Disney is about to debut its second attempt at a live-action Jungle Book remake next week. So I figured now is a good time to look back at Disney’s numerous tries at remaking their old animated and live-action films into modern live-action films. They’ve been doing this since the early 1990s with varying levels of success.
As I went through all of these remakes and adaptations, I noticed that they seem to fall into four categories or eras. So let’s go through them and see how Disney is building its future by mining its rich past.
Remaking Their Own Movies (1993 – 2006)
The modern idea of a Disney remake didn’t begin with 1994’s The Jungle Book. Actually, it started a year earlier with Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey. You probably didn’t realize that this beloved kids film is a remake of 1963’s The Incredible Journey. That first film had a narrator provide all of the exposition the audience needs throughout the film. Homeward Bound added dialogue for the animals themselves. It made a little over $40 million at the box office, earning a healthy profit. And three years later it led to a sequel about the animals getting lost in San Francisco.
After that modestly successful beginning came 1994’s The Jungle Book. I saw that movie shortly after it came out and I remember being surprised to see Cary Elwes playing the villain and Bruce Lee playing Mowgli. I know it’s not actually Bruce Lee, but that’s how I’ll always think of that actor. The film came across as more Tarzan than Jungle Book, especially with the love story and the villain. It managed to break even with a little over $40 million, again.
1996 was a game-changing year. That year saw the debut of 101 Dalmatians. They got a lot of top talent for this project: actors Glenn Close and Jeff Daniels in leading roles, Stephen Herek (director of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure) to direct, and John Hughes to write the screenplay, which is probably why it feels at times more like Home Alone than a remake of the 1961 animated film. This film made $320 million worldwide, which guaranteed plenty more remakes to follow. It even got its own sequel, 102 Dalmatians, in 2000.
In quick succession, we got 1997’s That Darn Cat and Flubber. Those also had some impressive talent with the likes of Christina Ricci and Robin Williams starring in them. Then came the Lindsey Lohan trio: 1998’s amazing The Parent Trap, 2003’s solid Freaky Friday, and 2005’s so-so Herbie: Fully Loaded. The first two are definitely superior to the originals, but there’s just no beating Herbie’s first adventure in 1969’s The Love Bug.
Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end, and Disney’s foray into straight remakes ended in 2006 with the Tim Allen vehicle The Shaggy Dog. The 1959 original has a certain charm to it, but the remake’s off-putting use of CGI and phoned-in performances didn’t exactly leave me begging for more. This era started with a howl and ended on a whimper.
Remaking Others’ TV Shows and Films (1994 – 2004)
At the same time as Disney was raiding its own library of old films, it was also doing its best to capitalize on other studios’ works. This led to much less success than they would have hoped for, starting with the 1994 film Angels in the Outfield. While this film focuses on the Anaheim Angels, the original 1951 film focused on the Pittsburgh Pirates. It got overshadowed by The Lion King’s success, but it still proved to be a hit, earning about $50 million.
1997 started surprisingly well with George of the Jungle. Based on a 1967 cartoon that only lasted for 17 episodes, this Brendan Fraser vehicle earned more than three times its $55 million budget. And it spawned a direct-to-video sequel a few years later. Mr. Magoo came next, and that film proved to be a total embarrassment. It failed to earn back its modest $30 million budget, and it proved to be the beginning of the end of actor Leslie Nielsen’s career.
The next two years continued the downward trajectory. 1998’s Mighty Joe Young followed in its 1949 predecessor’s large footsteps by also failing to recoup its costs. It had an enormous $90 million budget, and while it’s not really regarded as a terrible film, it just wasn’t the huge draw it was trying to be.
Disney reteamed with Jeff Daniels in 1999, fresh off his success with 101 Dalmatians. Unfortunately, the resulting film, My Favorite Martian, proved to be less than stellar. It attempted to breathe new life into the 1960s sitcom, which survived for three seasons and 107 episodes. But the film was far from a profitable venture. Inspector Gadget was technically a success, but the film failed to capture the spirit or fun of the 1980s cartoon show. It came across more as a RoboCop ripoff.
Disney’s foray into remaking others’ films and TV shows finally came to an end in 2004 with the release of Around the World in 80 Days, starring Jackie Chan. The 1956 film version had taken Jules Verne’s classic tale of adventure and turned it into an Oscar-winning film. Disney strayed from the source material and failed to connect with audiences and critics. By this point, Disney had already entered its next phase.
Theme Park Rides (1997 – 2017)
I would argue Disney’s theme-park-ride-inspired films began all the way in 1997 with a TV movie called Tower of Terror. It had rising-star Kirsten Dunst and setting-sun Steve Guttenberg in starring roles, and it’s right up there with Mr. Boogedy in terms of creating a genuinely scary atmosphere on a limited budget. It’s definitely better than 2003’s disappointing The Haunted Mansion. Eddie Murphy is at his dullest in that film, and it fails to do its theme park ride justice with its dull story and lack of scares.
Of course, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl is probably the first movie that comes to mind when you think of Disney theme-park movies. That film marked the start of Johnny Depp’s string of flamboyant characters, from Willy Wonka to the Mad Hatter. The first Pirates of the Caribbean movie is fantastic, but it spawned three sequels of descending levels of quality. There will be a fourth sequel, as well, in 2017.
2015 saw the arrival of Tomorrowland. It earned $209 million on a $190 million budget. Not exactly blockbuster numbers. Other than Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, there’s nothing solid that’s on the horizon for theme-park movies. There’s some talk of a Haunted Mansion reboot, but it’s too early to tell. Who knows if this subgenre will revive in the future? In the meantime, Disney is busy with another extremely popular group of films.
Reimagining Classics (2007 – Present)
Now we come to the present day and the foreseeable future, which is similar to what Disney was doing at the start, but with a twist. Rather than simply remaking old animated films into live-action films, Disney is reimagining them from the bottom up.
This started in 2007 with the release of Enchanted. That film was essentially a parody of classic Disney tales, most notably Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Sleeping Beauty. It had animated characters journey through a magic portal to the real world, which is a nice visual metaphor for what they’ve been doing ever since.
While 2010’s Alice in Wonderland relies heavily on CGI to create the titular Wonderland, it is still ostensibly a live-action film. That film was a monster hit while that same year The Sorcerer’s Apprentice was a much more modest hit. The title of that film came from the portion of 1940’s Fantasia, which starred Mickey Mouse. The two bear little in common besides the name and a single scene in the live-action film.
Starting in 2013, Disney has increased its output of these reimagining films to have at least one every year. Oz the Great and Powerful acted as a prequel to the familiar Wizard of Oz story. Then came The Lone Ranger, which showed that Johnny Depp’s shtick of dressing as eccentric characters is growing a bit tired. Saving Mr. Banks did to Mary Poppins what Oz the Great and Powerful did to The Wizard of Oz.
2014 witnessed the arrival of Maleficent and Into the Woods, which turned classic fairy tales on their head. Maleficent turned the villain of Sleeping Beauty into the hero, and Into the Woods, which I know is based on a popular stage musical, fits perfectly into Disney’s focus at the moment. It deconstructs traditional fairy-tale characters’ motivations and cleverly subverts conventions.
Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella debuted in 2015, and I admit this is the least-transformative film in this category. But it still makes the titular character more assertive than her 1950 animated version. She is more proactive and makes more choices that affect her happiness rather than relying wholly upon her fairy godmother and animal friends to make her dreams come true.
In 2016 we’re looking at new versions of The Jungle Book and Pete’s Dragon, along with a sequel to Alice in Wonderland called Alice Through the Looking Glass. And 2017 will see a live-action version of Beauty and the Beast, starring Emma Watson as Belle. And there’s no shortage of other live-action fairy tales coming in 2018 and 2019. For the foreseeable future, this will be the focus of Disney’s remakes.
Looking to the Past for the Future
I realize that Disney isn’t just mining its classic films to create its current lineup of films. It’s also got a truckload of Marvel films and Star Wars spinoffs and full-fledged episodes to carry it into the future. It’s just fun to see old stories getting a fresh update without losing what made the originals great in the first place.
This is the Deja Reviewer bidding you farewell until we meet again.
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