A Defense Of Disney’s Obsession With Sequels & Remakes, Because We Deserve To Be Happy
We don’t need another live action version of one of Disney’s most beloved cartoon movies. Mary Poppins doesn’t truly need a sequel. No one really needs to have their heart broken by the knowledge of what Dumbo would look like as a real baby elephant. Sure. I’m not about to argue with any of this (except for the fact that Mary Poppins is literally the subject of a series of books, but I’ll let that lie). We certainly don’t need these things. Nobody truly asked for them; the original films are untouchable classics; nothing life-changing is gained from reviving them. But, for better or worse, these revisits are here, they make a ton of money, and once you let all the complaints about how unoriginal their concepts are go, you might, for just a second, remember that they’re actually generally very well made, and oh yes, fun. That’s the word.
Of course, as I argue this, it’s not lost on me that these mega-successful sequels and remakes come together as a giant, sparkling, impeccably designed example of (sing along with me now) what is wrong with the film industry. Yes, there are too many remakes and sequels based on old ideas, not enough focus on creating something new. Yes, I want more original stories. But I think it’s just slightly more complicated than all that. While remake-fever isn’t always a recipe for instant success and seems to be degrading some corners of film and television, there are instances in which it works extremely well. See, for example, the fantastic remake of Norman Lear’s sitcom One Day at a Time over on Netflix, 2018’s artsy remake of Italian cult film Suspiria, or, you know, most things Disney chooses to revive.
The Mouse House’s rehash game may be aggressively basic, but it works extremely well (2017’s Beauty and the Beast was the second biggest film of 2017, sandwiched between Star Wars: The Last Jedi and Wonder Woman, and in 2016, The Jungle Book placed in the top five movies of the year, alongside Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Captain America: Civil War, and Finding Dory) which is exactly why revisiting classics makes up over half of Disney’s 2019 slate thanks to a live-action Dumbo, The Lion King starring Beyoncé, a live-action Aladdin, a fourth Toy Story, and Frozen 2. (The others are a Star Wars film, two Marvel movies, and the adaptation of a classic book series.) Disney’s upcoming movies are a veritable field of Characters We Already Know, and that can certainly be frustrating for film fans, especially in markets that generally only see the big budget film releases hit theaters, who long to see brand new creative concepts make it to the big screen. And yes, the sense of remake mania that grips the industry in general is frustrating, but in the case of Disney specifically, there are a few reasons I just don’t find it quite as grating.
For one, not all sequels are created equal. Give me another Lion King over whatever Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom was any day. Secondly, this strategy isn’t exactly a recent invention. Disney has always built its film success on stories that have been told before (some of its biggest hits include now classic adaptations of existing fairy tales, from Snow White to Cinderella, to Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan). But now, the issue seems to be sheer volume coupled with the navel-gazing nature of these remakes and sequels that find Disney paying homage to itself. That, coupled with the additional ownership of sequel machines such as Lucasfilm and Marvel, can make it feel like the whole world is just old movies warmed up like Thanksgiving leftovers, and endless sci-fi and comic book sequels — and with Disney’s over $13 billion in box office revenue between 2016 and 2017 and the distinction of being the only studio to cross $6 billion two years in a row, this feeling isn’t exactly wrong.
But the fact of the matter is that these leftovers and sequels (you’re excited for them too, admit it) are being genuinely enjoyed by billions of people every year. They're just fun. And when it comes to fun, big budget movies, audiences do still hold a ton of the power — if we know that a certain, er, wizarding world sequel is not going to be what we might have hoped, fans don’t have to (and largely didn’t) buy a ticket. If a remake is well-done, we come out in droves. So if these Disney flicks are leftovers, they’re also the tastiest, most savory, comforting leftovers ever to audiences all over the world.
And while the individual gripes about each one isn’t wrong (too many Jungle Book retellings exist; Beauty and the Beast’s Emma Watson isn’t the best singer; Cinderella’s feminist twist was pretty weak, etc.), audiences largely don’t care. Perfection is not why we're here. There’s a part of all of us that knew when we set foot in the theater for Beauty and the Beast that we were essentially paying 15 bucks a ticket for Emma Watson Does Disney Karaoke Against Gorgeous Backdrops: The Movie. Audiences will also be smart enough to recognize that the new Mary Poppins sequel largely mimics the original step-by-step, the way another beloved sequel called Star Wars: The Force Awakens did with A New Hope. But as is the case with Poppins Returns, The Force Awakens, and just about every live-action Disney remake, audiences aren’t stupid. They know they’re diving headfirst into something they’ve already seen. Hell, that’s why they’re diving headfirst.
Revisiting the worlds (and music) of Belle and Mary Poppins and Dumbo and Simba and Princess Jasmine is, for many of us, a willfully indulgent act. Like shoveling another helping of buttery mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, and stuffing on your plate only to finish it up a with a slice of pumpkin pie with extra whipped cream, we know we won’t be better for the choice, but it’s a momentary comfort, something we allow ourselves as the world angrily swirls around us. In the theater, with our phones carefully silenced and nestled in our pockets, as familiar music plays over reimagined, yet familiar visuals, the nostalgic, wondrous sensation is about as close as we can get to seeing the original film for the first time all over again. It’s cheesy, it means that too many of our childhood memories are tied to the corporate giant that is Disney (whoops), but it’s why these movies work.
Also easing my mind on the matter is the fact that while Disney is one to go hard on stories that have already been told, the Mouse House also takes chances on truly original concepts as well, especially when it comes to its Walt Disney Animation and Pixar movies. Wreck It Ralph is a wildly inventive story about friendship that envisions what the living world inside of everyone’s favorite arcade games might be like; Zootopia is an animal buddy cop comedy that doubles as an allegory about the discrimination issues that still persist in American society; Coco is a moving tale about family and tradition that animates the afterlife in spectacular detail; and Inside Out, about the way young people process emotions, is one of the most creative films, cartoon or otherwise, in the last decade.
All this said, I will admit that the remake model — as a general Hollywood practice — is out of control. But so is our societal love of Oreos that taste like things that aren’t Oreos; the use of chicken patties in place of bread on a sandwich; the Crunchwrap Supreme, a.k.a. the taco that’s also a quesadilla and ballpark nachos. Disney’s rehash fever turns out ridiculously unnecessary comforts, and like a hybrid meal from Taco Bell on a bad day, we occasionally eat ‘em right up.
Do you need any of this? No. Does it improve your health or the state of the world to consume any of it? Hell no. Is it exactly what we all deserve on a day when three different political bombshells have dropped, a major tampon brand had to recall its products for literally unravelling inside of people, and some of us got absurdly expensive parking tickets for misunderstanding four conflicting parking signs? You’re damn right it is.