Disclaimer: These are my own opinions about Walt Disney Pictures and Disney Animated Studios. If I express a negative opinion about a movie you really love, please continue to enjoy that movie. I do not think acknowledging a fault with a movie should “ruin it,” and I think it’s completely okay to love movies even if you know they’re not Oscar-winners.
I blame Bob Iger for too many minor annoyances in my life. He ruined the original run of Twin Peaks, he thinks the movie “Frozen” is good, and he was the CEO during Disney’s run of live-action remakes. Also, Iger has the audacity to be good-looking in his early 70’s, which makes me uncomfortable.
It’s not entirely his fault that Disney live-action remakes have taken over the company. The first live-action remake, “Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book” was released in 1994, while Michael Eisner still had the Disney company locked in his iron grasp. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the 1994 version of “The Jungle Book,” a thrilling adventure tale with charming leads (Jason Scott Lee and Lena Headey). It also employed the clever use of trained wild animals to simulate Mowgli’s close relationships with Bagheera and his wolf brothers. It was a cool movie, and I think it’s worth rewatching.
When I think of the upcoming Disney live-action remakes, I mostly feel a sense of disappointment. I think back to about two decades ago when Disney focused its efforts on pumping out sequels to classics like the Slurm Queen.
I was young when those films were released, and at the time, I enjoyed them until I was a little older and realized they were devoid of heart and artistic integrity. And truth be told, I wasn’t even that old when I realized the movies weren’t good – I think I must have been in 8th grade, watching “Mulan II” when it hit me: “This is a bad movie, and it didn’t have to be.”
I’ve said this once, and I will say it again: Just because a film is intended for children does not mean it has the right to be terrible. Children are not stupid, and it doesn’t take them long to watch something from their childhood and realize “this is bad.” I have had that realization too many times to count, and by the time I was out of high school, it made me deeply cynical. Then I grew up a little more, accepted how capitalism powered art production and moved on from that cynicism.
Part of the problem lies with us, the consumers. It’s parents who take their toddlers to Disneyland even though there are thousands of less expensive, more beautiful places to travel to. It’s Disney Adults, the millennial-aged consumers who base a little too much of their identity around a corporation and its products. It’s movie-goers who, on a Friday night, would rather watch something familiar than take a chance on a weird arthouse film or Oscar bait that leaves you feeling cold and a little stupid. And it’s trolls like me, who will happily criticize Disney for its many faults but still have a Disney+ subscription and eagerly await the releases of their latest films. We all have some role to play in Disney’s profits and, therefore, in its output.
I have to manage my frustration with Disney and its works because I don’t appreciate when art is manufactured to appeal to the lowest common denominator. There is a distinct and present lack of risk and meaning within their artwork that I find unpalatable. For me, watching a Disney film often feels like toasting a poptart and finding it has no filling.
I am grateful that Disney Animation Studios continues to produce original animated films, even if I don’t like them. For example, I am glad the film “Encanto” exists, even though I thought the movie felt more like a TV pilot with underdeveloped characters. Also, the song “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” makes me want to eat a lightbulb, and yet I have heard it every single day for the past two months. However, I can still admire what’s good about the movie. I like Luisa’s character and song, the vibrant color palette, and the fact that there even is an original movie about a Colombian family that’s received such an incredibly warm reception. All of that is good, and I hope it continues.
My greatest criticism of these computer-animated Disney musicals is their opulence. When I watched a computer-animated Disney film, I don’t think, “Wow, what a stunning visionary work of art and testament to the advancing field of computer animation,” but rather, “Oh damn, that must have been expensive.” The artwork is certainly impressive, but it doesn’t inspire me. The best example of this expensive rather than original artwork would be in Frozen II. I am exhausted just thinking about the work the 80 animators poured into that story, rendering the cloth weaving and embroidery in Elsa’s costume and animating the characters to show their breathing.
All of that meticulous, back-breaking work for an underdeveloped story about the origins of a magic kingdom, and, I don’t know, something about a magical tribe and the 5th element? I watched the movie, but the story didn’t make sense. Frozen II is not a good movie, and watching people try to justify its greatness is laughable. A clip I often see recycled online is the one of Kristen Bell on Jimmy Fallon praising the number “Lost in the Woods” for challenging “toxic masculinity.” In this musical number, the beefy hunk Kristoff sings about his relationship with Anna and how he doesn’t know what he’ll do without her. To clarify, their relationship is never in jeopardy, and the conflict is resolved off-screen. He doesn’t bring up these feelings with Anna, except to say, “My love is not fragile,” so I guess maybe he talked to a reindeer about it? I don’t know.
I’m all for men talking more about their feelings, but Kristoff’s storyline is a low bar. Men showing emotion in film is far from new. The 2017 Captain Underpants movie features a beautiful friendship between two emotionally intelligent boys who love and support each other while cracking poop jokes. “Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie” had a budget of $38M compared to Frozen II’s $150M budget, and a bad guy named “Professor Pee-Pee Diahreahstein Poopypants Esq,” and the movie is better. If you need Disney examples, consider the range of emotions that Tarzan and Hercules experience in their respective stories. Frozen II was far from ground-breaking (although I’ll admit that “Lost in the Woods” is a catchy song).
I don’t think Disney makes good original movies; I think it makes expensive original movies. I can make my peace with this as long as new art continues to be made and artists remain employed for their hard work. (Seriously, no shade to the artist who rendered the weaving on Elsa’s gown, I just don’t see how that was relevant to the story)
I took a look at Disney’s upcoming line-up and was underwhelmed. It’s a long line of live-action remakes that I don’t think anyone asked for (does anyone want a live-action Bambi??) I want to reiterate that the problem lies with us, the consumer. If there wasn’t a market for the live-action remakes, and if original traditionally animated films were financially prosperous in the way they should be, then it wouldn’t be so rewarding for Disney to try and recreate their classics.
I hold myself responsible as one of the people who encouraged this initial trend of live-action remakes. I remember it started with the 2015 “Cinderella,” directed by Kenneth Branagh. For what it’s worth, I think that movie is excellent. It had a lovely message, was visually expressive, and had enough self-restraint to not include the annoying talking animals. I like Gus Gus as much as the next person, but he was unnecessary. I also appreciated that the film wasn’t a musical. It didn’t have to be. It was its own creation, loosely inspired by the 1950’s Cinderella but not dominated by it. Brannagh’s “Cinderella” is its own work that I think will stand the test of time.
The other films… not so much. And I think that degradation in quality starts with 2017’s “Beauty and the Beast.” I didn’t know at the time what this movie would mean for Disney films in general. I’ve been obsessed with the myth of Eros and Psyche by Apuleius and any derivative of it since I was a child, and so at the time, all I could focus on was that there would be more of this thing I loved. I obsessively counted down to this movie’s release date like it was my own personal doomsday clock. I bought the unimpressive soundtrack early and listened to it repeatedly in preparation for the film’s release. I bought tickets to see the movie two nights in a row because I knew I would be too overwhelmed to properly appreciate it on first viewing. That is how excited I was to see this movie.
The 2017 “Beauty and the Beast” film is… fine. I’d give it a C+, or maybe a B-. It’s okay. My cousins analyzed the movie on their blog, and I agree with much of what they said. “Beauty and the Beast” could have been much worse, but there are many ways it could have been better.
The 2017 film was a remake of the 1991 animated movie, and so it had a blueprint to make a fantastic film. It’s the difference between someone who invents a cookie recipe and then publishes that recipe versus someone who follows that same written recipe, only they add more chocolate chips. You can’t just say that the person who added more chocolate chips did a better job – someone else laid the groundwork for them.
The 1991 film was a masterpiece, regardless of how it has aged or what silly questions went unanswered. If you were one of the people who didn’t like the 1991 version of “Beauty and the Beast” because “Belle was too nice to the Beast” or “Something something Stockholm syndrome,” or the relationship was unequal or you didn’t understand how the townspeople could forget there was a castle and prince only a few miles away from the village, then, unfortunately, I think you’ve missed the point. It’s a fairytale, guys, not a philosophical exploration of inequity in 20th-century romantic relationships. And if a story has a “plot hole” but involves magic, just save yourself the headache and assume the magic fixed that plothole. We’re talking about magic here, not the laws of thermodynamics.
The 2017 film was a remake, not a retelling of the original 1756 “Le Belle et la Bete” by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont. The hard work had already been done. The 2017 Disney film took what was good about the 1991 version, like the 5-minute opening number “Belle” and the cute enchanted servants, and then made a few tweaks to update the film for a modern audience. The resulting film is… cluttered. It runs for over 2 hours (129 minutes to be exact) and is crammed with dialogue, musical sequences, and visual effects. There is even one brief reference to the original story, but that reference is squished in like that last slice of pumpkin pie after a full Thanksgiving meal. It’s a grand spectacle, but despite all of its content, the film does not say anything.
When I watch a movie, I often ask myself, “What is the creator trying to say?” Like, what is the point of telling this particular story? Is the point that “monstrosity is an internal condition rather than a physical attribute” or “the human spirit will triumph over any obstacle”? Hell, the message can be “it is funny to dub silly dialogue over a serious martial arts film,” and I would be fine with that, so long as there is a point to what the creator is doing. However, I feel a lot less charitable when the creator’s point is, “You sure liked this other thing, so I bet you’ll like this as well.”
Remaking “Beauty and the Beast” as a live-action film was not a terrible idea. The stage musical had already been on Broadway since 1994 and was wildly popular, so there was clearly a market for a live-action production of the movie. I think many people expected the 2017 film to be like this, and to be honest, I’m grateful that it isn’t. I think the point of a stage musical is enjoying a live performance, which includes beautiful costuming, dancing, and singing. Had Disney simply filmed a version of the stage musical and released it in theatres, I’m not sure how well it would have performed. Also, the song “No Matter What” is terrible. It is such an outrageously bad song that I’m embarrassed to listen to it.
The 2017 film had the right idea to differentiate itself from the stage musical, and I even like some of the new songs written for its theatrical release. I wish the theatrical release had included “Human Again,” but more as a tribute to Howard Ashman. I am no musical critic, but I liked some of the music in the new film, and I thought it was nice that Celine Dion sang during the outro. I just wish the film had limited itself to her song being one of the only call-backs to the original film.
I wonder if Bill Condon and the creators of the 2017 film felt trapped. That would be my best guess for why the 2017 film is the way it is. In Bob Iger’s book “The Ride of a Lifetime,” Iger makes a huge stink about audience expectations and why it’s important to cater to those expectations. It’s why he interfered with Twin Peaks and then again with the most recent Star Wars trilogy. During his tenure, my guess is that the tone at the top was “give the audience what they want.” And for the new Beauty and the Beast film, they probably thought that what the audience wanted was a live-action adaption of the animated film that people had loved so much.
Dear reader, I cannot begin to tell you why attempting to cater to audience expectations is a terrible idea. The most obvious reason would be “the audience is not one singular person but many, many people with diverse thoughts and feelings,” and the less obvious reason is “the audience is full of idiots who don’t know what they want.”
It was a fair guess that the audience wanted to hear those same songs sung by real people instead of cartoons. At the time, I was even one of those idiots who didn’t know shit about what she wanted. With hindsight as my friend, I can admit that I was wrong. I personally believe that if Disney had set out to make an original, live-action film inspired by the 1756 story “La Belle et la Bete,” without feeling chained to the 1991 film, it could have made something spectacular.
But that choice would not be without great risk. Audience expectations are difficult to ignore, especially with so much money on the line. So I understand why Iger (and now Bob Chapek) and Disney are unwilling to take creative risks when hundreds of millions are at stake. Catering to audience expectations is a safe way to ensure satisfactory returns. But that will not be the case forever.
Already, there has been a noticeable decline in the quality of Disney live-action films. “Aladdin” featured a charming cast, but Guy Ritchie was a terrible choice of director, and the film is poorly paced and edited. Likewise, “The Lion King” is not even worth watching, as the photorealistic computer animation looks terrible compared to the original film. As the story is exactly the same as the 1994 film, it’s not as though there’s a new plotline worth seeing (the film still grossed like $1.6 Billion, so it’s not like that held audiences back).
Then there was the 2020 version of “Mulan.” Damn, I was excited for this one. I was impressed when I heard that the film would ditch the music and the sassy side characters. Finally, a movie that was taking risks! I love the original Mulan, but that doesn’t mean I need to see live-action Mushu. If I want to see the lucky cricket chirp cutely, then I’ll dust off my DVD of the 1996 film and watch that.
I continued to be impressed when I heard about the casting (I love Rosalind Chao!), the direction, and the gorgeous martial arts sequences. My expectations were too high. Don’t get me wrong. The movie did have those cool martial arts sequences. It made the right choice in cutting the cheeky musical numbers, as those had no place in this film. I did think that the casting was appropriate, with Donni Yen, Jason Scott Lee, Gong Li, and Jet Li as fantastic stand-outs. And Rosalind Chao, because she’s a wonderful actress, and she’s Keiko O’Brien, so she can do no wrong.
I liked the movie when I was watching it. Then, about 20 minutes after I watched it, I realized that I couldn’t remember anything in the movie. I mean, I remembered the basics of the plot, that cute scene at the beginning with the spider, and some of the outrageously bad dialogue, but everything else? Completely forgettable. I felt no warmth or joy towards the movie. Just a vague feeling of emptiness. I had two hours of my life gone that I couldn’t account for.
When I reached out to my friends to see their opinions, it was a lot of disappointment. Sure, some people liked the movie, but overwhelmingly the response I heard from people was, “Where’s Mushu?” This is fair because Mushu was the best part of the 1994 film. Though I don’t think that my friends actually missed the character of Mushu so much as the movie made you think, “Man, I sure wish I was watching the 1996 version with Eddie Murphy instead of this humorless spectacle.”
When I think about this movie now, I have the same thought as I did when I was in the 8th grade and watching Mulan II. “This is a bad movie, and it didn’t have to be.”
I’m not trying to pick on Mulan. If you liked that movie, then that’s awesome. Go ahead and enjoy it. But I think it’s interesting how since it was released on Disney+, the movie seems to have been completely wiped from our consciousness. There is still love for “Cinderella” and “Beauty and the Beast,” but I have not seen that same reciprocated love for Mulan. And I say this because that film tried so hard to appease as many audiences as possible. It is a film of massive compromises, and for what? It was poorly received by Chinese critics and audiences. It didn’t do nearly as well financially or critically as the 2009 version starring Zhao Wei. I’ve never heard anyone mention the 2020 movie beyond commenting about how disappointing it was. It did horribly at the box office, although there were extreme extenuating circumstances.
In all honestly, I don’t think it was the worst movie ever made, or even all that bad. Especially compared to other Disney live-action films, like “Lady and the Tramp,” which I turned off once the dumb Siamese cats began singing.
I have no idea how much longer Disney will continue to produce disappointing, live-action remakes. I don’t know if Disney will continue to allow fanfiction of its classics like it did with “Once Upon a Time” and “The Descendants” (Both of which are mostly unwatchable, but I think the latter has some charming moments). I don’t know if it will ever return to traditional animation, even if I dearly hope it does.
Disney is a company motivated by one thing: profit. Above all else, it wants to make money.
As long as these poorly plotted live-action films continue to drive an obscene profit, they will continue to exist. However, at a certain point, all the money in the world cannot make a good movie. The studio can hire Lin Manuel Miranda to write all the music, force artists to animate the characters subtly breathing throughout their musical numbers, and send the creators on trips to foreign countries to study the landscape they’re imitating, but that won’t be enough to compensate for a poor story and shallow characters.
There has to be a reason for the story to exist, and artists cannot have the sword of Damocles that is “audience expectations” hanging over their heads. Until then, my suggestion is to watch something else. Trust me, you have plenty of options.