Why Disney Keep Going Back To The Well

At the time of writing, we’re about to be hit by a barrage of re-imagined old movies by Disney. Many of the classic Disney animations which we grew up watching have been adapted into live action pictures, with modern takes on the original story, and modern animation skills used to bring the characters to life. A glance ahead at Disney’s release schedule for the next couple of years reveals no less than seven remakes which are either finished and due to come out during 2019, or nearly finished and on their way to screens before the end of 2020.

The three titles we’ll be treated to this year are re-imaginings of some of Disney’s most loved and popular animations of all time; Dumbo, Aladdin and the Lion King. It will be Dumbo that comes out first, currently scheduled for a March release this year. All three movies combine live action with the latest in CGI animation, and Dumbo in particular promises to delve deeper into the darker aspects of the original story; legendary gothic director Tim Burton is responsible for the production, with Michael Keaton playing the tale’s principal villain. But what’s prompted Disney to look again at their back catalog and decide to re-tell stories we already know?

It’s a major break with the strategy of the last few years for the entertainment giant, whose partnership with Pixar has yielded a whole range of box office successes from Toy Story through to The Incredibles and Inside Out. Disney went on to purchase Pixar outright, and their influence is visible on Frozen, which has been the company’s most successful movie of the past couple of decades. Now, instead of continuing to push on with new titles, Disney has decided to go backward and re-tread old ground.

There is, of course, a financial angle to all this. Cinema ticket prices have increased significantly over the past few years, and there’s no sign that the trend is going to change any time soon, even with poor economic conditions in many parts of the world, and wages stagnant. When studios create a new film, they’re asking their audience to spend more and more money coming to see it. Given the cost of making movies also seems to increase year on year, it’s essential to the bottom line of a film production company – even one as big as Disney – to cover all of those costs and make a profit. That means we’re seeing a more cautious approach to making movie across the board. It’s the reason why we get multiple sequels to the Fast and Furious film franchise, and it’s the reason why Disney is going back to safe ground; they know these are popular stories, and so they know people will come to see them.

Only a cynic would say that the motives are purely financial, though. Disney could easily make sequels to any of their more recent successes and make money the same way; they could release two Frozen movies in the next two years and create hundreds of millions of dollars on profit if that’s all they wanted. We believe there’s another reason for resurrecting these old properties, and it’s all to do with fairy tales.

Once upon a time (an appropriate way to start talking about fairy tales), Disney took the inspiration for their movies from existing fairy tales. Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast and several more started life as fairy tales long before they became Disney films. Now, they’re associated with Disney as much as they are with the Grimm Brothers, Hans Christian Anderson or whomever else might be responsible for the original text. Because of that, we associate other Disney stories with being fairy tales; even if they’re not. Aladdin is partially an original Disney creation, but owes its roots to Arabic legends. Disney wrote both the Lion King and Dumbo.

What connects The Lion King and Dumbo, in particular, is that they’ve become old. In the case of the Lion King, the original will be twenty-five this year. Those who were enchanted and amazed by it as children are now heading towards middle age. They have children of their own who may also have watched it. Soon, they will have grandchildren, who will be raised on it as well. Dumbo is almost a relic of Disney’s early days; it first hit cinema screens in 1941. Our grandparents watched it when they were young. It’s become a legend in its own right, passed down from generation to generation. That, to us, makes it a fairytale.

When it comes to entertainment, history has shown us that fairytales stand re-telling over and over. Look at the tale of the Frog Prince as an example; the Grimm Brothers classic was first turned into a film in 1908, during the silent pictures era. Robin Williams appeared in another film version in 1982. It became a musical movie in 1986, and then a live action film in 2001, finally getting the Disney animation treatment in The Princess and The Frog in 2009. There’s even the Enchanted Prince slot which uses the themes and imagery of the tale and turns them into a slot game. The existence of the slot demonstrates the point we made earlier on; people buy into the things they’re familiar with. Faced with a choice between a generic slot game and an online slot based on a fairytale they grew up with, players are likely to choose to spend money on the fairytale.

With the sophistication of movies becoming more advanced, and audiences becoming more discerning at an earlier age, it appears Disney has decided that the time is right to give people a modern take on the classics. At the same time, they’re minimizing the risk of spending huge money on a project only to see it bomb at the box office and eat into their profit margins. Whether you think the idea of having a new Lion King is cute or cynical, the likelihood is either you or somebody you know is going to see it, and they’ll likely take their children as well. As far as Disney are concerned, that’s all that really matters.