Reviews are down but revenue is up as the Hollywood giant is transforming their classic animated films into live action.
When going to a theater or a popular streaming service, what kind of movies do you see prominently displayed? What are the most popular releases of the moment? Chances are, the answer is going to be a sequel of some sort, or an adaptation of a pre-existing Intellectual Property (IP) — a term which refers to a creative work that can be copyrighted and sold. When looking at the domestic top-grossing movies of 2022, literally every single film is a sequel, meaning that they were studios capitalizing off of a well-known IP. Original films just aren’t the money grabbers they once were.
One of the products of major studios craving to capitalize off of well-known brands has been the growing popularity of remakes. These aren’t just films that add on to a past movie, like the recent success of Top Gun: Maverick — they are films with the exact same content as an already popular movie, with the only change being a stylistic one to justify it being made in the first place. Disney is the recent king of this trend, having remade almost every old animated movie in their filmography for live-action, from The Lion King to Cinderella to The Jungle Book.
If an old Disney animated classic has yet to be remade, then chances are the plans to release the eventual live-action remake are already in motion. Disney’s newest example is late May 2023’s The Little Mermaid, a film that has a widely ridiculed trailer primarily due to the dark and unnatural visual effects. (To be clear, the film has also been ridiculed because Halle Bailey, a Black woman, is playing Ariel — a complaint which should not be acknowledged in length because of how prejudiced and hateful it is in nature.) This criticism regarding the visuals is one shared by The Lion King, both adapted from original films that rely on the expressive nature of the animal protagonists in order to succeed.
The Little Mermaid is on its way to theaters, but will audiences accept the beloved animal characters transformed into photorealistic fish?
In the last couple of years, when Disney releases a live-action remake the reaction from critics and audiences alike is lukewarm at best and dismal at worst. In 2022, a live-action Pinocchio remake starring Tom Hanks released on Disney Plus, garnering some of the worst reviews of the year with a 29 percent critic’s score and 28 percent audience score on Rotten Tomatoes. One would think with this dismal reception that Disney would cut back on these high-budget remakes, but instead they are making more now than ever. Why? Because the profits are enormous and the ideas are conveniently right in front of them.
2009’s The Lion King, for example, despite mixed reviews from critics and audiences, grossed 1.663 billion dollars worldwide — making almost seven times its expensive budget and almost twice the amount of the original film. Visual effects artists put years of effort into making the new live-action versions look as photo-realistic as possible, but all studio executives need to do is greenlight another remake and then make billions of dollars. Audiences have made it clear on Twitter and in other public forums that they would rather this money go into something with more creativity and passion behind it, but whenever Disney remakes a movie with a well-known title parents and kids still show up, which is all the studio needs.
From a marketing perspective, Disney remakes generate interest from audiences whether in a positive or negative way, and because of the widespread interest and popularity of the projects, people keep rushing to see them. The obvious way to stop the release of constant remakes of fan favorites is to not pay money to see them, instead putting that money into an original film that is worth praising. In 2023, Hollywood has turned into a landscape where a director like Steven Spielberg can make an award-winning masterpiece that loses tons of money, yet a mediocre remake of a film that already exists will generate billions of dollars. Because of this positive feedback loop, remakes are coming out more and more often but blockbuster original films are largely not funded by studios.
When The Little Mermaid comes out in May, it’s difficult to tell just how positively or negatively it will be received by audiences. But one thing is without question: it will be an outrageously popular film that makes Disney plenty of money. However, some large original films are also releasing this summer, with Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer and Greta Gerwig’s Barbie both tracking to be major successes. Films such as these give cinephiles hope for the future of filmmaking despite this era of remakes and sequels, because it indicates that audiences still crave an original and exciting movie experience.