The Current State of Disney Live-Action

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A year ago, it seemed like the message was clear: Stay the course…

Walt Disney Studios, the live-action end of Disney’s whole movie monolith, has seen a lot of success in the recent years, but a lot of crushing flops as well. As a result, they seem to want to specialize in one kind of movie.

Or do they?

Live-action, or hyper-real remakes of the Disney animated classics. I say “hyper-real” because The Jungle Book is only 5% live-action – the boy who plays Mowgli is the only live-action element, everything else from the foliage to the animals to the scenery is CG. You could say it’s an… Animated movie! It is, just not the kind of animation that’s used for Disney films, Pixar films, classic cartoon shorts, Studio Ghibli’s films, you get the idea. There’s caricature animation that knows it’s not real but “feels” real, and then there’s real life-looking VFX. Zootopia falls into the former category, The Jungle Book and Avatar and Gravity fall into the later.

This is a discussion for another day, for the lines – to paraphrase Steve Hulett – have really been blurred. Animation dominates everywhere, it has engulfed live-action.

Anyways, Walt Disney Studios’ slate has massive amounts of live-action/”realistic” remakes of Disney’s iconic animated classics, but it’s seemingly short on anything else.

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Disney, and many times their marketing department, grossly mishandled several live-action films that weren’t based on the animated classics: Prince Caspian, Prince of Persia, TRON: Legacy, John Carter of Mars, The Lone Ranger, Tomorrowland, The Finest Hours, and recently Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The BFG. These films were mostly screwed by ridiculously high budgets, ineffective marketing that failed to get audiences interested, and in some cases – overconfidence. Some of these films were aimed at the adolescent male set, a market Disney was paranoid about for a long while…

Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland was a smash hit in 2010, but it was through-and-through a “fad” movie. Just something you absolutely had to go and check out, something everyone raved about. Months later, all the people raving about it seemed to forget it even happened to begin with. It was like Juicy Fruit. A couple chews, there’s that sliver of a flavor! But then a few chews in, it’s gone! Didn’t matter to Disney, for they made $1 billion at the worldwide box office off of it. The quick buck.

Maleficent came next some four years later, a similarly edgy and big VFX-laden spectacle. Despite getting middling critical reception, Maleficent made over $700 million worldwide, over $240 million of it coming from the domestic gross. That was in spring 2014… As a response, Disney announced more live-action remakes left and right (or at the very least, projects heavily inspired by the animated classics): Pinocchio, Night on Bald Mountain, Dumbo, Peter PanTink, Cruella, Merlin/Sword in the Stone, The Black Cauldron, The Little Mermaid, Genies, Mulan, Winnie the Pooh… In addition to ones that were already deep in development – Cinderella, The Jungle Book, non-canon entry Pete’s Dragon, and Beauty and the Beast

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It seemed like anything other than that, minus the occasional tiny-scale sports movie (i.e. McFarland USA, Queen of Katwe – pictured above), was a no-go. Muppets movies? Done and over with. Small-scale Touchstone films? Dead. Non-Lucasfilm Spielberg pictures? Gone. The rest of the live-action end is of course made up of Marvel Studios and Lucasfilm.

Cinderella and The Jungle Book were both big successes, the latter in particular… But Disney surprised us, some announcements from the trades had pointed to more original stuff moving forward. Original as in, things that aren’t remakes of iconic animated classics. This includes things like A Wrinkle of Time (Disney *did* adapt that book into a TV movie back in 2003), Jungle Cruise, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant, and The Rocketeer 2. But in the past few years, Disney announced many projects that were like those… Things like Goblins, Floors, The Water Man, Artemis FowlTRON 3The Haunted Mansion, you get the idea.

Currently, their slate looks like this…

  • July 28, 2017 – Untitled Fairy Tale
  • April 6, 2018 – Untitled Fairy Tale
  • August 3, 2018 – Untitled Live-Action
  • November 2, 2018 – Untitled Fairy Tale
  • December 25, 2018 – Mary Poppins Returns
  • March 29, 2019 – Untitled Fairy Tale
  • November 8, 2019 – Untitled Fairy Tale
  • December 20, 2019 – Untitled Fairy Tale

All but one of those projects is labeled “live-action fairy tale”, which leads me to believe that each slot will go to remakes. Mary Poppins Returns‘ Christmas 2018 slot originally was reserved for “Disney Live-Action”, so I get the sense that the August 3, 2018 slot will go to either Jungle Cruise or A Wrinkle in Time, one’s an action-adventure based on the ride at Disney Parks, the other is a sci-fi story. One can, however, argue that Wrinkle in Time is a sci-fi fairy tale.

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A Wrinkle in Time currently has Ava DuVernay – director of Selma – at the helm, Frozen writer-director Jennifer Lee penning the script, and Oprah Winfrey set to star. A while ago, they announced that the expected budget is $30-35 million, pretty small for a big Disney release. If it is indeed the film that’s set for July 28, 2017, then there’s no rush to get filming, for it won’t take too long to come together during post-production.

There is one small problem…

The plug can be pulled on a project at any time. If it’s filming, it’s pretty much safe. We don’t know if A Wrinkle in Time is filming yet. I have a feeling it isn’t filming, for Winfrey is the only member of the cast so far… Unless everyone is cast and Disney didn’t want to announce it until now. It’s very weird, because this movie is under a year away from its release date… Surely we’d hear something about it by now? All the recent talk of Wrinkle seems to indicate that, yes, this is the Untitled Live-Action Fairy Tale set for 7/28/2017.

Perhaps Disney is now starting to realize that even “proven” stuff isn’t always guaranteed to make money. One of their biggest box office flops this year is Alice Through the Looking Glass, the sequel to a billion-dollar smash no less. Last year they suffered a loss with a Pixar film, showing that the Pixar name and lamp don’t automatically get the seats filled. Maybe the plan going forward is to mix animated movie remakes with some not-so-safe stuff, now that the message has been made clear: Staying the course isn’t always guaranteed.

It’s a hard cold lesson that Disney has learned many times since Walt Disney’s passing. Walt learned the lesson once, in the mid-1930s when his sequels to The Three Little Pigs didn’t quite match the success of the first swine cartoon. In the 1970s and early 1980s, the company played it safe, thinking they knew what Walt wanted. It took outsiders, trying new things, the voices of held-back artists, and other experiments to bring them back to the forefront and to rocket them to the top.

Why else would The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, Jungle Cruise, and Delilah Dirk be up and running? Something tells me that Disney’s realizing that the animated classic remake plan isn’t going to last forever.

Again, anything can happen with Wrinkle, Nutcracker, et al. Remember George Miller’s Justice League: Mortal? The Mad Max creator/director spent some time developing what could’ve been an amazing silver screen team-up, many years before The Avengers changed the game. It had a cast locked, a script, everything. All it need to do was begin filming, but there were some delays and complications, and then Warner Bros. decided in summer 2008 – after the smash success of The Dark Knight – that they would instead develop standalone superhero stories. To them, a Justice League movie would only muddy things up.

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Director Christopher Nolan was adamant that his Batman series would be its own thing, with no Justice League team-ups or Superman appearances on the horizon. Warner Bros. honored that, as Nolan had one more Dark Knight film to make. Justice League: Mortal would’ve starred a different Batman from a different timeline. Warner Bros. canceled the film, even though it had everything all set up. Of course, things change. Warner Bros. has Justice League – directed by Zack Snyder – coming in November 2017, because they now have a DC Cinematic Universe that’s meant to compete with Marvel’s. That shaped up around 2013, many years after Justice League: Mortal was tossed.

If something isn’t filming, don’t rule out the studio putting the kibosh on it. Until A Wrinkle in Time begins filming, I won’t believe it exists. The same goes for these other projects…

That all being said, I am thrilled at the idea of Disney live-action varying things up again.

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