Every once in a while I feel the need to break out my Disney Defense Kit (DDK), which is specially designed to protect my nostalgic nerdiness and childlike obsession from the forces of evil, cynicism, and—occasionally—legitimate criticism.
The DDK’s normal arsenal includes eye-rolling, lamenting “you just don’t understand the magic,” and planning future trips to Walt Disney World with money I don’t have. It’s a very effective system. Every once in a while, though, I try throwing some fancy-schmancy literary theory into the DDK and seeing if it helps.
Today’s DDK is equipped with adaptation theory (the critical study of artworks based on previous artworks), and we’re tackling one of the more recent anti-Disney talking points: “All these live-action remakes are just cash grabs.” Since 2015, Disney has released live-action adaptations of Cinderella, The Jungle Book, Beauty and the Beast, Dumbo, and Aladdin, with The Lion King and Mulan coming within the next year. And this doesn’t even include the pseudo-adaptations that twist an older film’s perspective a bit rather than directly remaking it (Maleficent, Alice in Wonderland, etc.). To the critic, this isn’t just a trend of cash grabs, it’s a full-on strategy.
So here goes. First of all, yes. They are cash grabs. Movies are expensive, Disney wants to make money, and capitalizing on their most beloved intellectual properties is a fairly foolproof way to sell tickets.
But our preference for art that is supposedly separated from financial gain only dates back a couple hundred years to the dawn of Romanticism. Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Dickens all wrote for money. For every composer before Beethoven, composition was a job, not an Artistic Pursuit. So while the stockholder-driven international multimedia conglomerate is new, the crowd-pleasing blockbuster is not.
And while the decisions made by top executives at Disney are certainly designed to maximize profits, I think it’s a bit dismissive of the creative work of the thousands of people who make these films to label them merely cash grabs. Designers, composers, actors, directors, writers, marketers, and editors put years of work into these live-action spectacles, work that should be recognized for its beauty, ingenuity, and contribution to the story retold.
Dismissing these movies as cash grabs also ignores the question of why they are often so popular and successful. As Linda Hutcheon writes in A Theory of Adaptation, “[T]he appeal of an adaptation cannot simply be explained or explained away by economic gain, however real that may be as a motive for some adapters. For audiences, that is the result of the appeal, not the cause” (175).
So what is the appeal? Why are these movies popular, and why might they even be good?
For viewers familiar with the earlier movies, watching these adaptations is a multi-layered experience different from that of watching an “original” film. Hutcheon uses the metaphor of a palimpsest—a manuscript in which an earlier text has been scratched off and replaced by a newer one, but the earlier text is still faintly visible. For example, in Disney’s recent Aladdin remake, it’s impossible to watch Will Smith’s Genie without comparing him to Robin Williams. In my opinion, the new movie falls flat in most of the places where it tries to copy the old one too closely, including the “Friend Like Me” sequence, in which Smith lacks the energy and verve of Williams despite singing the exact same lyrics. Elsewhere, when Smith’s character departs from Williams’s by making different jokes, pulling different heartstrings, and performing different ridiculous shapeshifts, he’s hilarious and heartwarming. He recalls the zaniness of Williams while being different enough to catch the audience off guard.
But in other places, the closest echoes between this movie and the 1992 film inspire the kind of giddy smiles that only satisfied nostalgia brings. The “A Whole New World” sequence, which shares words, chords, and even camera angles with its precursor, brought me to tears not because it did something radically different than the original but because it captured the “magic” so precisely, this time with the live-action distinctives of facial expressions and realistic landscapes. It harnessed the abilities of the new medium not only to recreate but to magnify the experience of the original.
So if you temporarily put aside our culture’s obsession with originality, you can enjoy these movies as conversations with the original, both commenting on it (e.g. by making Jasmine’s story arc more feminist) and celebrating it (by filling the “Prince Ali” sequence with ridiculous costumes and an obscene number of golden camels).
Finally, making these remakes also acts as a response (intentional or unintentional) to a frequent criticism of Disney: that by marketing their films as the canonical versions of century-old folk tales like “Cinderella” and “Aladdin,” they cut off the traditions of telling and retelling in which these stories arose. Of course, it’s a bit silly to talk about the “canonical” versions of fairy tales, since these stories have been told and retold by minstrels and bards and poets and playwrights for hundreds of years. But this changed a bit in the 20th century, when Disney could make massively popular and instantly recognizable versions of Snow White or Cinderella or Beauty and the Beast and then lock down the copyright for them, crystallizing these versions of the tales as the canonical ones in the public consciousness.
As Hutcheon writes, “It is the (post-) Romantic valuing of the original creation and of the originating creative genius that is clearly one source of the denigration of adapters and adaptations. Yet this negative view is actually a late addition to Western culture’s long and happy history of borrowing and stealing or, more accurately, sharing stories” (3–4).
By adapting their own stories, Disney is acknowledging and participating in this “happy history” of retelling. While the realities of copyright law make this a fairly non-subversive act (because Disney are still the only ones allowed to retell these stories), the very fact that they are allowing two Belles or two Jasmines in their canon destabilizes the notion of there being a single “correct” version of these tales.
These live-action remakes might not always succeed in being great stand-alone movies, but maybe that’s not a fair standard to hold them to. If we watch them instead as adaptations, as commentaries upon and celebrations of the beloved films they emulate, we just might be able to soar, tumble, and freewheel above our cynicism.
Good thing I also keep a magic carpet in the DDK.