Disney Won't Stop Remaking Its Films
Why is Disney making so many live-action films all of a sudden? Why do critics hate them and audiences love them? And why doesn’t Disney care whether they fail? Is it because they’ve run out of ideas… or could there be a more sinister reason? Today we’re going to be investigating the real reason why the House of Mouse is raiding their back catalogue.
The Beginning of the Age of Remakes
Let’s go back to that start, cast your mind back nearly thirty years. Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King. If you grew up in the ’90s, it must have felt like a Golden Age of animation. And now all of those great films are getting HD live-action remakes! What could be better? But what you might not remember is Disney tried this all once before.
In the early ’90s, Disney wanted to refresh some old material and it had some minor success. Nearly no-one remembers the very first film that set the stage for the latest slew of reboots, remakes and updates. Disney’s Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book (1994) made a decent enough return on its relatively small investment of $30 million, making some pretty bold creative choices that weren’t always appreciated by the audience; being mostly realistic and not leaning heavily on nostalgia for the 60’s film. Still, it was an intriguing discovery for Disney: there were potential profits in updating their back catalogue.
They dug even deeper into the 1960s and came up with 101 Dalmatians. Investing a significantly more money this time, Disney paired legendary screenwriter John Hughes with Glenn Close at her scenery-chewing best as Cruella DeVille. The House of Mouse learned from the somewhat unwelcome realism of the first live-action Jungle Book and this time chose to hypercharge their film, making it arguably even more slapstick and cartoonish than the 1961 version! And it paid off Making a third of a billion, it was one of the top-grossing family movies of that year.
So what changed in the 15 years between Dalmatians and Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland? Well, the Disney renaissance was well and truly over and Pixar became the place to go for animation and original intellectual property. Disney had started to run out of well-known fairy-tales and folk stories to adapt. It started to cannibalize it’s own back catalogue with spectacular financial results.
But can this last forever? Surely Disney will run out of things to remake eventually? And is there still an audience for nostalgia or are we getting tired of all this old stuff? More importantly, does Disney even care?
The Disney Conspiracy
It seems like audiences and critics might even be getting bored with the repetitive way Disney uses to churn out these films. But despite each film getting worse and worse reviews, the formula works because these films make major money. For now. And it doesn’t even matter if profits start to slip too.
But why choose Alice in Wonderland, Cinderella, Maleficent, Dumbo, The Jungle Book (again), Christopher Robin, and Lady and the Tramp? How did it take Disney so long to get round to their 90’s renaissance? Are the new films created to extend the copyright of the originals? It isn’t hard to believe. It wouldn’t be the first time Disney has meddled in international legal policies, after all…
How One Mouse Fought the Law (And Won…)
Let’s make a quick detour to see how Disney has interfered with copyright law again and again, and why some say it’s actions have crippled creativity for over a century. The first Copyright Laws in the US only lasted fourteen years but nowadays they can be more than a hundred years or 70 years after the death of the author.
And it’s all Disney mascot Mickey’s fault. Steamboat Willy came out in 1928. From the very first animation released by Disney, we got a character who would go on to become a brand, an icon, and an empire. At the time, it would have been protected under copyright for up to 56 years. So why didn’t Mickey enter the public domain in 1984? Why can’t we use his image to make our own works of art if we wanted?
Disney lobbied the US government. Hard. It spent decades developing a lot of influence on government agencies, through money and favors for politicians and policymakers. Every time it looked like Mickey might escape Disney’s grasp, suddenly the law would change and copyrights could be extended further. And further. And further. This is more than just a coincidence, the lifespan of that cartoon rat has actually influenced the entire global landscape when it comes to literal creative license. Mickey Mouse is securely Disney property until 2023.
And it’s more than just wanting to keep a hold of their own works to make more films. We mean, when was the last time you watched a Mickey Mouse cartoon? But think about it from a financial perspective. Mickey has a 97% global recognition rate among three to eleven-year-olds, that’s bigger than any religion.
He’s the mascot of four cruise ships, 9 studios, 12 theme parks, 52 resorts. Disney employs more people than some modern armies; that’s a heavy burden for a mouse to carry! So it’s safe to say that protecting their intellectual property has probably become the main reason for Disney’s economic success, even more so than inventing new characters.
They pivoted somewhere in the late ’90s: same old profits, it’s just a different model. It would make sense for them to keep remaking their old films; keeping them in copyright and prevent other people from muscling in on a piece of that princess pie. But it turns out that it’s not so simple…
What everyone gets Copyright and Copywrong
It turns out that despite getting fully certified accreditation from the University of the Internet with a minor in Wikipedia, this is one conspiracy theory that doesn’t quite work. At least, not the simple way you might think it does. Basically, there’s no legal way a new work can extend the copyright of old work. If it could everyone would be racing to make even more remakes than we see these days…
So what role does copyright play, if Disney isn’t trying to keep the stories behind its adaptations out of the hands of the public? Well, there’s a ticking clock. It’s pretty unlikely that Disney is going to be able to push copyright back again. That means Mickey will expire in 2023 and then everything after him will gradually phase into the public domain. So Disney has 20 years to wring those profits dry, reboot or remake things, and re-establish itself as the people who made stories like Cinderella or Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs popular. Plus… some of the things in those original cartoon versions are downright unacceptable today.
There are the depictions of Native Americans in Peter Pan, for example: how will Disney handle those in the upcoming remake? Or how about those Siamese Cats from the original Lady and the Tramp? What was acceptable seventy years ago just isn’t nowadays, and the theme of the song is seen as pretty racist with modern eyes. Obviously looking to avoid backlash, the latest version did away with their song entirely, replacing it with a ditty from pop sensation Janelle Monae.
But more than just wanting to rewrite history, Disney wants their versions to be the definitive ones in people’s minds, the “real” Alice in Wonderland or the “real” Jungle Book. It’s all about maintaining the brand. That’s why it doesn’t matter if critics like them. In fact, it barely matters if the films are successful, since there’s nothing to stop Disney just remaking it again later. Just so long as when you hear the word “Dumbo”, you think “Disney”. And this is something that Disney might have learned by watching some of its former rivals…
Disney vs. The World: Battle of the Studios
Do you know how many Spider-Mans… Spider-Men… (Spiders Men?)... How many Peter Parkers we’ve had in the last fifteen years? THREE. Each new version of Spider-Man has a worse life expectancy than the average dog. And how about the X-Men? We’ve seen sequels, prequels, spin-offs, you name it.
But before these many, many failed attempts in the 21st century, certain characters were stuck in limbo. Why? Because before Disney bought Marvel, Marvel licensed out characters to all sorts of film studios and creative teams, some of them with less than stellar reputations. A lot of these contracts had clauses that the rights would revert back to Marvel if films weren’t made within certain time limits. As a result, simply to keep the lucrative license to Spider-Man or the Fantastic Four, some studios pumped out low-budget filler films that are now seen as legendarily awful.
You may not recall, but Captain America and the Fantastic Four both got the big-screen treatment in the ’90s, though the latter was not released. The same was attempted with Spider-Man but kept stalling through studio incompetence. But why make such obviously awful films? It turns out that while they were… less successful (to put it mildly), they achieved their aim of keeping certain characters legally tied to different studios. And many of these legacy contracts meant that Disney had a hard time corralling all these characters after they bought Marvel.
Through mergers, acquisitions and lapses, Fox ended upholding the rights for the X-Men and Fantastic Four, and Sony got Spider-Man. Fox sparked the superhero boom with the first X-Men film, Sony capitalized on it first with Spider-Man, and both studios would go on to pump out films of wildly different quality. The aim was to desperately try to cement their own brand identity and association with the characters. Of course, all of this is academic these days, as Disney absorbed Fox like some kind of hyper-capitalist version of The Blob and came to an arrangement with Sony about the use of Spiderman… Though not before using lots of shady tactics like siccing a mob of social media activists on the company in an underhanded propaganda campaign…
But Disney clearly learned a lot from Fox and Sony: the idea was to keep people guessing when it came to what was “authentic” and what wasn’t. If you can’t legally lock down a character, then the next best thing is to get the public to associate that character with one brand or one studio more than any other.
Tobey Maguire, Andrew Garfield, Tom Holland. Who was the “real” Peter Parker? Did it even matter any more? In the 2020s, we now all live in the new world of what we would call “Post-Truth Intellectual Property Rights”.
Adapt or Die?
But whether Disney likes it or not, on 1st January 2024 the rights to Mickey will expire. It’ll be followed by Snow White 2033. And it isn’t just Mickey. You could argue that rivals Time/Warner will suffer even more as Superman, Batman, and even the Looney Tunes characters will all fall into the public domain between 2031 and 2035. So, expect to see many, many more versions of the Caped Crusader and the Dark Knight before then.
In the meantime, as film critic Zak Hepburn says, Disney has a smart short-term strategy:
"Families want to go and see these classic stories […] And rather than re-release the film they're putting a new stamp on it, which is an interesting way to re-energise a property."
And re-energize those profits! So in the next few years, we’re going to see the following films get “re-energized”: Mulan, a 101 Dalmatians remake in the vein of Maleficent called “Cruella”, then the Little Mermaid, an untitled The Jungle Book sequel, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, a potential Snow White spin-off called Rose Red, Peter Pan (and Wendy), The Sword in the Stone, an as yet untitled Aladdin sequel, another untitled Aladdin spin-off (probably following the Genie, we guess?), Lilo & Stitch, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Bambi and Pinocchio. For now, at least, there’s no shortage of material for Disney to work with.
But one day, despite being one of the largest companies on the planet and their growing monopoly on media entertainment, Disney will need to adapt. Or die. Still, it’s as Walt Disney himself once said:
“We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we’re curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths”.