When Disney released or announced a slew of live action remakes over the past few years (whether of previously animated films or other live action movies), I responded with skepticism. Why do you need to translate something already so beautifully realized in animation into live action? And, of course, why do you need to rely so heavily on established IP? The answer is clear in a culture where, optimistically, everything old is new again and, cynically, massive corporations rely on time-tested brands to rake in millions.
But as the good brainless consumer I am, I’ve gone out (or, mostly, stayed in) to check out the prolific output of Disney reimaginings. But the recent trailer for MARY POPPINS RETURNS (2018) incited actual excitement in me right away, unlike most other films of its ilk, if not just because of the glimpses of beautiful 2D (hopefully hand-drawn) animation that echoes the original film. CHRISTOPHER ROBIN (2018) was actually a compelling, fun, and cute film in its own right. And THE JUNGLE BOOK (2016), THE BFG (2016), and PETE’S DRAGON (2016) were better than I expected them to be; BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (2017) was just about what I expected, which was fine.
This “live action remake line” (I know Disney had not adapted THE BFG before, but you get the point), which I kind of see beginning with MALEFICENT (2014), the musical adaptation INTO THE WOODS (2014), and CINDERELLA (2015), is united by CGI-fueled sets, characters, costumes, and effects fueled by a somewhat cohesive visual style rooted in some grimness, “realism,” and desaturated color tones. Of course, the latter is a bit more of a general statement, but it’s no denying that these films are not as colorful as their source material or previous adaptations. And yet…this very cohesion, which in some ways I revile, also offers a consistent experience that, if you’re a fan of Disney simplicity, is usually enjoyable. It’s the definition of the stagnation the mainstream film industry is facing, but I just can’t resist it.
At least, that’s what I thought with films like THE JUNGLE BOOK and BEAUTY THE BEAST, incredibly straight forward films that transcribed their much more charming counterparts beat-for-beat, minus some of the things that made them so charming! But a film like CHRISTOPHER ROBIN is a much more interesting movie, an actual “reimagining” that doesn’t directly adapt any one Winnie the Pooh story and actually updates the concept with admirable delicacy. And while MARY POPPINS RETURNS is in fact a sequel, it’s a revival of a brand for surefire investment purposes, which fits it into this specific live action line I’ve envisioned. In this vein, its blend of 2D and 3D animation and realistic sets with Golden Age-style musical stages (and apparent reuse of the CHRISTOPHER ROBIN London street set) comprise a much more inspired angle from how these live action films started out…at least from what I’ve been able to see so far.
I remember being incredibly exasperated with the idea of a live action Winnie the Pooh film, especially considering my deep love for THE MANY ADVENTURES OF WINNIE THE POOH (1977). I remember asking “How could they ever make Pooh and friends cute in this weirdly realistic yet lifeless and smooth CGI style Disney has developed?” Well, I said something along those lines. And yet Disney pulled it off, only strengthening my excitement for Tim Burton’s DUMBO (2019), in spite of my disappointment with his ALICE IN WONDERLAND films and because of my love for its cast and my mystical attraction to the 1941 original. Disney’s live action remakes, reimaginings, and years-later sequels have only gotten stronger and stronger, in spite of my dismay at the very cynicism at the heart of their development and my desire for revived interest in 2D animation. But then, there are children viewing the characters and events of these films for the first time, in their live action form, and falling in love with the magic I had found in the films preceding them. It’s the way it goes; the market has spoken. And as I’ve made clear: I don’t dislike these movies nearly as much as I thought I would.