1994-2014 | 2015-19
Since 1994, and particularly since 2010, the Walt Disney Company have been making live-action remakes – and increasingly sequels to these remakes - of many of their earlier successful animated films. The reason for this is simple: they make money. Disney is in the business of making money through filmmaking, and with the cost of a film in the tens or hundreds of millions, their aim is simply to generate as much potential income as possible for the lowest possible risk. With established successful animated films, Disney know an audience already exists for these 'brands', meaning the demand already exists and making the marketing easier.
Disney Live Action remakes are classed as 'four-quadrant films', meaning they are intended to appeal to both men and women both below and above the age of 25. These family-friendly films are not only popular with young children but also offer older adult fans the nostalgia of reliving favourite films from their childhoods. By adapting their best-sellers, Disney not only knows that the story has already proved popular and successful, in itself a form of quality control and minimising risk with a lot of money at stake. A well-made film adaptation transfers existing success into a new successful film while simultaneously generating renewed interest in the original animated film, ensuring that Disney enjoy a win-win situation.
In many ways the most surprising thing with Disney's live action remakes is how long it took before Disney began to make them. For the studio most experienced in family films it also took them a few tries to get the formula right, before Alice in Wonderland (2010) really got the ball rolling.
By 1950 Walt Disney Studios had established itself as a minor film studio that had released 15 films, all of which contained at least some animation. The Second World War had meant that their films were only able to be seen within the United States, with Disney losing crucial overseas revenue and facing economic disaster. When the Second World War ended British cinemas started showing Disney films once more, but the British government, wishing to re-establish the British film industry, impounded all cinema profits, insisting that all money generated by Hollywood films shown in British cinemas had to be spent in Britain1. Unable to relocate the Animation Studio to Britain and with over $1 million at stake, Disney used this money to make live action films in Britain, starting with Treasure Island (1950). It was highly successful and encouraged Disney to make more live action films. Yet surprisingly it would take 44 years for Disney to remake one of their animated films in live action.
As it had been the British government that had turned Disney Studios into a film company that made live-action as well as animated films2, it would perhaps be only fair that many of their films would either be adaptations of stories by British authors and/or set in Britain3. Disney would make animated films that covered the same ground as their first two live action films, with Robin Hood (1973) inspired by the same legend as The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men (1952), and Treasure Planet (2002) covering the same ground as Treasure Island (1950), yet in both cases the results would be wildly different - Robin Hood featuring anthropomorphic animals and Treasure Planet set in space. Their remakes of animated films would be much closer to the originals.
The summaries of the films below are concentrating on the live action remakes rather than the animated originals4. Recurring characters and actors who appear in more than one live action remake are shown in Bold. Also mentioned is whether the films pass the Bechdel Test. This can be summarised as whether the film involves two or more female characters who have a conversation together that does not focus on men in general or a specific male character or man5. Also mentioned are the cases where the remake passes the Kevin Smith Reboot test of adding diversity.
The Jungle Book (1967 / 1994)
|Film||1967 Animated Original||1994 Live Action Remake|
|Director||Wolfgang Reitherman||Stephen Sommers|
|Plot||Mowgli, an abandoned baby boy, is found in a basket in the jungle by Bagheera, a panther. He is raised by wolves in the jungle, but when he is older his life is threatened by Shere Khan the tiger, who hates all humans. Although Mowgli wishes to stay in the jungle, developing a close attachment with Baloo the carefree bear, Bagheera feels that only by living in a village surrounded by people will Mowgli be safe from Shere Khan.|
At the age of five Mowgli is the best friend of Kitty, the daughter of the local British garrison's commander, who is also five. Kitty gives Mowgli a bracelet. Shortly afterwards, in the jungle Mowgli's father is killed and Mowgli believed dead. In fact he has been raised by animals. Twenty years later Mowgli discovers an ancient city filled with treasure, which is home to various monkeys headed by an orangutan, as well as a gigantic python that attacks him. Mowgli escapes with a golden dagger he found. Soon afterwards Mowgli and Kitty are reunited, but Mowgli is attacked by Captain Boone, who considers him a savage. The ambitious Boone longs to marry Kitty, but when he spots the golden dagger he decides to let Mowgli lead him to its source.
Mowgli is taught English by Kitty and Dr Plumford. Boone proposes to Kitty, but her heart lies with Mowgli. When Kitty turns him down Boone kidnaps her, forcing Mowgli to take him to the treasure.
|Length||76 minutes||107 minutes|
|Setting||A jungle in Victorian India.|
|Source||The Jungle Book (1894) and The Second Jungle Book (1895) by Rudyard Kipling|
|Songs:||All by the Sherman Brothers, except 'The Bare Necessities' by Terry Gilkyson.
|Reboot||Mowgli, previously voiced by a white male, is here played by an actor of mixed Hawaiian and Chinese descent, which blatantly isn't Indian.|
|Sequel||The Jungle Book 2 (2003)||Two further live-action remakes:
In this adaptation, which was also marketed as Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book, none of the animals can talk or sing. It is, to date (2021), the adaptation most influenced by Kipling's Second Jungle Book, though it still follows Disney's lead by introducing King Louie.
The film began in India when producer Raju Patel planned to make an adaptation of The Jungle Book to coincide with the centennial anniversary of its first publication. When Disney heard of these plans they offered to finance the production, doubling the budget overnight but taking control. Director Stephen Sommers cast a predominantly British cast with the exception of Sam Neill and Jason Scott Lee as a blatantly not-Indian Mowgli. The character of Tabaqui is a jackal in the stories but has been transformed into a human for this film, and Shere Khan is no longer the villain but instead a powerful force that represents and enforces the law of nature.
The film did at least do some filming in India, including Bombay and Jodhpur, though most took place at Fall Creek Falls State Park in Tennessee, particularly the scenes featuring waterfalls, and Fripp Island in South Carolina. The scenes featuring King Louie the orangutan were filmed in the United States as it is illegal to transport an orangutan into India, as they are not native to that country. Other animals not native to the country that appear include lemurs and capuchins, while like other adaptations of the story even when animals that do exist in India such as wolves do appear, they are replaced by their North American equivalents rather than Indian wolves. Inexplicably the British army appear to be transporting paraffin in barrels labelled with the American word 'Kerosene' through the jungle for no apparent reason other than to let wagons explode in spectacular fireballs that viewers normally associate with car crashes rather than horse-and-cart crashes. The character of Kaa appeared as both a computer-generated and animatronic snake. He is only ever referred to as 'great snake' rather than Kaa. King Louie is known by that name as he is seen wearing a crown, and later Mowgli sees a crown in a painting of King Louis XIV, while names such as Baloo and Bagheera come from Hindi words for bear and panther. The vast majority of animals were actually trained animals who even had their names in the credits. Some scenes used actors in costume, while blue screen was used to digitally composite animals into scenes in which they did not actually appear.
This Jungle Book adaptation successfully broke even. Producer Raju Patel would make a second Jungle Book live action film three years later, titled The Second Jungle Book: Mowgli & Baloo (1997). This would not be a Disney production and, despite the name, is not based on Kipling's Second Jungle Book.
The Jungle Book: Mowgli's Story (1998)
After being separated from his family during a tiger attack, a young boy named Mowgli is raised by wolves along with bear Baloo, elephant Hathi and panther Bagheera, in the jungle of India. Yet Shere Khan the tiger seeks to kill Mowgli and feeds the prejudices of those who believe that Mowgli doesn't belong in the jungle as part of his plan to get him away from the wolf pack where he will be vulnerable.
|Setting||A jungle in Victorian India.|
|Source||The Jungle Book (1894) and The Second Jungle Book (1895) by Rudyard Kipling|
|Reboot||There are more female characters with the addition of Chil, Raksha and Little Raksha. Bagheera, previously voiced by a white man, is now voiced by a woman of Cherokee, African and white descent, while Mowgli is played by an actor of English, German and Filipino descent.|
This made-for-television film featured real animals with voice-over dubbing used to give the impression of dialogue. Unusually, Bagheera is portrayed as female, played by Catwoman Eartha Kitt. Brian Doyle-Murray voices Baloo; his younger brother Bill Murray would voice him in Disney's 2016 adaptation. The film doesn't feature Kaa or King Louie but does have Shere Khan's henchman Tabaqui. Overall a modest but not overtaxing adaptation.
101 Dalmatians (1961 / 1996)
|Film||1961 Animated Original||1996 Live Action Remake|
|Director||Wolfgang Reitherman, Hamilton Luske and Clyde Geronimi||Stephen Herek|
|Plot||Dalmatians Pongo and Perdita, who live with Roger and Anita, have 15 puppies – six of whom have names. Anita's evil schoolfriend Cruella de Vil plots to kidnap the puppies. Owning 84 other Dalmatian puppies, she wishes to turn the dogs' skins into a Dalmatian fur coat.||Dalmatians Pongo and Perdita, who live with computer game designer Roger and his wife clothes designer Anita, have 15 puppies. Anita's evil boss Cruella de Vil plots to kidnap the puppies. Owning 84 other Dalmatian puppies, she wishes to turn the dogs' skins into a Dalmatian fur coat.|
|Length||76 minutes||99 minutes|
|Setting||Late 1950s London||Mid-1990s London|
|Source||The Hundred and One Dalmatians by Dodie Smith (1956)|
|Songs:||'Cruella de Vil' by Mel Leven|
|Sequel||101 Dalmatians II: Patch's London Adventure (2003)||Two subsequent live-action films:
Surprisingly, the 101 Dalmatians live action remake is a milestone film in the history of the Walt Disney Company. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s Disney's live action films were handled by three labels: Touchstone Pictures that was aimed at teenagers and older children, Hollywood Pictures that films for adults came under, and Walt Disney Pictures that made cheap family films and was considered the least prestigious of the three. When Joe Roth was appointed Chairman of Walt Disney Studios in 1996, he was determined to stop the side-lining of the Walt Disney name; instead of cheap films it would make big budget 'tentpole'6 pictures. 101 Dalmatians was the very first film to be commissioned to be a Walt Disney Studios tentpole, supported by an established family-friendly director.
This was written and produced by John Hughes, best known for films such as Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986) and Weird Science (1985), and who had also written shaggy-dog story Beethoven (1992). As you might expect from the man behind Home Alone (1990), the goons, played by the excellent Hugh Laurie and Mark Williams, get put through painful situation after painful situation and steal the show from everyone else, including Glenn Close who plays Cruella de Vil. She does at least get to drive a 1974 Panther De Ville and was inspired in her portrayal of the character by Joanna Lumley's performance as Patsy in sitcom Absolutely Fabulous (1992-2016).
Yet John Hughes seems to have set the film in an England inexplicably populated with raccoons and skunks, and where the people tick off every English stereotype, but the words they say are Americanisms... Why? There's no British substitute for a skunk, but the gags featuring raccoons (who, for example, sabotage the baddies by putting nuts in the 'truck tailpipe' rather than in the 'van's exhaust') would have equally worked with squirrels, badgers, foxes – any animal actually found in the UK. Rather than consistently setting the film in either England or America, it was set in an Americanised England, which is just wrong. Unsurprisingly this film did not receive positive reviews from critics.
The Jim Henson Creature Shop created many of the animal effects, for example making fake puppies, with Industrial Light and Magic behind many of the special effects. The look of the computer game that Roger is making is based on the original film, while the puppies enjoy watching other Disney films. It was the sixth most successful film of the year7.
John Hughes followed this with another tentpole Disney remake the following year, remaking live-action The Absent-Minded Professor (1961) as Flubber (1997). Flubber flopping discouraged the making of more remakes temporarily, with the exception of the sequel to 101 Dalmatians which had already entered production. The tentpole policy remains Disney's model to this day.
102 Dalmatians (2000)
|Plot||After three years in prison, Cruella de Vil has been declared cured of her evil obsession with fur and is out on probation - on the condition that should she reoffend, animal shelters will get her fortune. Her probation officer, Chloe Simon, owns Dipstick, one of the 99 puppies Cruella had previously kidnapped, who has puppies of his own, while Cruella is sponsoring Kevin Shepherd's Second Chance Dog Shelter. When Cruella's cure wears off she hires French furrier LePelt to design a new fur coat – this time with a hood. Together they steal 102 Dalmatians to make it, but frame Kevin for the theft. Can Chloe and Kevin, aided by a parrot that thinks it is a dog, save the day? Will Cruella and LePelt get their comeuppance, or have their cake and eat it?|
|Setting||London and Paris, three years after 101 Dalmatians|
|Source||The Hundred and One Dalmatians by Dodie Smith (1956)|
|Songs:||'Cruella de Vil' by Mel Leven|
This sequel was the live-action directorial debut of Kevin Lima, following animations A Goofy Movie (1995) and Tarzan (1999). He has since directed the excellent Enchanted (2007). What this film does well had already been done better by the earlier film, but again shows the villains going through extraordinary punishment in the same vein as Home Alone, despite John Hughes not being involved in this sequel. One of the characters is a 'spotless Dalmatian' – as all Dalmatians have spots the spots were removed digitally, while other dogs' spots were tweaked to resemble 'hidden Mickeys', the three-circle logo intended to resemble Mickey Mouse's head present in the background of many Disney films.
Sadly, whenever Disney make a film about animals, that type of animal ends up being on people who can't cope's Christmas lists8. Just as Finding Nemo (2003) led to a huge demand for clownfish, many of which ended up dead as their new owners failed to look after them properly, 101 Dalmatians led to abandoned and mistreated Dalmatians. To address the issue of abandoned dogs 102 Dalmatians' end credits includes the words:
The producers, Walt Disney Company, American Humane Association and the Dalmatian Club of America want every pet to have a loving and permanent home. If you are adopting a pet, be sure you are ready for a lifetime commitment and research your choice carefully.
In 102 Dalmatians they cast Gerard Dépardieu, a very talented, multi-award winning French actor who is often considered to be among France's best, as a furrier. The casting discussion at Disney seems to have gone along the following lines:
Exec 1: Great news! We've got Gerard Dépardieu to appear in '102 Dalmatians'.
Exec 2: That is great news, he's one of the best European actors alive today. What role is he playing?
Exec 1: He's foreign, so he pronounces the word 'puppy' as 'poo-pee'.
Exec 2: Just that?
Exec 1: Oh no – he then pronounces 'puppy' as 'poo-pee' again. And again. And again. And again, again, again, again and again.
Exec 2: That does not get old!
If you enjoying hearing the words 'poo-pee' non-stop then this really is the film for you, but if you find that that gag starts to diminish then you might consider watching another film. Any other film. Inexplicably the film doesn't involve members of royalty, but otherwise manages to tick off almost every British stereotype on the Hollywood list. Once again the dogs are seen watching a Disney film, in this case Lady and the Tramp (1955). Cinema audiences trapped watching 102 Dalmatians felt jealous. Two people enjoyed it; stars Ioan Gruffudd and Alice Evans met when making this film and married seven years later9.
Alice in Wonderland (1951 / 2010)
|Category||1951 Animated Original||2010 Live Action Remake|
|Directors||Clyde Geronimi, Hamilton Luske and Wilfred Jackson||Tim Burton|
|Plot||Bored with life in Victorian England, Alice wishes she could live in a world of nonsense. Soon after, she follows a waistcoat-wearing white rabbit down a rabbit hole to Wonderland, a world where nothing makes sense.|
A 19-year-old Alice returns to Wonderland after a man she doesn’t love proposes to her. There she encounters talking animals who say she isn't the 'Right Alice' as well as the Mad Hatter who tells her she has lost much of her muchness. She is expected to fight and defeat the Red Queen's terrible Jabberwocky on Frabjous Day, according to a prophecy, needing to collect the vorpal sword from the Red Queen's castle. Can Alice do six impossible things before breakfast and end the Red Queen's rule? And why is a raven like a writing desk?
|Length||75 minutes||104 minutes|
|Setting||Wonderland, a fantasy land found down a rabbit hole.|
|Source||Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There (1871)|
|Songs:||1951 only. The songs are strongly based on the work of Lewis Carroll, using many of his verses. Lyrics adapted by Bob Hilliard, Music by Sammy Fain except where stated:|
|Sequel||None||Alice Through the Looking Glass (2016)|
More of a sequel than a straight remake, by a highly-talented and respected director of the macabre who is known for working with Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter. In fact Depp was promoted as being the star of the film, largely due to his popularity following the Pirates of the Caribbean films. This is a very loose adaptation of the works of Lewis Carroll in an attempt to be less episodic than the book. The Red Queen of Hearts is particularly a combination of the Queen of Hearts from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and the Red Queen from the sequel. Alice's father, Charles Kingsleigh, is named after author Charles Kingsley, one of the Reverend Charles Dodgson's contemporaries, best known for penning The Water-Babies (1863). This was Michael Gough's final film. The 2010 film was incredibly successful, making over a billion dollars and was briefly, on release, the fifth highest-grossing film of all time. This incredibly unexpected success quickly led Disney to commission more live action remakes.
|Film||Sleeping Beauty (1959)||Maleficent (2014)|
|Directors||Clyde Geronimi, Eric Larson, Wolfgang Reitherman and Les Clark||Robert Stromberg|
|Plot||When Princess Aurora is born, evil Maleficent curses her. Aurora is initially doomed to prick her finger on a spinning wheel and die before dusk on her 16th birthday, although the curse is changed so that instead of dying, she will sleep until awakened by her true love's kiss. Aurora is brought up by her three fairy godmothers as a peasant and renamed 'Briar Rose' to keep her hidden from the curse10 yet on her 16th birthday, Maleficent discovers her whereabouts just as Aurora encounters her true love.|
Maleficent is a fairy in the Moors who meets and falls in love with a peasant called Stefan, who promises to give her True Love's Kiss. A few years later the neighbouring kingdom under King Henry tries to conquer the Moors, but his forces are driven back by Maleficent and Henry is fatally wounded. Henry promises his daughter and kingdom to whoever kills Maleficent. Stefan uses his former friendship with Maleficent to first drug her and then cut off her wings.
Swearing revenge for this virtual rape, a little while later Maleficent curses Stefan's daughter Aurora at her christening that she will prick her finger on a spinning wheel and die on her 16th birthday, mockingly saying that the only cure is 'true love's kiss'. While Stefan arranges three incompetent fairies to raise her, Maleficent comes to care for the girl, who in turn thinks of her as her fairy godmother. Meanwhile Aurora has met and fallen for the charming Prince Phillip – will True Love's Kiss save the day?
|Length||72 minutes||94 minutes|
|Setting||Unnamed mediæval kingdom||Unnamed mediæval kingdom adjacent to enchanted realm named the Moors|
|Source||The Beauty sleeping in the Wood by Charles Perrault (1697), The Sleeping Beauty ballet by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and Ivan Vsevolozhsky (1890).|
|Sequel||None||Maleficent: Mistress of Evil (2019)|
This film isn't a straight adaptation of Sleeping Beauty but instead seeks to tell the same story from Maleficent's viewpoint, similar to how the Wicked Witch of the West's story had been retold in Oz the Great and Powerful (2013). Since Shrek, Enchanted (2007) and Frozen (2013), the old Disney staple of handsome princes providing True Love's Kiss has been well and truly dead and buried.
When making the film it quickly became apparent that children were afraid of Angelia Jolie's horned appearance, so her daughter Vivienne Jolie-Pitt was cast as young Aurora, as she wasn't scared of her mother. This is the only live action remake film made by Disney during this period to not be inspired by a British author's original story; however, Prince Phillip was named after Queen Elizabeth II's husband.
Despite widespread critical predictions that the story, being centred on two women, would have limited appeal, it was the fourth most-successful film of the year11.