With Hollywood awash in blockbuster remakes and sequels, Disney has decided to go all-in on live-action remakes of classic animated tales. It’s easy to see what is motivating Disney: money. Nostalgia propelled 2010’s Alice in Wonderland to more than $1 billion at the box office, while live-action dramas Maleficent and Cinderella also proved popular with audiences. Meanwhile, the film version of Disney’s Tomorrowland theme park was a box office bomb. As a result, Disney decided to double-down on live-action adaptations of movie classics, with five movies set for release during the next two years. Although many believe Disney is playing it safe, others see reason for optimism. Are Disney’s live-action movies a sign of creative deterioration or a rebirth for the Mouse House?
The Jungle Book
The first live-action adaptation to be released will be Jon Favreau’s Jungle Book. Although many were skeptical when the project was announced, the initial sneak peaks of the film show a stunning setting. Favreau’s achievement is even more impressive when one realizes that the sets are almost entirely computer-generated. Favreau asked artists to watch one of his other movies, Beverly Hills Chihuahua, to learn what not to do with the computer-generation process. The result appears to be a visually-sumptuous movie that infuses new mysticism to an old tale.
Alice Through the Looking Glass
On the other end of the spectrum is Alice Through the Looking Glass, the sequel to the 2010 Alice in Wonderland movie. Although the first movie was a hit, observers think this one could be a box office bomb. Johnny Depp was a more bankable star five years ago, but now his star seems to be fading. He is coming off several box office disappointments, like Mortdecai, Dark Shadows, Transcendence, and worst of all, Lone Ranger. Moreover, the first Alice movie didn’t inspire continued excitement after its release, with its average IMDB score hovering around a 6.7 to 7. This is in the same range as Tomorrowland, rather than in the range of 8 or 9 that the ongoing Marvel and DC films enjoy. These factors could mean that audiences aren’t looking for an Alice sequel six years after the first movie.
One significant issue for Alice will be the competition, since the movie is going head-to-head with X-Men: Apocalypse and other heavy hitters in the heart of mid-summer. Disney will need to produce a compelling narrative to get people to watch this movie.
Pete’s Dragon is the last of the live-action movies that will premiere in 2016. it is also the most unpredictable of the live-action Disney movies slated for release. Although there have been minor teases of the film, viewers haven’t seen more than a few seconds of actual footage. Pete’s Dragon has a solid cast, including Robert Redford and Dallas Bryce Howard. The make-or-break for this movie is the green dragon Elliot. If the computer-generated version of Pete is as incredible as modern technology can make him, then it could really capture the imaginations of children.
With Pete’s Dragon, the filmmakers are borrowing narrative and visual style from Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment, and if anyone knows how to make a magical family movie, it’s Spielberg. The movie is scheduled for late summer, and will be competing with the remake of Ben-Hur, as well as the second week of the much-anticipated Suicide Squad. The only movie that provides direct competition in the family market is The Secret Life of Pets, which comes out in early July. That means Pete’s Dragon has August almost to itself.
From a box office perspective, Disney looks like a strong bet to make a lot of money on its live-action films, which will guarantee they make more of them. However, the originality that Walt Disney brought to storytelling may be the missing X-factor. The filmmakers and evolving technology give the company the opportunity to do some exciting things. Although the live-action movies lack originality because they’ve been done before, they could ground-breaking in their execution. Only time, and viewers, will tell whether live-action is a sound strategy for Disney going forward.