Every once in a while, I like to imagine what I’d do if I were in charge of Disney. (This is beyond things like “be the first US studio to have open and honest accounting practices” and “run a program for young performers to teach them how to grow up without self-destructing” and things like that, you understand.) This time, the thought was brought on by a discussion of The Princess and the Frog and a realization about how in-depth the world-building is on it and how you could do an actually good movie, or even series, about Tiana and Charlotte and their friendship, which is realistic-feeling and yet deeply surprising given the time and place the movie is set. Yet it’s not something the people at Disney seem likely to consider for their spin-off and sequel fixation.
You see, I don’t inherently have a problem with spin-offs and sequels and remakes. I just think they should exist for a reason beyond “I would like fat sacks of cash.” Sure, cashing in on nostalgia will get you money, at least quite a lot of the time, but if all you have to add to the idea is “I bet this will make us money,” that’s not a good enough reason. You need something to say, something to add, something to consider. I think you should also have a clear understanding of what does and doesn’t work about the original, which it seems to me a lot of the remakes don’t.
So. If you have to do a live-action remake of a beloved animated classic, why not start with one involving humans? Don’t do The Lion King, do Snow White. But don’t just repeat Snow White the way it was only with creepy visuals, the way they did Beauty and the Beast—remember that the story has a long, involved history before you get to Disney and that there’s more than one way of telling it. After all, the animated Disney Beauty and the Beast shares DNA with the Cocteau version and the Robin McKinley novel Beauty and all sorts of other tellings. Where Aladdin went wrong was by just trying to be the 1992 version. But you can’t recapture Robin Williams, so go somewhere else and don’t even try.
If you have to do a remake of a live action movie, take one with interesting bones that’s a failure. (Here bear in mind that I’m one of those rare people who likes the original Pete’s Dragon better.) Tell The Castaway Cowboy with giving agency to its Hawaiians. Tell The Black Hole while shedding its weird robot issues and giving personalities to the humans. Tell The Million Dollar Duck without being misogynist about it. But leave the basic frameworks in place; Pete’s Dragon wasn’t really Pete’s Dragon; it was a completely different movie with the name slapped on it, and I can’t imagine there’s enough Pete’s Dragon nostalgia to cash in on the name alone.
If you have to do a sequel about the characters in a successful franchise, make sure there’s a story to be told instead of just retelling the same story only not. (Remember that Frozen 2 has not yet come out and I’m not saying that’s what it’s going to be, but I’m thinking of some of the direct-to-video sequels from ten and twenty years ago.) Imagine a buddy comedy about Tiana and Charlotte. There are plenty of Arthurian legends where you can plug in Wart of The Sword in the Stone. And, heck, The Rescuers Down Under is a fine example of what I’m talking about, and it would have worked for The Great Mouse Detective as well. There are more Basil of Baker street books you can adapt and make even a series out of.
Above all, if you have to look at a past work, consider what it says about racial and sexual politics. It’s always been fascinating to me that Charlotte still considers herself friends with Tiana in a New Orleans of the 1920s—she is a wealthy white woman who will not stop being friends with someone she loves just because Tiana is a poor black woman. I’m not saying Charlotte should have attitudes of a woman a century ahead of her time, but maybe realize that she’s basically throwing money at Tiana’s problems because she can and have her acknowledge that. Or if you’re going to redo The Aristocats, which I expect to hear just about any minute now, take all the awful stereotypes out of “Ev’rybody Wants to Be a Cat.”
Would I prefer that Disney just made more originals? Yes. Yes, I would. There are plenty of fairy tales that they haven’t done. And that’s whether they choose to go the Snow White or Sleeping Beauty route and just tell the story or the Tangled or Frozen route and tell it a different way. Or Moana—speaking of movies where you could explore the heck out of the universe—and create a whole new story involving a character from folklore. I’ve got a book I could loan Disney, if they’re looking for inspiration. I have a bunch of them, in fact.
But okay. If You Have To, there are places to do sequels, remakes, and spin-offs that would work better and feel less unimaginative than a lot of what Disney’s been offering lately. It’s sad that it’s a word I feel comfortable applying to a lot of Disney efforts. In a way, it’s more dispiriting than the era of things like Sammy—The Way-Out Seal; at least that was something approaching original. Even if it wasn’t actually any good, either.