I haven’t seen the new Cinderella yet, but friends who have tell me that, against most conceivable odds, it does not suck. This sounds downright shocking, but when I consider that Kenneth Branagh made the umpteeth Frankenstein remake that, in my opinion, did not suck either (I took a LOT of heat in film school for liking that and Street Fighter, but for me, that was just Tuesday), it’s not so odd. Remakes don’t inherently have to suck, especially if they all come from strong source material. Lots of Sherlock Holmes interpretations have been worthy, as has more than one Robin Hood. And I would argue that, while it’s misguided in many ways, even Maleficent was not a total letdown.
So given that Disney is going down this road anyway, what are the best possible stops along the way? I have a few suggestions. I suspect they will not listen. But I’m here to entertain you, not make money for them, so read on.
6. Big Hero 6.
It just became Disney’s third-biggest grossing animated feature of all time; its cast is winning praise for being multicultural, gender-equal and not making a big deal of it; and Baymax merchandise is selling as rapidly as you’d expect for a robot who’s equal parts Gundam and warm marshmallow. There’s literally no reason for Disney to trade out anything about its winning hand.
Not today, anyway. But what about 20 years from now, when the inevitable trilogy has happened, and what once was fresh needs more reheating than a smores sandwich?
When that happens, THEN can I get a faithful, true-to-Marvel adaptation in live-action? I don’t care if there’s no loophole for Silver Samurai the way there was with Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch. Give me a fire-throwing GoGo, a true kaiju Fredzilla, and a Baymax who looks like a dragon. Give me a genuinely complex villain in the Everwraith, formed from the souls of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki attacks. Make them all state-sanctioned by the government of Japan, not some hybrid San Fransokyo. If X-Men rights have reverted to Marvel by then, throw in Sunfire.
I like the Disney version too – but there are places to go with this in live-action that the kids’ cartoon never will.
5. Oliver and Company.
Oliver and Company is already something of a remake – a watered-down Oliver Twist with cats, dogs and Billy Joel songs. It had the bad luck to be fairly unmemorable otherwise, and to come out in an era when being a Disney cartoon wasn’t an automatic guarantee of hit status.
Live-action movies about dogs are almost as much of a sure thing as Disney cartoons these days – the Air Bud franchise regularly rakes in direct-to-video cash just by featuring a dog participating in some sort of unlikely sport. Cat movies are rarer, just because cats are way more difficult to train. The Internet has shown us that after porn, the most important thing in life is funny cat pictures; however, the impatience of filmmakers has not led to a subsequent surge in kitten movies to cash in on this.
That could all change soon. If Tim Burton can pull off a live-action Dumbo – wait, hear me out. I’m not saying he’ll make it a good movie; that’s almost out of the question. But if he can create an all-digital Dumbo character with the cuteness of the original, there’s no reason a kitten couldn’t be next. And why waste time writing a brand new kitten movie when you already have a property that could be easily tweaked?
You still wouldn’t see that? Five words: Replace Billy Joel With Prince. I’m there.
4. The Aristocats.
Yes, lots of people love cats. But there are also plenty of people who do not, and Disney can make money from both sides of the fur-encrusted coin if they play it right.
Here’s the basic pitch: how pissed off would you be if your life’s work were put into serving a family, and instead of rewarding you for it, everything in the family will is left to the cats? Cartoons can stack the deck by making pets uber-intelligent, cute and able to sing jazz. But in real life, being snubbed for an inheritance like that is a perfectly reasonable motivation for righteous anger.
And thus, Maleficent-style, we’d get Disney’s Edgar, a new retelling of The Aristocats from the point of view of the butler (Benedict Cumberbatch). Deathly allergic to the annoying things, he keeps trying to get rid of them but they always, ALWAYS come back. Bringing new alley cats with them every time, and causing him to comically fall flat on his face in some fashion..
Because this is Disney, Edgar would get a decent allergy shot by the end and realize the cats needn’t be his enemies forever. A new villain invented for the movie – Emma Stone as an over-achieving young attorney, maybe – would swindle everyone out of the money, and in the end Edgar runs a cat cafe in Japan. Win-win. By the time the feline-phobes in the audience realize it’s actually going to end well for the kitties, you have their money already.
There’s a lot that’s controversial about Disney’s Pocahontas – her age-inappropriate supermodel body, the love story that glosses over a legacy of genocide, and, retroactively, Mel Gibson, whose presence in any interracial love story nowadays feels like a calculated punchline.
But what if you did it right? Cast an age-appropriate Pocahontas, and a serious actor who knows he’s flawed? Stay true to the historical record, present the way things happened and let viewers judge for themselves? Maybe even get a big-name director to put his unique style on it?
Sorry, Disney. Forget I said anything about this one.
2. The Black Cauldron.
This, Mr. Mouse, is the no-brainer of no-brainers.
Let’s recap: you remade Alice in Wonderland as a Lord of the Rings wannabe. You watched as Universal turned Snow White into a Lord of the Rings wannabe.
And yet you ACTUALLY HAVE an a adaptation of a literary Lord of the Rings wannabe in your vault – one that could build a five-film franchise if handled correctly – and you’re doing nothing with it. Bad capitalist! Bad!
The Chronicles of Prydain books, three out of five of which were amalgamated to make Disney’s The Black Cauldron, features young adult protagonists, fairies, an army of zombies, a psychic pig, an irresponsible king who prefers to be a bard, and a comic relief character who’s a cute, fuzzy glutton and speaks in catchphrases. I couldn’t calculate more trending topics into a fantasy script if I tried.
Hell, maybe the book rights lapsed and Disney can only remake their version specifically. But even that would be a potential goldmine – the problem in the ’80s was that the budget didn’t exist to do it in live-action, and it was a bit too gritty for the typical Disney cartoon audience. Both have evolved. Now’s the time.
1. Song of the South.
I know, it’s only half-animated. But I’m serious about this one. Disney, if you won’t let anyone see the original, it’s time to pull a Saving Mr. Banks on Uncle Remus, and do it right.
The title would have to change, of course. It currently carries too much baggage, filling people’s heads with false ideas of what’s actually in it. I don’t exempt myself – I always had the impression that it was a movie filled with goofy, Jar Jar-like “happy slave” stereotypes and casual racism, complete with a stupid, smiling Uncle Remus who exists to serve the white protagonist only.
It isn’t like that at all, though the attempt to be true to the dialect of the time does sound overly broad today.
Song of the South‘s sin, by today’s standard, is that, like every Disney movie, it depicts a sanitized, PG-rated environment. And when that environment is a plantation in the immediate post-Civil War era, well, sanitizing the environment to a PG level just doesn’t seem appropriate any more. There’s darkness there if you look hard – towards the end, Remus tries to speak up and is made to remember his station, and I doubt there’s an audience member alive who doesn’t sympathize with him and feel some frustration at that moment. But it’s certainly not the main theme. A fictionalized version of the life of author Joel Chandler Harris, it’s about a mischievous boy who listens intently to the stories told by the former slaves, which he will one day write down.
The actual stories on which the movie is based are in some ways the victim of history’s march onward. Phonetically spelling out African-American dialect to the point that one has to read it aloud to understand what the hell is being said, and in the process sound like a broad stereotype to boot, it’d be self-evidently racist if written today. And yet the author was a major progressive for his time and place, anti-slavery and pro-racial reconciliation – his purpose was to write down stories that only existed in an oral tradition, and capture as much of the dialogue – the way it sounded to him – as he could in an era before audio recordings were commonplace.
Does it matter nowadays that the tale of the Tar Baby existed as a Native American tale of a Tar Wolf, before Africans ever came to America? Not really – Disney’s replacement of the Tar Baby in Splash Mountain with a honey-dripping beehive attests to that.
The story of Uncle Remus, fictional character, may be too touchy – but a movie about Joel Chandler Harris should not be. The Irish boy scorned for his red hair and troublesome at school, who bonded with the slaves over his perceived outsider status and grew up to be a newspaper columnist, satirist, and chronicler of a culture about which not much positive was being published at the time. Throw in some animated Bre’r Rabbit characters if possible. Acknowledge the complicated legacy, the criticism from both left and right, and the fact that Harris died from alcohol-related illnesses.
I’m not sure Disney has the stones to make that movie. But it’s the one I want to see the most, and it would, with luck, provide the context in which one could allow the original Song of the South to be seen again.
Luke Y. Thompson has been writing professionally about movies and pop-culture since 1999, and has also been an actor in some extremely cheap culty and horror movies you will probably never hear much about (he is nonetheless mostly proud of them, as he met his wife on one). As editor of The Robot's Voice since 2012, he can take the blame for the majority of the site's content, all of which he creates because he loves you very, very much. (Although he loves nachos more. Sorry.)
Prior to TRV, Luke wrote for publications that include the New Times LA, Los Angeles CityBeat, E! Online, OC Weekly, Geekweek, GeekChicDaily, The L.A. Times, The Village Voice, LA Weekly, and Nerdist