Disney has long been associated with animated fare, from Lady and the Tramp to The Lion King. But as a studio, it has also made a number of savvy acquisitions in recent years which have extended its reach even further, cementing it as the biggest and most influential studio in Hollywood.
Not only does it have its own extensive back catalogue of animated classics, but it now owns Marvel Studios, whose interconnected superhero universe has seen films such as Avengers Assemble, Iron Man 3 and Captain America: Civil War each make over $1 billion.
It also saw the potential of Pixar, the company that specialises in computer-generated animated films such as Toy Story and Finding Nemo, acquiring it for the eye-watering sum of $7.4 billion in 2006. But with Pixar’s output already totalling $10.8 billion since it began, this was a smart move from a company already considered animated experts – with Pixar on board, Disney’s animated fare has moved from strength to strength.
On the live action front, there’s the small matter of Star Wars, which Disney acquired from creator George Lucas in 2012 for $4 billion. Again this seems like an investment already paying dividends, with the two new theatrical installments alone making a total of over $3 billion dollars.
Clearly Disney has made a number of canny acquisitions in the last two decades, but they’ve also turned their eyes to their own back catalogue, specifically their animated films.
Although technically not a straight remake of their own animated feature, this trend arguably began with Tim Burton’s Alice In Wonderland. Released in March 2010 in 3D, the film capitalised on the huge success of Avatar, which had opened only 3 months earlier and reinvigorating people’s interest in 3D cinema.
The promise of Tim Burton’s unique visual style twinned with the imagery of Lewis Carroll’s novel (and in 3D no less), proved a huge hit. Critical reception was muted, but audiences were drawn to the promise of something familiar with a new twist, and the film starred Johnny Depp, who had proved a box office draw in another Disney franchise – Pirates of the Caribbean. The film made over $1 billion dollars, and Disney subsequently turned its attention to more of its animated classics.
Next up was Disney’s Maleficent, which utilised a similar template to Alice in Wonderland. It again took a unconventional approach to an old Disney classic, in this case Sleeping Beauty, and had a star at its centre in the form of Angelina Jolie. Like Alice and Wonderland the film overcame mixed reviews to gross nearly $760 million at the box office.
By the time of Maleficent’s release, it was clear audiences had an appetite to see these classic fairytales on the big-screen again. However the next stage in these adaptations started to play up the nostalgic elements of these remakes, rather than looking for a particularly fresh take on the material.
Cinderella, released in 2015, was a much more straight-forward adaptation of the original Disney classic, with the iconic blue ball dress, worn by the protagonist in the ballroom sequence of the film, central in the marketing campaign. The film again cast A-list stars in key roles, with Cate Blanchett playing Ella’s wicked stepmother and Helen Bonham Carter (who appeared in Alice and Wonderland as the Red Queen) as the Fairy Godmother.
This more tangible link to Disney’s previous animated films was made even more overt in Disney’s next two live action remakes – The Jungle Book and Beauty and the Beast. Using songs, iconography and even lifting key sequences, these two films lean heavily on the audience’s fondness for the original animated films, as well as hopes to attract new audiences.
These more faithful adaptations have had some critics questioning their relevance, due to them not having an overtly different take on the classic material. Yet both projects have proved phenomenally successful at the box office once again, with a slew of other titles, such as Mulan, The Lion King and Dumbo all in active development.
But with Marvel, Pixar and Star Wars all bringing financial and critical success to Disney, why have they now decided to turn to their own back catalogue? One primary factor is the technology now in place to produce these films for live action. Alice in Wonderland, Jungle Book and Beauty and Beast all rely heavily on computer generated effects. Now that these characters and landscapes can be rendered convincingly in live action, Disney has an opportunity to show in live-action things which were once only possible using animation.
These remakes also tap into another recent trend in Hollywood, discussed in a previous blog post, which sees studios desperate to capitalise on the nostalgia of audiences for pre-existing franchises.
Disney is now in the enviable position of being able to exploit pre-existing properties from its own back-catalogue, as well as rely on the success of huge franchises such as Toy Story, The Avengers and Star Wars. These animated remakes have clearly struck a chord with audiences, and it seems their financial success will ensure many other Disney classics will once again come to life on the big screen.
Beauty and the Beast screens at Phoenix from Friday 7 April.