The Live-Action Movement: A Brief History in Disney Songs

By Jacob Sahms

Walking out of the theater with “You’ve Never Had a Friend Like Me” swelling like an earworm in my consciousness, the majestic transformation of the animated Aladdin of 1992 into the visually stunning live-action masterpiece serves as a reminder of the legacy of Walt Disney’s ingenuity. I won’t say it’s the best live-action remake but when you wish upon a star, you couldn’t do better than this.  While Disney never actually ordered that all of his films be remade every decade or so, the current run of Disney films proves that the stories are timeless, and the creativity runs deep in the circle of life.

On further reflection, this isn’t the first time Disney has tried to blend the old and the new (and I don’t mean the disaster that is Song of the South. At the end of the twentieth century, Walt Disney Pictures tried everything with a series of live-action remakes (Jungle Book, 101 and 102 Dalmatians) but the technology, while almost there, clearly wasn’t ready to blend the puppets, CGI, and actual humans together. A decade later, Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland opened another run of films, this time taking a previously-told Disney story and giving it a twist, not just with human actors but also in tone and perspective. (Burton argued that it was neither a sequel nor a reimagining.) With the film’s financial success ($334 million box office), it unleashed a string of films (Maleficent, Cinderella, another Jungle Book, Alice Through the Looking Glass) that proved the timelessness of Disney’s stories and ushered in a series of films where young women were clearly the heroes.

A focus on Disney Princesses who could more than hold their own with “Prince Charmings” could be seen in the animated world (Tangled, Brave, Wreck-It Ralph), but with these “real people” stories, audiences could see the action unfold in a more relatable way. Instead of replacing what we had seen before, which would always be in our hearts, the new films provide a whole new angle. The new films Beauty and the Beast (2017) took an unlikely director (Bill Condon) and a big name cast (Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Josh Gad, Kevin Kline, Ewan McGregor, Emma Thompson) to go the distance ($504 million) and launch an even stronger tide of live-action remakes.

Aladdin (2019) again captures all of the mystery expected of Disney’s animated films – but doubles down on the magic of it all with real people While Will Smith, like Robin Williams before him, plays the comic relief as the Genie and serves as the headliner, Aladdin’s magical elements allow us to see the power of the story and the beauty of two young people, Aladdin and Jasmine, discovering their own voices and reaffirming their character in the face of difficulty. While Smith’s career needed a punch in the arm after a decade of disappointing releases, he let it go and proves witty and charming enough to advise Aladdin forward, while Jasmine’s explosion of leadership and compassion has been clearly nurtured by family over time and proves to be a girl worth fighting for. Ironically, Jasmine is really the hero of the live-action story, even while it allows for the growing together of two hearts and souls against a Middle Eastern setting that shows another twist in the Disney mystique – Disney can do more than anyone expects across gender, culture, time, and genre by showing us the colors of the wind.

But the Mouse isn’t done yet, continuing to shout ‘I’m still here!’ after all these years. Along with the fourth installment in the beloved Toy Story series, Disney will drop The Lion King in summer, with Donald Glover, Seth Rogen, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Alfre Woodard, Beyonce, and James Earl Jones, to make its third live-action release in 2019 so far, trumpeting the circle of life. Audiences should be prepared for Maleficent: Mistress of Evil and The Lady and the Tramp, while also recognizing that Cruella, The Little Mermaid, Peter Pan, Pinnochio, and The Sword and the Stone will soon be part of your world.

We know we should expect more than the bare necessities of the story. Instead of showing a lack of creativity by retelling old stories, Disney has proven able to take a story the audience knows and shine it in a new way. Maybe this is not just marketing and nostalgia, but a reminder that some of the best stories are the ones we think we know that are highlighted from a different angle. It’s the power of parables, isn’t it? To take an expected story, to hold it up from a different perspective, and to ask the audience what it now sees or hears that can be applied to life.

In a way, it’s like revealing a whole new world.

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