‘Mulan’ and the Wasted Potential of Disney’s Remakes

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A few days back, Disney announced the release date for one of their many live-action remakes in development: Mulan. It is currently set to open on November 2, 2018.

If Mulan is to be a near-exact remake of the 1998 Disney animated film, then I will have problems. Yet again. It’ll also show, I think, what wasted potential a decent chunk of these remakes actually have. What potential is that?

The potential to improve upon the flaws present in the animated classics.

Of course, not every Disney animated classic is a golden nugget. There are a good many that are great or flat-out excellent, then there are some that are simply good, and a few that are mediocre or even bad. I think a remake of a decent or good film should improve upon things that perhaps could’ve been tweaked. Mulan, to me, was never one of Disney’s better animated films. It is a victim of the feature animation studio’s crumbling phase in the mid-to-late 1990s, after Michael Eisner had overstaffed the building with executives, who had absolute control over the animated features. This little by little destroyed the studio’s creative culture, their morale, and the quality of their pictures.

Mulan was made before it all went completely south, so it’s still a pretty decent movie…  But being a Disney animated movie, it could’ve been so much more. I know this is sacrilege, but I myself have big issues with many elements in the film. Mushu is out of place, he would’ve fit better in an irreverent comedy akin to Aladdin and The Emperor’s New Groove. The film ping pongs between being a war drama and a bouncy comedy meant for 8-year-olds. A lot of the comedy is awkward and forced, the songs feel tacked on (especially the near-hideous ‘A Girl Worth Fighting For’), and the villain is mostly cardboard and lacks menace.

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The live-action remake could improve upon these issues, and be a genuinely great film. The problem is, Walt Disney Pictures will most likely make a film that’s near-identical to the 1998 film. There will probably be a wisecracking CGI’ed Mushu, the story beats will probably be the same, and the songs will probably be redone too. I would love for the live-action Mulan to be a completely new take on the story. I wished for the same with the other remakes (sans Pete’s Dragon, which sadly flopped – probably jettisoning any future remakes that don’t copy-and-paste from the originals), but that didn’t happen, it’s most likely not going to happen with Mulan.

The Jungle Book painfully comes so close to being a genuinely “good” live-action take on a story Disney already adapted into an animated film. Plus, Walt’s film is simply good, not great or exceptional. The biggest issues with that highly-praised remake come from its attempts to emulate Walt Disney’s 1967 animated classic. Why else is ‘The Bare Necessities’ in the movie? Why is the monkey king named ‘King Louie’ like in Walt’s film? Why is Baloo the slacker bear he is in Walt’s film? Why is he not the more serious character from the book. There were moments where the Walt film was simply referenced and hat-tipped (such as a sequence where Mowgli helps a herd of elephants), and those work better than any of the actual recreations of things from his film.

Beauty and the Beast looks like a near carbon copy of its 1991 predecessor, right down to the ridiculously overworked redesigns of Cogsworth, Lumiere, Mrs. Potts, and Chip. In fact, why are those characters – a unique element in Disney’s adaptation – even here? Why is it “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast Re-skinned?” I know, I know. Money, brand recognition, blah blah blah… But if this new Beauty and the Beast was actually a new take on the story, I wouldn’t mind it. I’d actually consider seeing it!

Perhaps the one remake that could go against that is Tim Burton’s Dumbo. Burton’s got a style, even if it may be overdone and lacking nowadays. The film has a human story to it, so in a way, that kind of justifies the live-action route it is taking. Dumbo, Walt Disney’s 1941 masterpiece, used animation to its advantage. Everything was told from Dumbo’s perspective, and it allowed for things like believable talking animals and psychedelic dreams. Live-action could not do that with anything in 1941. Burton’s Dumbo could be worthy of my viewing *if* it’s not told from Dumbo’s perspective, and that there’s no CGI’ed real life-looking Timothy, or anything of the sort. In other words… It is its own thing… But knowing Disney Live-Action right now, that’s probably not going to happen.

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It’s probably not going to happen with Pinocchio, or Peter Pan, or The Little Mermaid either. Something like Cruella is a spin-off like story about one character, and if it’s an “evil Cruella” story, I won’t mind too much. It has the potential to be this weirdly dark Disney movie about a fashion-lover going completely downhill. The story of one’s spiral into villainy, which would be pretty bold in some ways for a movie that’s likely to get a PG rating. If it’s anything like Maleficent where it cribs heavily from Walt’s film and tries to make one of cinema’s greatest villains a sympathetic character, I won’t be pleased. Make it about Cruella, her backstory, have her actually “be” evil, and have little 101 Dalmatians things in it as possible. This is about her, not the events of 101 Dalmatians!

Even then… A good remake is still a remake, and Disney Live-Action is rarely making anything but these remakes. I’ve jabbered about this before, but in an alternate history where more fresh pictures didn’t get jettisoned by this studio, a once-in-a-blue-moon thing like Cruella would not bug me so much. Disney is smart, they see the cash flow from the remakes, they make more… But unfortunately they fail to realize that they themselves bungled the marketing and budgeting for films like John Carter of Mars, The Lone Ranger, and Tomorrowland.

Instead of saying “stop making more original movies altogether!”, why not “let’s drastically lower the budgets on these things and market them better”? Only in a utopia they would think that, let alone say it. The live-action/photoreal CG remake trend is a well that will run dry. Or will it? If they can get CG to a point where it can look exactly like real-life, you think Disney will stop at 30-40 classics? Watch them try to remake films that can’t be done in “live-action”. When will it end?

Walt Disney Pictures is currently run by Sean Bailey, and it’s he who is spearheading these remakes. Back in early 2015, he was quoted saying that he does intend to make more non-“animated movie remake” event pictures, but outside of A Wrinkle in Time, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Jungle Cruise was talked about not too long ago, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms has some actors attached, but if you know a thing or two, that doesn’t mean it’s set in stone. Remember George Miller’s Justice League: Immortal

Other pictures have been announced over the past 2 years, no movement on any of them: Goblins, Floors, The Water Man, a scarier take on The Haunted Mansion, TRON 3 (outright cancelled, but apparently “still” a possibility), Tower of Terror, Wild City, Artemis Fowl, Dr. Q., Tribyville, Overnight on 42nd Street, and so on…

So we’re probably stuck with safe reheats of favorites for a long, long time…

But they don’t have to be just that… Reheats.

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