Has Disney Run Out of Ideas?

Once upon a time, every child grew up spellbound by the magic of Disney movies. We all cried when Mufasa fell to his doom, we all filled our homes with high-pitched cries of ‘Under The Sea’, and we all sat cross-legged on our living room rug imaging ourselves traversing through a candy coloured Arabian city.

No? Well, I did.

Our generation has had the luxury of watching and re-watching and re-watching again the plethora of Disney animated features. Especially considering the majority of us were born straight after or during the so-called Disney Renaissance of the late 80s and 90s that brought us the classics that we still love today, such as The Lion King (1994), The Little Mermaid (1989) and Aladdin (1992).

This nostalgia for the Disney films that shaped our childhood, that taught us the basic moralities of good and evil, and first gifted us the joys of cinema has led many to question: has that Disney magic been lost?

We now live in an era that has every trailer advertised on multiple social media platforms. We are all aware of Disney’s future releases. It is in these upcoming releases that an unsettling trend of live-animation remakes of our beloved classics has been established.

Angry screams resonate throughout the internet inquiring of the whereabouts of new, original Disney animated features. Instead, we are being treated to the same stories but without the technicolour animation we grew to adore. Yes, we are yet again given a typical wacky and Dionysian Tim Burton instalment, this time of Dumbo (2018), but after his mediocre remakes of Lewis Carrol’s Alice in Wonderland, is there that much to be excited about?

Currently, people go to the cinema less than a decade ago. This is a result of the growth of platforms such as Netflix and Amazon Prime Video which has allowed people to stay at home and watch films. Big studios, such as Disney, are now engaged in “event” filmmaking hoping to draw the masses in on their rare trips to their local theatre. Again, in this modern age, the simply outrageous output of trailers and clips of upcoming blockbusters is all fuelled towards establishing film releases as important cultural events.

“Are these efforts causing viewers to feel the same sense of awe when we first entered the great hall of Hogwarts? Of course not, but their commercial success is inevitable.”

Disney is no different to any other film production company. Ultimately, they’re a business and Disney has now become Hollywood’s Godzilla. In recent times, Disney has managed to acquire Pixar, Marvel and Lucasfilm – their King Kong equivalents. As a result, Disney are now capable of dominating Hollywood’s calendar. To illustrate this, in 2016 Disney released six major pictures (among others). In chronological order these are: Zootopia (original Disney animation), The Jungle Book (live-action remake), Captain America: Civil War (Marvel), Finding Dory (Pixar), Moana (original Disney animation), and Star Wars: Rogue One (Lucasfilm).

Whilst only two of these films are completely original flicks, three of the six made over a billion dollars – evidently their business strategy isn’t too shabby.

Whilst Disney is primarily concerned with either franchise films, such as the Star Wars or Marvel Cinematic Universes, or live-action remakes of their old animated features, they are not the only ones feeding off our nostalgia like hungry capitalist lions. Warner Brothers’ have recently attempted to rejuvenate the Harry Potter franchise with their recent instalment of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016), the second one having just hit our screens (yay…). Are these efforts causing viewers to feel the same sense of awe when we first entered the great hall of Hogwarts? Of course not, but their commercial success is inevitable.

“The emphasis remains on the characters. It is the characters that have made Disney what it is.”

Franchising is the unfortunate nature of Hollywood but Disney are wise to be invested in it. Flicking through Disney’s archives reveals a pattern in their history: one of peaks and troughs. The Golden Age of Disney since Walt’s first release, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1938), descended into darkness during the 70s and 80s. Whilst their Renaissance in the 90s only stagnated during the lack-lustre 2000s, which generated some heart-warming tales, such as Lilo & Stitch (2002) but nothing to reach the heights of legendarium like The Lion King (1994).

Given this trend, after the successes of Tangled (2009) and Frozen (2013), it would appear a dip in commercial and critical success was looming darker than Maleficent’s shadow. However, that hasn’t been the case. Disney are going stronger than ever and this is because they have played it safe, especially in the light of recent disasters (I’m looking at you, John Carter), but they’ve played it intelligently.

For each time Disney have made a sequel, they have put a spin upon it. Not too dissimilar to their original tactic of doing fresh new takes upon old fairy-tales. In Monster’s University (2013) and Finding Dory (2016), the writers switched the attention onto the secondary characters of the previous instalments, Mike and Dory. The emphasis remains on the characters. It is the characters that have made Disney what it is.

“With the long history of Disney, I think it is safe to say that there will be plenty more to come”

This approach has allowed Disney to keep the Marvel and Star Wars universes interesting. In the latest Star Wars instalments, we spend the majority of the screen time with the new leads Rey, Finn and Kylo Ren. These guys drive the plot forward whilst the characters from the original trilogy take a backseat. Marvel, meanwhile, also shows no signs of slowing down despite the vast array of new releases.

Disney have even made an effort to recruit exciting new directors to take the reins of their films. Whilst Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi (2017) was polarising at least it tried something new unlike its predecessor. And who could have thought a superhero movie could have been as funny as Guardians of the Galaxy? That’s all down to James Gunn’s direction and writing.

I understand why people believe Disney are running out of ideas. When every new Disney title is one that you’ve heard before it can be frustrating, but that’s Hollywood – frustrating. At the very least Disney have attempted to push their creativity to breathing new winds of life into films which they are certain will do well commercially. With the long history of Disney, I think it is safe to say that there will be plenty more to come and who knows? Maybe you’ll be surprised. Maybe Disney will enchant us again.

George Lawley 

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Article image via IMDb and featured image via IMDb courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures, Tim Burton Productions, Fairview Entertainment. 

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