George Chrysostomou on Disney’s original live-action movies…
The House of Mouse is one of the biggest content producers in the world. With its combination of theme parks, TV shows, toys, shops and soon to be released streaming service, Disney is ahead of much of the competition in regards to being a cultural cornerstone of our society. Where Disney really thrives however is in their films. Alongside the enormously successful Pixar, Lucasfilm and Marvel, Disney also has several in-house film units, including Disney Nature and Walt Disney Animation Studios, both of which regularly produce critically and commercially successful titles. And then we have the main Walt Disney Studios, home to remakes of their animation classics, as well as features such as Tomorrowland, A Wrinkle in Time, and The Nutcracker and the Four Realms.
The problem here may already be apparent: while overall Disney is finding great success with films like Avengers: Infinity War, Ralph Breaks the Internet and Christopher Robin, the company is not managing to match the same levels of financial and critical achievements with their own original projects.
When we look at Disney’s live action output it’s easy to point to what works. Stick Star Wars or Marvel on a logo and it’ll likely sell. Remake an animated classic from people’s childhood, replaying on the same plot points as before, and it is guaranteed to get nostalgic audience members into cinema seats. Bringing an original idea to the big screen has been a problem in Hollywood for a while. It is a big risk, especially financially, but for a big brand such as Disney, it could also damage its reputation for creating quality. Therefore, if the live action Beauty and the Beast works so well that it becomes one of the highest grossing films of its year, then it makes complete economic sense for the company to then commission more and more of these remakes (just recently we’ve seen the trailers for Dumbo, Aladdin, and The Lion King). In similar fashion, Marvel and Star Wars are hugely established brands that Disney can bank on (Solo aside). Even when Disney has found success with live action, it has almost never been from a completely original idea (see Pirates of the Caribbean, based upon the theme park attraction).
Much of Walt Disney Studios’ recent output is based upon pre-existing material – A Wrinkle in Time was a well established book, Tomorrowland a part of Disney Parks and The Lone Ranger a long-standing part of American pop culture – or sequels to previous hits, such as Alice Through the Looking Glass or this year’s Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales. In theory, Disney should be able to produce the same results as other live action offerings, making use of established worlds, characters and brands. But the majority of these projects do not bring the same level nostalgia as an animated remake, and often these films are simply just not very good. It’s really hard to defend a lot of these movies and there’s no clear reason for why each of these failed. Perhaps people expect more of the House of Mouse, having firmly established themselves as creators of quality. Perhaps the lack of nostalgia means it’s not worth the money for a ticket, or maybe it’s just down to bad timing and fatigue from audiences.
So, is there a problem with originality? Of course there is something original in everything Disney puts out, even if it is a twist on something already well-worn. But look at Pixar as a prime example of truly original projects, and look at the praise these movies receive. If a film is narratively and visually interesting, it is way more likely to sell. Unfortunately for Disney, a lot of their recent output has either been forgettable, or a mess of colour and weirdness. Poor marketing is also playing a big part in this too. When faced with the trailer for The Nutcracker, audiences are reminded of the likes Alice Through the Looking Glass and A Wrinkle in Time, both of which were not great performers for the company. Disney, if it is to have a successful live action department outside of animated remakes, needs to distance itself from previous entries in the Walt Disney Studios library.
Creating something completely unique and original may spark audience interest and allow Disney to deliver something new and ultimately capturing some of that quality and magic that the animated department is still able to put out with hits like Frozen. Perhaps the Dwayne Johnson-headlined Jungle Cruise will be able to capture a little bit of this missing magic, but until the day comes that the studio commissions a truly original script, it seems an adaptation of a theme park attraction may be as close as we get to an original Disney feature.