Monday, March 13, 2017

Animated remakes of live-action remakes

As you probably know by now, Disney is in the live-action remake business the same way that Marvel is in the "forever expanding its universe" business and Star Wars is in the "movie per year cash cow" business. (Trick question -- all three are actually Disney.)

But what happens when Disney has already remade all its animated hits as live-action films? (I'm seeing the live-action Tangled arriving sometime in 2023).

I'm wondering if the way to go isn't to remake its animated movies as ... animated movies. And not later, but now.

Disney animated films have a whole new look now. Wouldn't you just love to see an old classic with new-school animation? Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs? Pinocchio? Peter Pan? They might look reaaaaally nice made by a computer.

Of course I realize what I'm saying is sacrilege. But possibly not more sacrilegious than remaking them as live-action movies. Especially since Disney was founded as an animation studio and that remains its bread and butter.

This post is being inspired by Beauty and the Beast in more than one way. For one, the live-action Beauty and the Best comes out this month -- this week in the U.S., next week in Australia. But about a year ago I rewatched the original animated best picture nominee for the first time in something like 25 years, in order to discuss it on my podcast. My impression of it 25 years ago was not only that it was a great story, but that the cutting-edge animation heralded the arrival of a new era at Disney, one that really began two years earlier with The Little Mermaid, only I found that movie more memorable for its songs than its appearance.

But you know what? Twenty-five years is an eternity in the field of animation. What looked cutting edge in 1991 did not look cutting edge in 2016. And I didn't want to hold that against Beauty and the Beast, but the fact of the matter is, I did.

So instead of a live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast, maybe we should be getting an animated one?

The idea of a studio remaking its own movie in a similar form is probably a bit anathema to Disney. I mean, it wouldn't be the first time a studio has done that -- since it often continues to own the rights to something, sometimes that studio is the only one who can remake it. But an animated remake of a classic, besides meeting controversy as a decision in and of itself, would also be very beholden to the decisions made the first time around. Which shots do you repeat? Which shots do you reenvision? And if you are reenvisioning it, are you only doing so because the baggage of the first film is so heavy? Are you making changes just to differentiate yourself, and if so, are those ill-advised changes?

So maybe these movies need that middle step of the live-action remake. It's kind of like a game of operator, where the movie gets changed just enough in translation to come out the other side as a new entity. (Although that generally only works in operator if people are willfully changing the word. It really isn't as hard to clearly make out whispers in your ear as the game supposes it to be. The game is really only any fun if you have a prankster somewhere in your midst.)

For a good analogy, look at the evolution of something like the movie Hairspray. It started as a John Waters movie, then became a hit Broadway musical, then came back to the silver screen in what I thought was a very good adaptation of the musical. (Actually, I have no idea if it was a good adaptation, never having seen the musical, but I enjoyed the film quite a bit.) You need that intermediary step when the property becomes quite clearly something else.

Could Beauty and the Beast do something like that? Maybe, but I think the problem is, the Beauty and the Beast we're going to be getting next week is not a reenvisiong of the 1991 movie. It aspires only to be a restaging, with a few little moments to differentiate it, but not nearly what you get when you write a bunch of songs to accompany a story that never had them, like Hairspray. It isn't going to change enough to warrant another adaptation. In fact, it might not change at all.

There is a good candidate for something like this within Disney's huge hits from that same period, and don't say Aladdin because that also is going forward in live-action form (with Guy Ritchie as the director!). No, I'm talking about the next film after Aladdin, The Lion King, one of Disney's many films that has only animal characters, making it a bit less likely for a live-action treatment (though that didn't stop them with The Jungle Book). The Lion King quite clearly was reenvisioned for its mega-hit incarnation on Broadway. If they made a new animated version whose art was inspired by Julie Taymor's visionary production design, that really would be that intermediary step. It would give us not only an update to that film's dated 1994 animation (which I haven't recently rewatched), but something that was genuinely new.

Unfortunately, "new" isn't exactly Disney's favorite thing right now. If it ever was.

When Disney started all this business a few years ago, "new" actually was a consideration. Disney's live-action remake of Sleeping Beauty was not actually called Sleeping Beauty, it was called Maleficent, and it told the story from the perspective of the villain. That's a pretty cool idea. But that movie was not as well received as the movie that came the following year, Cinderella, which hewed much more closely to the original. The newly proven formula was not to give audiences something new, but something that already felt very familiar to them.

Say hello to Hollywood in the second decade of the 21st century.

And checking IMDB just now, I see that the example I listed above as a potential savior -- The Lion King -- is also going forward in "live-action" (probably entirely CG) form, directed by Jon Favreau (who else). I can't imagine Julie Taymor's vision will make its way anywhere near that project.

Maybe Disney is just saving this idea for the 2030s, when they will have already remade live-action versions of Home on the Range and Treasure Planet and the well really will have run dry again.

Though who knows what animation will look like then. We'll probably be virtually walking around in the movie next to Belle and the Beast, and maybe that'll be exactly what we need at that moment.

And it certainly might well seem "new."

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