The One Thing Disney Can’t Remake: My Enthusiasm

By Joe Bailey, Features Editor–

In a world dominated by remakes and sequels, it has become increasingly clear to me that artistic expression is held back by commercial incentives.

Even Disney, with what essentially amounts to endless material and artistic resources, has decided to hedge their bets as of late and produce a series of faux live-action recreations of the animated films from their 90’s “Renaissance” era. They worked last time, so they’ll definitely work this time—right? These decisions certainly incur low risk, but they also invoke my distaste.

What Will Smith’s rendition of Genie in the “Aladdin” remake lacks in expressiveness, he makes up for in his uncomfortably high-fidelity rendering. I never wanted to know what Genie’s nipples looked like, but now I do. When it comes to producing big-budget, computer-generated blockbusters, unfettered time and resources can be used for the forces of good, or for the forces of…detail.

But making fun of Will Smith’s Genie is beating a dead horse at this point.

Disney’s decision to continue pumping these movies out isn’t hard to understand. “Aladdin” (2019) made over $1 billion. Beloved, widely recognized intellectual properties draw pop culture consumers to the box office like flies to a barbecue; except, at this barbecue, the sauce is made of sweet, sweet nostalgia.

What would happen if these resources were used for something more original?

Experimentation has historically been known to bite Disney in the hakuna matata, so it’s no surprise that they’ve started to shy away from it for their flagship films. “Treasure Planet” (2002) is a rare example of an original passion project that had the full force of studio funding behind it. But the gamble didn’t pay off in this case, with the film only making back $109.6 million of a $140 million budget.

In my view, “Treasure Planet” deserves recognition alongside its renaissance-era counterparts, but the numbers don’t lie. For whatever reason, it just wasn’t selling tickets.

It’s tempting to say that big movie studios should focus on producing more original, artistic (whatever that means) projects, but big budgets and financial considerations are a package deal. Barring an extreme stroke of luck, you can’t make a widely successful, expensive movie without also catering to the lowest common denominator.

But monstrous budgets don’t just appear out of nowhere. It’s precisely because Disney produces profitable, widely appealing movies that they are able to conduct expensive experiments every once in a while. Lower budget movies tend to experiment more because they are essentially making lower stakes bets with their cash. In Disney’s case, their money-makers create a safety net that allows for occasional risk-taking.

So, despite all the complaining from viewers like me, the unfortunate reality may be that, for large movie studios, it’s either the occasional nugget of originality in a sea of rehashes, or no nugget at all.

But the Disney remake formula may not be as financially fail-safe as I have led you to believe. “Mulan” (2020) was released this month, and only made back $61 million of its $200 million budget. This doesn’t discredit Disney’s entire strategy, but it might suggest that it takes more than a franchise’s notoriety to bring about a successful revival.

Disregarding the unusual circumstances of Mulan’s 2020 release, it’s clear that critics and audiences agree that it was a lack of quality that held the film back; but quality is subjective. For all I know, there might be people who prefer the remakes over the originals.

Artistic merit is hard to quantify, but I think it can be felt. The hard thing about feelings, though, is that they are usually not the first order business at a corporate board meeting.

For all their money and power, Disney, and companies like them, have to meet their audiences half way. Market forces aren’t simple, and more intangible qualities, such as a film’s ability to connect with people, can’t be reliably predicted or manufactured, at least not consistently.

This is certainly not to say that successful marriages of creativity and financial viability aren’t possible, far from it. “Frozen” (2013) was a fairly subversive take on the Disney princess formula, and it became a worldwide phenomenon.

So, is it true that commercial incentives hamper artistic expression?

I think so, but that’s not the whole story. It’s not a problem with an easy solution, and I don’t think I’m going to be the person to find one. As individual consumers in such a large, financially driven field, about the best we can do is to vote with our wallets.

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