How Disney is remaking its animated films in live action

Feature Mark Harrison 14 Apr 2014 - 07:39

As hand-drawn animation falls out of favour, Disney's dipping into its vault to reimagine various classics as live action movies...

Walt Disney Pictures made its name on adapting folklore and fairytales into animated classics ever since 1937's Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs, and has continued in that vein right up to last year's Snow Queen (loose) adaptation, Frozen.

Over time, the Disney empire has branched off into live-action feature production, and home entertainment has given rise to the notion of a metaphorical Disney 'vault', a treasure trove of content that is re-released in cycles in order to maintain demand. In recent years, we've seen a hybrid of both practices coming up, as the studio has remade its own animated features in live-action.

The first instance of this was 1996's 101 Dalmatians, in which Glenn Close, Jeff Daniels and Joely Richardson, along with a whole load of dogs, brought the Dodie Smith novel to life for a new generation. A sequel, 102 Dalmatians, followed in 2000, going off-book to provide a second fling for fur-obsessed villain Cruella DeVil.

The films did quite well at the box office, and there have also been remakes of Disney's previous live-action films, like Homeward Bound, Freaky Friday and Flubber over the last 20 years or so. But the trend of re-tooling previous Disney animated classics really broke with Tim Burton's Alice In Wonderland.

Although the film was greeted with mixed reviews from fans and critics, it was one of the first big 3D hits, after weeks upon weeks of Avatar crowning the charts in early 2010, and the combined star-power of the director and Johnny Depp carried it through to more than a billion dollars at the worldwide box office.

As well as spurring plans for a sequel in 2016, to be directed by Muppets helmer James Bobin, and inspiring other studios to mount big budget fairytale rejigs, such as Universal's Snow White & The Huntsman, Alice seems to have got Disney mining the vault for other previous adaptations that could be remounted in live-action.

Last year's Oz, The Great & Powerful did the job about right for Disney, in function if not in form. Even if Disney had a bash at L Frank Baum's source material with the memorably off-kilter Return To Oz in 1985, Warner Bros' The Wizard Of Oz is still the iconic version of the tale. Still, that was just the first to make it to the screen, and Disney is making progress with a number of live-action films based on films from its own vault. Such as...

MALEFICENT (2014)

Based on: Sleeping Beauty (1959)

Plot: As the official synopsis has it: “Maleficent explores the untold story of Disney's most iconic villain, and the elements of her betrayal that ultimately turn her pure heart to stone. Driven by revenge and a fierce desire to protect the moors over which she presides, Maleficent cruelly places an irrevocable curse upon the human king's newborn infant Aurora.

“As the child grows, Aurora is caught in the middle of the seething conflict between the forest kingdom she has grown to love and the human kingdom that holds her legacy. Maleficent realizes that Aurora may hold the key to peace in the land and is forced to take drastic actions that will change both worlds forever."

How's that going to work, then? Linda Woolverton, who wrote 2010's Alice In Wonderland, has provided the script for this one, and Brad Bird and Tim Burton have both sat in and vacated the director's chair since the project was announced. It will arrive in cinemas this May with production designer Robert Stromburg, (who worked on both Disney's Alice and Oz) making his directorial début.

As you can't fail to have noticed from the recently intensified marketing campaign, Angelina Jolie will be playing the title role, a character that was first made iconic by Marc Davis' animation and Eleanor Audley's formidable vocals. Elle Fanning will play Aurora, and there are supporting roles for Sharlto Copley, Imelda Staunton and Peter Capaldi.

Trailers for the film have drawn comparisons with Wicked, the Broadway musical that is still doing far too well on stage for a film adaptation to be entirely logical, and some have suggested that Disney are taking advantage of that show's arrested development for the screen by doing a similar revisionist story with one of their most recognisable villains.

It certainly doesn't look like there'll be many musical numbers, so perhaps that's unfair. At any rate, we know more about this one than any other film on the list, and it'll be interesting to see if Disney has successfully explored new ground with the character when the film is released in May.

CINDERELLA (2015)

Based on: Cinderella, (1950) which was in turn based on the European folk tale The Little Glass Slipper.

Plot: Again, from Disney's announced synopsis: “The story of Cinderella follows the fortunes of young Ella, whose merchant father remarries following the tragic death of her mother. Keen to support her loving father, Ella welcomes her new stepmother Lady Tremaine and her daughters Anastasia and Drizella into the family home. But, when Ella's father suddenly and unexpectedly passes away, she finds herself at the mercy of a jealous and cruel new family.”

How's that going to work, then? This one started out as a project directed by Mark Romanek, previously responsible for One Hour Photo and Never Let Me Go. Given the dark tone of his previous films, we're intrigued by how this might have panned out. Romanek signed up Cate Blanchett as Lady Tremaine, and had Chris Weitz (American Pie, About A Boy) working on the script, but left the project in January 2013 over creative differences with Disney.

He's been replaced by Kenneth Branagh, and the film will be in cinemas in March next year. The title role was offered to Emma Watson, Saoirse Ronan and Alicia Vikander, but each of them dropped out due to other commitments.

Downton Abbey's Lily James eventually won the role, with Game Of Thrones' Richard Madden signing up as Prince Charming, who will apparently be christened as Kit in the interests of actual characterisation. In other casting news, Alice's Red Queen, Helena Bonham Carter, will play the Fairy Godmother.

As Branagh told Collider last year, he came onto the project at the point where “...there was a kind of shape to things, and so, I was coming out of what you could call a classical point of view. I wanted it to feel fresh. I wanted it to feel very contemporary. I wanted it to feel very direct, but I also wanted it to have its classical roots, in a world and period that’s some distance from us: enough distance to accept some magic.”

From the synopsis, it sounds like a take that will be quite similar to what has gone before, but unlike Snow White, Cinderella is nowhere near the point of saturation in terms of recent screen adaptations, so we'll keep an eye on this one.

THE JUNGLE BOOK (2015)

Based on: The Jungle Book, (1967) which was nominally based on Rudyard Kipling's 1894 collection of stories.

Plot: No official synopsis for this one yet, but it's safe to bet that Justin Marks' script will follow Mowgli, a boy raised by wolves in the Indian jungle, making his journey from the wild into the world of man, abetted by Baloo the bear and Bagheera the panther, while avoiding the clutches of the treacherous tiger, Shere Khan.

How's that going to work then? In one of those situations where two movies are in development for release quite close to one another, the development of two Jungle Books at rival studios have been making headlines in the movie press lately.

Warner Bros had Alejandro González Iñárritu attached to direct until recently, and when he exited the project due to creative differences (again), the studio quickly signed up Andy Serkis for his directorial début on the film, which will presumably be produced in conjunction with the actor's motion-capture studio, The Imaginarium.

Disney's version already has a release date pencilled in for October next year, with Jon Favreau directing the live-action/CGI hybrid. We also have some encouraging casting news, with Idris Elba having signed up to lend his dulcet tones to Shere Khan. If you have to move on from George Sanders' indelible performance, that's arguably the way to go.

As we move into less certain territory with this list, it's gonna be fun to speculate a little over who might take vocal duties on the other characters. While Mowgli is likely to be an unknown actor, (depending on how old this version of the character is) there's tonnes of potential for voice casting. For instance, it'd be cool if Robert Downey Jr, who worked with Favreau on the first two Iron Man movies and his upcoming comedy, Chef, got in on the action.

Andy Serkis has already been talking about how he grew up loving Kipling's source, so you can probably look to that for further exploration of the original stories. This seems more likely to follow in the same vein as the Disney version, though it remains to be seen if Favreau will keep those Sherman brothers songs and make this Disney's first live-action remake that stays true to the musical spirit.

CRUELLA (TBA)

Based on: The character of Cruella de Vil from 101 Dalmatians (1961) and the two live-action movies. Again.

Plot: We don't have any plot details about this new new take on Cruella, but we know the script comes from Aline Brosh McKenna (The Devil Wears Prada, the upcoming Annie remake) and that Disney will be looking to see how Maleficent performs before pushing forward with another female-villain-centric movie.

How's that going to work then? It's tough to know without any advance word about who's directing, but we can't imagine that it will be a revisionist version of Cruella's history- there aren't many justifiable ways to make a murderous fashionista look cuddly.

It's curious to note that Glenn Close, who played the role in the previous live-action films, is on-board as an executive producer. It would be stranger still if this actually turned out to be a delayed sequel to 102 Dalmatians, but we're putting our money on a reboot. Also, if you have to re-cast a live-action Cruella, we reckon Tilda Swinton would be pretty good...

THE BEAST (TBA)

Based on: Beauty And The Beast (1991), which was in turn based on the French fairytale La Belle et la Bête.

Plot: Again, there's no official synopsis just yet, but Joe Ahearne (Trance, and director on several episodes of the 2005 series of Doctor Who) is writing the script, which automatically suggests a darker, non-musical take on the material.

How's that going to work then? It's perhaps a little surprising that this one isn't further along - Beauty And The Beast was the first animated film ever to be nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars, in a time long before the Best Animated Feature category was even a plausible suggestion. The story has been re-adapted a couple of times since, most recently by Christophe Gans, Lea Seydoux and Vincent Cassel, but the animated version is one of Disney's best-loved films.

Guillermo del Toro has been attached to a new version of Beauty And The Beast for some time now, along with all of his other suggested projects, and it's been heavily rumoured that Emma Watson withdrew from what became Kenneth Branagh's Cinderella in order to hitch her wagon to this one. It seems unlikely that del Toro would bring that back to Disney, so we could be looking at another Jungle Book situation in the next few years. As recently as last week meanwhile, Bill Condon was linked with the director's chair.

As for groundless casting speculation, you can probably expect the Beast to be central, and perhaps played by a big actor working under prosthetics or motion capture, and Belle to be different enough to the Emilie de Ravin version from Once Upon A Time. If they stick to the Disney conception of the story, we'd like to see an actor like Henry Cavill take on Gaston - it's a great opportunity to replicate the original animated movie's message that even conventionally handsome dudes can be arseholes too.

OTHER LIVE ACTION REMAKES IN DEVELOPMENT...

Pete's Dragon: The 1977 live-action/animation hybrid, about an orphan boy and his big cartoon dragon, is set for a remake. It should be something of a departure for writers David Lowery and Toby Halbrooks, who previously penned last year's gritty drama, Ain't Them Bodies Saints. Lowery is also set to direct.

Chip & Dale: Rescue Rangers: Chip and Dale first appeared in short films back in 1943, and later found success cosplaying as Indiana Jones and Magnum P.I. in the Rescue Rangers cartoon series. The House of Mouse announced this one back in January, as a live-action movie with CGI characters, a la recent live action versions of Alvin & The Chipmunks and The Smurfs.

Descendants: A Disney Channel original movie next year, which takes place in “a present day idyllic kingdom” where the son of Belle and the Beast pardons the children of villains like Cruella De Vil, Maleficent, Jafar and the Evil Queen from exile on an island prison. Given that it's coming from the producers of the High School Musical franchise, it may be too early to tell if this crazy crossover is going to be any good, or just really terrible. Either way, you can read more about it here.

So what can we take from this? Evidently, Disney has taken the success of Alice In Wonderland as a licence to revisit some of their best-loved films in live-action, showing off the best in production design and special effects, and other studios have noticed too.

Although we must stress that most of Disney's classics were adapted from other sources to begin with, you also have Sofia Coppola re-imagining Hans Christian Anderson's The Little Mermaid (with Emma Watson attached again) for Universal and Working Title, Joe Wright directing a prequel to Peter Pan in the form of Warner Bros' Pan, and Ben Stiller and Robert Downey Jr. circling a long-gestating, Jane Goldman-scripted version of Pinocchio.

Who knows where else Disney could take it? A re-imagined version of Winnie The Pooh? A live-action remount of Aladdin? Another run at The Black Cauldron, in the context of a Lord Of The Rings/Game Of Thrones-style epic? Time will tell, but it will be interesting to see if the trend is overtaken by another unexpected global success in the vein of an Alice, before some of these projects reach fruition.

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