 1951 movie is the Alice in the public’s eyes (if any version can make that claim), it’s reasonable to say that the studio was testing the waters for Disney nostalgia bait with it.|
|↑8||Or at least that one fits in better into this category than any other.|
|↑9||To be fair, I consider Alan Menken’s score for Beauty and the Beast (1991) and Hans Zimmer’s score for The Lion King (1994), by which I mean the background music, not just the songs, to be masterpieces and I can’t blame the movies for thinking they couldn’t be topped-which, of course, brings up the why-do-a-remake question.|
|↑10||I call it boring not only because of the script but because the vocal performances, to an unusual extent, seem like they’re trying to replicate those from the original movie. John Kani sounds like a discount Robert Guillame. John Oliver sounds like a discount less funny Rowan Atkinson. Billy Eichner sounds like a discount more irritating Nathan Lane. Seth Rogan sounds like a discount Ernie Sabella. (Though, to be fair, Timon and Pumbaa’s banter is one of the more entertainingly written parts of the film.) Even James Earl Jones sounds like a discount James Earl Jones. To his credit, Chiwetel Ejiofor doesn’t sound like a discount Jeremy Irons, but he doesn’t sound that interesting in his role either.|
|↑11||Dumbo ends with Dumbo and his mother going back to the wild rather than becoming circus stars and The Jungle Book ends with Mowgli continuing to live in the jungle where he grew up rather than moving to the man village. (Modern Disney just hates civilization but they love making money off it.) Seriously, I understand the reasoning behind both changes, but I confess a fondness to the ending of the 1967 Jungle Book. It’s kind of nice to see a cartoon movie end with the stuffy adult characters being vindicated rather than the rebellious kid characters. Interestingly, the 2016 Jungle Book still emphasizes Mowgli needing to fight Shere Khan “like a man” rather than an animal and doesn’t have him officially become a member of the wolf pack as was his original wish. The position it seems to take is summed up by a character who opines that Mowgli should “be a man right here (in the jungle),” a character who is weirdly portrayed as less admirable than the characters who advocate him living in the village. Someone who disliked this movie might call it gutless. I enjoy it so I’ll go with “thematically complex,” though I suspect “gutless” is closer to the truth.|
|↑12||The Bear Necessities in The Jungle Book works very well in this regard. I Wanna Be Like You works less well as it’s harder to interpret it as anything other than a musical number in a generally nonmusical film, and it doesn’t even fit with the tone of the scene in this version. The use of it in the credits is fun though. Dumbo‘s Baby Mine works fine but not brilliantly. The main problem with its scene is that photorealistic elephants are never going to be as cuddly as the cartoon ones from the 1941 movie.|
|↑13||Since the 2019 Dumbo was one of the few Disney nostalgia bait movies to underperform at the box office, probably because there wasn’t enough nostalgia at this point in time for the original, I should stress that I find it to be a flawed but enjoyable.|
|↑14||Cinderella can briefly be heard singing Sing Sweet Nightingale but that’s easily missed.|
|↑15||Technically, that plot element came from the Brother Grimm version of Cinderella, Aschenputel, and both Disney movies take the Charles Perrault version, Cendrillon, as their source material. I feel like this is worth pointing out since when rightfully describing Disney as sanitizing the stories they adapt, people will sometimes cite Cinderella as an example, which, for once, isn’t fair as Cendrillon already doesn’t feature the gory elements of Aschenputel. But I find it admirable that the makers of Cinderella (2015) looked at different versions of the fairy tale, not just the one they were officially using as source material.|
|↑16||By original, I mean the 1992 movie. In the literary story, she was a major character.|
|↑17||Though I think it tells against the movie that this idea apparently came not from the screenwriters, but from the actress. Inventing doesn’t come up much in the plot, which, to be fair, neither did reading books in the 1991 classic, though it arguably had thematic significance that mechanics don’t in either film.|
|↑18||To be fair to the 1991 Beast, his reaction to the news of danger to Maurice can be interpreted as empathy for him as well as for Belle and he’s clearly overjoyed for his servants when they’re restored to their true forms in the last scene. If anything, he’s more enthusiastic about it than his own transformation.|
|↑19||I’m writing to defend Disney nostalgia bait, not condemn it, but here’s a quick rundown of the movie’s problems. While the cast is stuffed with charismatic stars, none of them are as inspired in their roles as the voice cast of the animated movie. The vocals (except for those of Audra Macdonald) and the choreography (except for maybe that of Be Our Guest) aren’t going to make anyone forget the original in a hurry either. Not all of the film’s idea, even the better ones, are executed well. The attempts to make Belle an even stronger heroine, always ready with an improvised weapon or a plan, makes her less relatable. And the portrayal of same-sex attraction and crossdressing (in a subplot) as both completely acceptable and inherently ridiculous might as well have been designed to alienate people on both sides of the issues.|
|↑20||Of course, these movies weren’t original in the sense that they weren’t based on anything but they weren’t remakes of old Disney movies either.|
|↑21||The choice I’d probably make if I were in the producers’ position would be to quit producing and get another job. Maybe as a plumber or something.|
|↑22||I also enjoyed Queen of Katwe quite a bit though I confess I haven’t felt like watching it more than once.|
|↑23||I’ll grant the first school of criticism that the earliest Disney movies were more ambitious (in some ways anyway) and had more dramatic and emotional range than the ones from the 50s, with the arguable exception of Sleeping Beauty and maybe Lady and the Tramp at its darkest, and I’ll grant the second school of criticism that the ones from the 90s had the highest number of great soundtracks. But when it comes to Disney animated movies that I love to watch and rewatch, the 1950s had the most consistency. It was also the best decade for Chuck Jones cartoons.|