Reinventing the Vault: Disney’s Classy New Remakes

A couple of years ago, I confess, I would have cringed at the very idea of a live-action Disney remake of their towering 1991 animated masterpiece Beauty and the Beast. I still have concerns about Bill Condon’s film, which opens March 17 — but the stakes are higher now: There’s reason to hope it could be great.


That’s because two years ago, the only precedent for such a remake would have been darkly revisionist Disney projects like the Linda Woolverton-scripted Alice in Wonderland and Maleficent, or perhaps non-Disney projects like Snow White and the HuntsmanOz the Great and Powerful, and Catherine Hardwicke’s Red Riding Hood.


But that was before Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella opened in March of 2015, followed by Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book a year ago and David Lowery’s Pete’s Dragon last August.


While Pete’s Dragon failed to match the box-office success of the first two, creatively all three remakes of films from the Disney vault are game-changers.


Linking these three terrific family films is a defiantly old-fashioned, almost countercultural lack of ironic revisionism and gritty edginess. Each of them feels in some way like a kind of movie they don’t make any more — if they ever did.


In the complicated story of Disney’s increasing box-office dominance, from the Marvel and Star Wars juggernauts to the Disney and Pixar animation lines, no chapter is more improbable — or gratifying — than the back-to-back artistic triumphs of these three remakes. (I say “back to back” even though last year also saw the release of the tepid Alice in Wonderland sequel Alice Through the Looking Glass. That’s becauseThrough the Looking Glass wasn’t a remake per se — nor, for that matter, was Alice in Wonderland, a revisionist sequel to the original Alice in Wonderland material.)


If you hadn’t been paying attention to Hollywood family films for the last decade or so, both live-action and animated, you might not have realized how subversively nonsubversive Branagh’s Cinderella is.


Lily James’s Ella has strength of a sort, which all modern heroines must (and should) have, but she doesn’t don armor or fight in battles, like Tim Burton’s Alice or Kristen Stewart’s Snow White. She isn’t victimized by or angry at the patriarchy, like Jolie’s Maleficent or Reese Witherspoon’s protagonist in DreamWorks’ Monsters vs. Aliens, an Attack of the 50 Foot Woman stand-in.


The essence of Ella’s strength is her resilience under suffering and especially her ability not to succumb to resentment and hatred when mistreated — and ultimately even to forgive those who have mistreated her when she has the upper hand. Branagh said he wanted to make a film in which “kindness was a superpower.” Imagine that.


Even more subversively nonsubversive is the decency of Richard Madden’s Prince. The one constant of contemporary princess stories is that male love interests must be arrogant, buffoonish, scoundrels or all three (see EnchantedThe Princess and the FrogTangled and now Frozen).


Even Armie Hammer’s relatively decent prince in Tarsem Singh’s Mirror, Mirror is entitled and a bit silly, while Kristoff in Frozen, though clearly the best of the lot, is “a bit of a fixer upper.” Frozen’s Prince Hans, meanwhile, seems too good to be true — a melancholy expression — and of course it turns out he is.


Notably, the revelation of Hans’ villainy feels transparently tacked-on and unconvincing, possibly because it really was a late rewrite of his character after the filmmakers decided that Elsa had to be a tragic heroine rather than a villainess, as in the original Hans Christian Andersen story. (The decision to vindicate Elsa turned on the emotional power of “Let It Go,” originally planned as a villain song. So Hans, who could have been the one noble prince of the modern Disney age — was sacrificed for “Let It Go.”)


All of which makes the virtues of Cinderella’s Prince Kit — who is kind, responsible and even humble — more striking.


After Cinderella came The Jungle Book, a rollicking family adventure movie that borrows the outline of the 1967 Disney cartoon, fortifies it with additional elements and motifs from Kipling, and an action-movie vibe with a kinship to the likes of Raiders of the Lost Ark and Jurassic Park — but in a firmly PG mode.


This in itself is practically revolutionary these days. The PG-13 rating, originally created in response to the increasing edginess of not-quite-R-rated films like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Gremlins, has taken over the Hollywood mainstream.


These days PG-rated family films are mostly cartoons; family-friendly swashbucklers like The Princess BrideThe Goonies, and Labyrinth are an endangered species, if not quite extinct. Even the Harry Potter and Star Wars franchises eventually succumbed to the PG-13 dark side.


Beyond this, The Jungle Book draws on Kipling for mythic and traditional elements like the “Law of the Jungle” and the “Just So”–like notion of the elephants as godlike fashioners of the jungle.


Unlike the 1967 cartoon, Favreau’s film follows Kipling in emphasizing Mowgli’s human distinctiveness, particularly in connection with his “man-tricks” or propensity for tool-making and problem-solving. At the same time, the importance of tradition and cultural authority is reflected in the wolves’ recitations of Kipling’s “The Law for the Wolves.”


Of these three films, Pete’s Dragon had the most dubious source material — a mediocre 1977 musical live-action/animation hybrid — but reinvented it most dramatically. Soulful and gentle, Pete’s Dragon is perhaps the most defiantly old-fashioned of the three films, its leisurely pacing and thoughtful exchanges strikingly out of step with contemporary rapid-fire Hollywood storytelling.


It’s a film with no traditional movie villain, comparatively light in incident and slight in plot, with thoughtful reflections on the meaning of “real” and “imaginary” and a lively sense of wonder at the magic of the world. Robert Redford, as Bryce Dallas Howard’s father, expresses a strikingly Tolkienesque sentiment about how having seen a dragon “changes the way I see the world — the trees, the sunshine, you.”


All three of these films, I would say, represent improvements on the prior Disney films — and therein, in a way, lie my concerns about Beauty and the Beast.


Disney’s 1950 Cinderella is much loved, but suffers from what I’ve called “early onset Disneyitis,” for example, displacing the actual fairy-tale plot with too much irrelevant mousey sidekick antics. The 1967 The Jungle Book has a terrific score and some very nice naturalistic animation, but is lazily plotted and slapdash. The original Pete’s Dragon isn’t even a good movie.


An old rule stipulates that adaptations of bad books are usually better than adaptations of good books. Perhaps the same is true of remakes. Here’s the problem: Disney’s 1991 Beauty and the Beast is a virtually perfect film — maybe not the best possible adaptation of the fairy tale, but the best possible version of itself, if you follow me.


A fresh take on the fairy tale could always equal or surpass the 1991 film — if it goes its own way, at least to an extent. From what we’ve seen so far of Condon’s film, it looks very much beholden to the 1991 film: Lumiere and Cogsworth, Mrs. Potts and Chip, and of course Gaston.


And no wonder: The successful Broadway version has only cemented the canonical status of this version of the story. Who would dare to mess with perfection? The result, alas, could be a pale imitation that adds little of value and thus has no particular reason to exist.


I have related concerns — though greater hopes — for the next project in this series, The Lion King, to be directed by Favreau.


While The Lion King enjoys an untouchable classic status comparable to Beauty and the Beast (and a similarly successful Broadway version) the original cartoon leaves ample room for improvement in my opinion — starting with a more interesting, less passive protagonist. That doesn’t mean we’ll get a better Lion King, but I have higher hopes with Favreau at the helm than practically anyone else Disney might have tapped.

Film & Television
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