This article comes from Den of Geek UK.
Starting with Tim Burton’s 2010 re-imagining of Alice in Wonderland and continuing this month with the same director making Dumbo, Disney’s live-action feature division essentially has a license to print money. In theory, all they really have to do is keep making live-action remakes of their already famous animated classics.
Where films like Alice and Maleficent have given a revisionist makeover to these cherished animated features, more recent films have leaned more heavily on the iconography and, crucially, the memorable songbooks of the originals. Still, nostalgia pays, to the tune of almost $5 billion at the global box office to date.
We still get outliers in the form of the majestic Pete’s Dragon and the slightly odder Christopher Robin, but you can chart a trend of greater reverence and fidelity to the old familiars, from Cinderella to The Jungle Book to Beauty and the Beast.
Dumbo seems to be in the former camp, but this year also sees Guy Ritchie’s “whole new” spin on Aladdin and Jon Favreau’s literal reanimation of The Lion King, substituting photo-real CGI for hand-drawn animation in what looks like a shot-for-shot remake. Have no fear, these films will definitely wash their face.
Currently in the pipeline for either theatrical release or streaming services, there are remakes of (deep breath) Mulan, Pinocchio, Lady & the Tramp, Lilo & Stitch, The Little Mermaid, and The Sword in the Stone. Oh, and they keep saying they’re going to give 101 Dalmatians the Maleficent treatment, this time with Emma Stone starring as Cruella. “This Time, The Dalmatians Had It Coming,” we imagine.
Even with most of Disney’s big-name animated classics in various stages of redevelopment, that still leaves a bunch of other known quantities untouched. In the wake of the Fox merger, it occurs to me that there’s an opportunity to take some bigger, Dumbo-esque swings on some of their lower-profile animated films, with a live-action makeover and some major talent attached.
Maybe it’s time to cut out the middleman and appeal directly to the adults who grew up watching these films. For some reason, Disney has stopped answering my calls, but for your consideration, here are six films I’d remake in order to bring that box-office average down a peg or two…
The Aristocats (1970)
I’ll leave the “What do you call it?” “The Aristocats!” jokes for the comments section. In one of the rare Disney originals of this period, we follow a family of cats who are abandoned in the French countryside by their owner’s jealous butler, Edgar, after he discovers his employer plans to leave her entire fortune to them. If you redo that story from the butler’s perspective, it’s a Coen brothers movie.
Whether Joel and Ethan helm it or not, this could be an absurd noir caper about a man fruitlessly hunting down cats in a bid to get rid of the evidence of his treacherous buffoonery. At the end of his tether, JK Simmons plays the devoted butler to an aged-up Tilda Swinton’s elegant Parisian cat lady, and there’s an optional supporting turn by Frances McDormand as a beat cop who knows the butler is up to something.
Likewise, your mileage may vary over whether the cats can actually talk or whether Edgar is just imagining it, but that Thomas O’Malley sounds a lot like George Clooney in one or two scenes. In the hands of the Coens, it’s not quite the Maleficent treatment, but it’s sure as heck better than Cruella is going to be.
Keep the songs? In this version, “Everybody Wants to Be a Cat” would be a popular hit single, playing tauntingly throughout the film until Edgar snaps and kicks a nearby radio to death in an excruciatingly funny long take.
Robin Hood (1973)
Nobody really thinks we need more Robin Hood movies, for the same reason why Disney’s various takes on Hercules, Tarzan, Snow White, and Peter Pan aren’t currently in development, on this list or in reality. It’s been done enough in recent years that the once novel allegories for contemporary politics and conflict in the Middle East feel done to death.
Still, many of us love this funny, animal-centric retelling of the English legend, in which the vulpine Robin (steady, Tumblr) battles the corrupt Prince John and Sheriff of Nottingham with the help of Little John, Maid Marian, and a menagerie of resourceful kids. So, if every modern Robin Hood has to be political, you might as well get Armando Iannucci on it.
Keep all the same characters, organize an incredible comedic ensemble with inconsistent accents, and have a bunch of computer-generated animals give current affairs the coating-down they really deserve. Given how the 1973 film was oo-de-lally-ed together quite roughly, at a point when the studio was struggling financially, this remake would match its universal appeal with better production values and Peter Capaldi as a profane, incongruously Scottish sheriff.
Keep the songs? Of course, we are. Sorry to drop this earworm on you so early, but all awkward foxy awakenings aside, the main theme “Whistle Stop” may be the real reason you remember this one so well.
The Rescuers (1977)
Based on Margery Sharp’s novels, the first Rescuers movie explores the Rescue Aid Society, an international mouse organization that provides aid to victims of abduction all over the world. Taking inspiration from the existing live-action remakes, this strikes me as a Christopher Robin job – a semi-sequel, featuring a grown-up version of the lead unexpectedly reconnecting with characters they met in their childhood for a new adventure.
It’s also a crime story. Having grown up and recovered from the trauma of being abducted by Madame Medusa, Penny (played by Jessica Chastain, natch) is a tough, hard-drinking cop who’s searching for a missing girl in New Orleans. Running across the Rescue Aid Society again, she teams up with her now implausibly old Miss Bianca and Bernard to solve the case.
Concerned that she’s talking to rodents now, Penny’s colleagues wonder if she’s on the verge of a psychotic break, just like in Marc Forster’s cheery Winnie the Pooh update. This one can be directed by either Rob Letterman or Karyn Kusama, depending on whether you want it to turn out more like Detective Pikachu or Destroyer.
Keep the songs? Choose your own adventure – the lighter version definitely has the peppy Rescue Aid Society anthem, while the more grown-up film uses the Oscar-nominated “Tomorrow Is Another Day” as a bittersweet, haunting refrain.
The Black Cauldron (1985)
Dubbed “the film that killed Disney” before the animation studio’s 1990s renaissance, The Black Cauldron was the most expensive animated feature ever produced up to that point. Praised for its ambition but widely dismissed as being too dark and scary for Disney’s core audience, it made back less than half of its $44 million budget.
Adapted from Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain, this red-headed step-child of the canon follows the Horned King’s quest for an ancient cauldron and a band of plucky heroes out to stop him. As far as I’m concerned, the only director you want to take on this famously moody property is Taika Waititi, who is no stranger to working with young leads or taking the mickey out of The Lord of the Rings (he does both at the same time in a famous scene from Hunt for the Wilderpeople).
I understand the impulse to make this one a Disney nasty, but Waititi has the irreverence and lightness of touch to turn it into a crowd-pleaser. Giving it the Ragnarok treatment isn’t necessarily to undermine it either – his Thor film has some welcome thematic and dramatic beats too. Plus, he could pull double duties doing performance capture as wild furry doyle Gurgi, perhaps landing somewhere between Gollum and Korg.
Keep the songs? Elmer Bernstein’s score is not your typical Disney soundtrack, but that leaves ample room for suitable needle drops like “Immigrant Song” or all-new bangers like “Happy Birthday Ricky Baker.”
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)
I will never fully understand how Disney came to adapt Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame De Paris at the height of their animated renaissance era, but the result is a consistently underrated film that does its damnedest to re-tell the story of Quasimodo, Esmeralda, and Judge Frollo within the bounds of a kid-friendly musical. The talking gargoyle sidekicks are the only real concession to tone, but needless to say, it doesn’t keep the hopelessly tragic ending of the original gothic romance either.
Fortunately, this is something Disney already has down. Although The Lion King, Aladdin, and Frozen are among their biggest theatrical draws, there was also a German stage adaptation of 1996’s Hunchback, titled Der Glöckner Von Notre Dame. The English-language version ran off-Broadway in 2014. Finding a mid-ground between the underrated animation and the far darker source material, this stage version offers the best of both worlds, firmly distinguishing itself as a different experience. And while a remake of the animated film already seems to be heading into development, this route could be a much better way to go with the material.
In terms of a director, choose Amma Asante, who has experience with historical romantic dramas, or Josie Rourke, whose Mary Queen of Scots maintained a theatrical intimacy in its cinematic scope. Make it PG-13 and style it after Les Misérables, the other big Hugo movie musical of recent years. It can still be a story about inner beauty, but it could also soar outside of the sometimes-limiting requirements of an animated, four-quadrant film.
Keep the songs? In addition to new numbers like Esmeralda, the musical keeps many of the tunes from the film, ranging from Out There, Topsy Turvy, and Hellfire, but omits the gargoyles’ number, A Guy Like You. Look, there’s only one way we need gargoyles in one of these movies…
Gargoyles (TV, 1994-1997)
Let’s finish on one of Disney’s animated TV shows, because with Jordan Peele’s Us now out in cinemas, I’m reminded that he reportedly wants to make a reboot. According to a July 2018 edition of writer Richard Rushfield’s industry newsletter The Ankler, the director had a meeting with Disney after his Oscar win for Get Out, in which he pitched them a reboot of Gargoyles.
For those unfamiliar, the series followed a race of ancient warriors who were turned to stone in the Middle Ages, who awake in modern-day New York City to battle evil once again. Yes, you may insert turtles, sharks, biker mice, or various other creatures here, but it might be a decent setup for the kind of fun horror-inflected action movie we haven’t had for a while now.
Despite Peele’s already impressive filmmaking caliber, the studio was reported to be “slow-walking” a decision on reviving this particular IP, but my only pitch for this is basically to let him do whatever he wants to do with it. That’s what all of these pitches are, really.
As much as Burton’s Alice was a swing and a miss in terms of quality, at least it was a bit of a departure. That’s why his return with a new take on Dumbo feels welcome, because if a studio with Disney’s sheer heft keeps playing the hits and faithfully reproducing that thing they know you like, as they’re set to do with Aladdin and The Lion King, the blockbuster landscape is going to get more samey, much more quickly.
Keep the songs? Is it too obvious a setup to end this on the badass opening titles from Gargoyles? Oh well, never mind…