Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Disney Remakes

If you've paid any attention to Disney's releases recently, you'll notice a growing trend of doing live-action remakes of their popular animated films. Cinderella and The Jungle Book have both been released recently, with Beauty and the Beast on the way, not to mention Pete's Dragon a couple weeks ago. The studio also has Aladdin, The Sword in the Stone, and The Little Mermaid in production. This has disheartened many movie fans, and I can't entirely disagree. These big "unnecessary" remakes seem a pointless cash grab, an annoying trend, and overshadow other wonderful small releases that Disney puts out with little fanfare. They have one such film coming next month called Queen of Katwe that I am very interested in. I encourage you to seek it out and urge Disney with your dollars to make more variety. Still, one thing that gets lost in all of this hand-wringing about soulless remakes is how myopic it is: the Disney studio has been remaking itself since the beginning.

Often these remakes tend to go in cycles or phases, just as there was a period when Disney made a bunch of movies with cats and dogs, or that time in the 1990s when they did live-action versions of old TV shows. No one much liked that trend either (though George of the Jungle did well), but it continued for a solid few years (with Underdog a final gasp a few years later). My intention here is to highlight some of the many times Disney has gone back to the well and remade its own content. This list is by no means exhaustive, as I'm sure there will be some I forget. And of course there are many cases where, while not a true remake, major elements were reused in a later film. For example, while technically different stories, the two Mickey Mouse cartoons "Giantland" and "Brave Little Tailor" have many identical gags in how Mickey interacts with and defeats the giant. I also didn't comprehensively look through all their television output. But without further ado, here is a trip through Disney's history of remakes.


While there were a few other shorts that were sort of remade (I'll get to them below), the first major remake was of the 1933 Mickey Mouse cartoon "Orphan's Benefit". This cartoon is notable for being the first appearance in a Mickey Mouse short of Donald Duck, who had first appeared in a Silly Symphony called "The Wise Little Hen". The 1941 is a shameless remake that is literally the entire cartoon shot-for-shot but done in color and with the more contemporary designs of Donald and Goofy. All the animation is the same. So for those who complain (as do I) about all the re-used animation in films of the 1970s, the company had been doing it before. While all the jokes still work, and it's nice to see in color, it doesn't have quite the same life for me as the 1933 version. The old-fasioned animation gags feel a little out of place at times when it lacks the old "rubber hose" style. Funny when people talk about unnecessary shot-for-shot remakes, they never mention this. I think it was done because simply re-releasing it might have been difficult with Donald's design having changed so much.

2. THE FOX HUNT (1931/1938)
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Another series of shorts, this time the basic premise is going on a fox hunt. The original was a Silly Symphony, and I could have sworn there was a third cartoon with Mickey Mouse, but I couldn't find it in my notes. The 1938 version is one of several popular Donald and Goofy pairings. The cartoons are mostly rather different beyond the basic premise, and this is one case where the later is actually superior in a number of ways. Goofy's business with his horse is delightful (and prefigures the later short "How to Ride a Horse"), and Donald with his pack of dogs is fun too. Both cartoons end with the same gag, the finding of the "fox", only to learn it was a skunk.

3. THE UGLY DUCKLING (1931/1939)
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It's a stretch to even call this a remake; more like similar shorts with the same title. The latter is a straight adaptation of the Hans Christian Andersen story, and is truly a masterpiece. If you've seen one of these, odds are it's that one. The Oscar-winning cartoon was also referenced in Lilo & Stitch. The 1931 cartoon is not about a swan born to a family of ducks, and shares only cursory connections to the Anderson tale. In this story, it really is a duckling, and it really is ugly (hilariously goofy-looking). This duckling hatches among a hen and her chicks on a farm. The mother hen tries to shoo it away. But then a flood comes and washes her chicks down the river, and the ugly duck (because he can swim), saves them all and is no longer ostracized. While the later short focuses on finding the right place you belong and someone that loves you, the earlier film focuses on seeing the good in people even though they are different. It's a funny cartoon, and well worth seeing. The later one may have more emotional weight, but I recommend seeking out the earlier.

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This also isn't exactly remake territory, but more a case of returning to the well of a well-known story. The 1933 Silly Symphony is a pretty straightforward musical telling of the story of Noah. The company has gone on to tell the Noah story multiple times. In the late '50s and early '60s a couple of artists at the studio, Bill Justice and Xavier Atencio (commonly credited as X) paired up with a very distinctive style, and designed a directed some shorts you might know, like "A Cowboy Needs a Horse". But they were also interested in stop-motion, and indulged their side interest by doing the opening credits to The Parent Trap, sequences for "A Symposium on Popular Songs", and a pet project, "Noah's Ark." Their version is also musical, but it is a much longer short subject and focuses more on time in the ark. All of the characters are cleverly composed of pipe-cleaners, pencils, and random craft supplies. It looks very much like a Sunday School production. The major theme of this film is learning to love each other, with a side story about the animals on the ark not getting along, and Noah helping marital relations between hippos (no, not in THAT way, you pervert). More recently, Noah's story was mined for the Pomp and Circumstance sequence in Fantasia 2000, starring Donald and Daisy Duck.
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5. MICKEY'S PAL PLUTO (1933)/LEND A PAW (1941)

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Many people are familiar with the 1941 Academy Award-winning remake in which Pluto is first antagonistic to a kitten Mickey takes in, but later saves it from drowning in a well. The cartoon works well, and its use of color definitely adds to its appeal. But many may not realize that this story was actually a remake of a prior Mickey Mouse cartoon from 1933. The black-and-white original differs in several ways, particularly in that it is not one but an entire bag of kittens that Mickey rescues and takes in. Minnie is also present in this cartoon. The sheer number of kittens crawling all over the house getting into Pluto's things makes his exasperation and anger much more understandable. And I don't know for certain, but I think this cartoon may be the origin of the trope of a character's conscience being represented by an angel and devil on each shoulder.

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With Donald Duck's popularity on the rise and Mickey Mouse's waning in the 1940s, the studio seemed to find it difficult to make new Mickey cartoons. Far fewer Mickey shorts were produced in the 1940s, and three of those were remakes. In this one, Mickey's friends surprise him with a birthday party. They sing and dance while Goofy struggles with the cake. While the remake maybe lacks a certain something (returning to the style of the prior decade, there's very little story which differs strongly from the other things Disney was putting out), it does have some charm and some very memorable animated moments. Most memorable for me is the sequence of Mickey dancing with his hat and cane. They seem to have learned their lesson from "Orphan's Benefit"; at least this remake has a bit of fun on its own terms.

7. CHICKEN LITTLE (1943/2005)
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Disney's first all computer-generated feature produced by the studio was Chicken Little. (Technically Dinosaur is now counted in the official canon but at the time it was made by a separate arm of the studio that was later folded in, and it also features live-action backgrounds. So it doesn't count.) This feature involves a star-studded cast and space aliens and I hate it. I think it's an awful movie, and I remember thinking "you shut down hand-drawn movies for this?" But my personal feelings aside, it's clear that it bears only rough relation to the original story. A more traditional take on the tale was made way back during World War II. This short is lighter on comedy and has a morose ending (everyone dies!). There are no space aliens. Instead, it was used as an allegory for the happenings in Nazi Germany and a message to Americans about being easily manipulated.

8. ROBIN HOOD (1952/1973)

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We're all familiar with the 1973 animated Robin Hood in which all the roles are played by animals. While that films does reuse a lot of animation throughout, that's not why it's on this list. That wasn't the first time the Disney studio had done the Robin Hood story. In 1952, Disney released The Story of Robin Hood and His Merry Men. If you haven't seen it, I'm not surprised. I haven't either. The image in most people's mind tends to be the classic 1938 Adventures of Robin Hood. But Leonard Maltin still speaks highly of the Disney version.

9. POLLYANNA (1960)/POLLY (1989)

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The Disney studio's remake machine was quiet for decades, and then the 1990s began to roll around. We come into the late 1980s and the era of Michael Eisner, and our first television remake. Disney's Pollyanna starred Hayley Mills in an adaptation of the book, and people still remember that version. But I grew up on Polly, a version of the story told with a black cast set in the 1950s made for The Magical World of Disney anthology series. Polly is a musical, starring Keshia Knight Pulliam and Phylicia Rashad from The Cosby Show. It's one of those times an all-black version (apart from Ms. Snow who guess what? is white) really succeeds in being just as good. It was so popular they even made a sequel, Polly Comin' Home, the following year.

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Walt Disney's goofy science fiction story about a scientist who creates a mysterious "flying rubber" and uses it to make is car fly and help the high school cheat at basketball (yes, that's the plot), is an amusing yarn that gave us the word "flubber". I grew up on this movie, both in its black and white form and the colorized version, which told us that flubber was green. Green flubber was front and center in the big Robin Williams-led remake Flubber, which was even goofier than the original if that's possible. Many people might remember that '90s remake, but many would also be surprised to learn it was not the first. It was actually the fifth film to feature the gooey substance. Walt's original film spawned a sequel, Son of Flubber. (Another post exploring Disney sequels might be in order.) But there were another two movies made for the Magical World of Disney television program in the late 1980s. Starring Harry Anderson as the titular teacher, 1988's Absent-Minded Professor was a point-by-point remake of the original, but also a kind of sequel. Like the current in-continuity reboots of our day (such as the JJ Abrams Star Trek), this movie existed in a universe where the first movie had happened. The professor discovers the formula for flubber from the previous professor's notes, and the story plays out just as it did before. This reboot was successful enough that they produced a follow-up film, The Absent-Minded Professor: Trading Places. I remember liking the sequel even more. It's a real shame these two movies are not easily available. They are both better than Flubber.

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To a certain generation, Homeward Bound is better known than the original book adaptation that Walt Disney made thirty years prior. Homeward Bound was very successful and a sequel was made a few years later. Thankfully, even though the animals talk in this these later films, it was before Babe popularized computer-generated lip sync.

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This year's successful Jon Favreau-helmed 3D take on the animated Jungle Book has made people forget that twenty years ago there was another live action take on Mowgli. Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book was a very different story, featuring a more adult Mowgli now out of the jungle. Elements of this story originate in a treatment Bill Pete had done for the animated version back in 1967 before Walt basically told them to throw the book away. I haven't watched the '94 film in years, but I like it for being different. It's also a solid action-adventure movie, and scary at times. I remember reviews sour on it for not being more like the original. This year's version got rave reviews, so I guess the studio gave them what they wanted. The 1994 film spawned a direct-to-video prequel movie, The Jungle Book: Mowgli's Story (being more the adventures of young Mowgli that people might expect). These combined with the truly awful animated sequel to the original add up to five films from this property.

And now we come to 1995, the year of the TV remakes.


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The studio got into something of a groove in 1995. For their Sunday night Magical World of Disney program, as they had several times in the 1980s, the studio decided to remake some classic films of the 1970s era after Walt had died. This was the age of Jodie Foster and Kurt Russell, which spawned three '95 remakes.

The first of these is arguably the best. The Kurt Russell teen sci-fi romp about a kid who gains super intelligence, was remade starring Kirk Cameron. Fresh off Growing Pains but before becoming a growing pain in preachy Christian movies, Cameron is a great choice for the lead. He was young and charismatic, and the movie reflects a nice kind of charm. I enjoyed this movie a lot, and there are lines I still remember to this day. It was this movie that taught me who shot President McKinley ("That is just what they want you to think! Czolgosz was a patsy. Read the facts, Alan! Read the facts!"). Neither film is a great work of art, but the remake is a solid film for a newer audience and well worth checking out if you can find it.

14. FREAKY FRIDAY (1977/1995/2003)

The classic Jodie Foster body-swap movie was remade twice. The story of a mom and daughter who realize how tough the other has it, was re-imagined in the popular version that starred Lindsay Lohan and Jamie Lee Curtis. This wasn't Lindsay's first foray into Disney remakes. But neither was it the first attempt to retell this story. Not ten years earlier there was a version for television which starred Shelley Long as the mom and Gaby Hoffmann as her daughter. This version is very much of its time. The most memorable thing about it to me is the image of Shelly Long rollerblading down the street. It's amazing looking back at the mid-1990s and seeing what a fad rollerblades were.


The Witch Mountain saga is a long and complicated one, so I'll try to take it slowly.

In 1968, Alexander Key wrote the novel Escape to Witch Mountain about two orphan children, Tony and Tia, with strange telekinetic abilities who are drawn to Witch Mountain. The Walt Disney studio adapted this book to film in 1975. Much of it is rather faithful to the book with two major exceptions: they befriend a man named Mr. O'Day in the movie, whose book counterpart is a priest, Father O'Day. Secondly, in the book, Tia cannot speak and so she writes on little pieces of paper she keeps in a box. The star-box remains in the film, but Tia is no longer mute.


Several years later, Disney produced a sequel, Return to Witch Mountain. Alexander Key adapted this film into a book sequel to his original novel. Tia in the book now speaks, as the plot depends on it.

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In 1982, Disney goes back to the well again with Beyond Witch Mountain, a television movie intended to be the pilot for a new series which was never made. This movie is a sort-of sequel to the original, but with the kids recast (Tia is played by Kirk Cameron's future Growing Pains co-star Tracy Gold). For those of you who like me who have vague memories of this movie, no you did not imagine it.

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Then in 1995, a new Escape to Witch Mountain was made for television. It is Witch Mountain in name only. While the original has a twist ending that I won't spoil (even though contemporary cover art does), this film takes it in a completely different direction. It has almost nothing to do with any of the elements of the prior films, and is terrible. In this movie, Tony and Tia actually have identical twins in a parallel universe or something crazy like that. I saw it as a kid and hated it for what they did to the story. Avoid this version.

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Finally, a modern take on the story was made in 2009, Race to Witch Mountain. After the huge disappointment that was the 1995 version, I never saw this one. But it stars Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson if that interests you.

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Disney struck gold again with a live-action remake of a classic animated property. Since Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book was very different, we might say this is the first true live-action remake of one of their animated films. It's not a new phenomenon. And this one, starring Glenn Close as Cruella De Vil, was hugely successful that holiday season. It was very slapstick, from a script by John Hughes in his Home Alone phase, but featured a great cast (including Jeff Daniels and Hugh Laurie). They also wisely decided not to make the dogs talk. Both films are nice compliments to each other. The cartoon ends up being a little more grounded, but the cartoonish elements of the live-action film are tempered by the more natural dog action. The movie spawned a bit of a resurgence in dalmatian fever, with a live action sequel, 102 Dalmatians, following, as well as a Saturday morning cartoon series.

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The first entirely live-action feature that Walt Disney made was Treasure Island. It remains one of the classic Disney films. Disney even produced a sequel miniseries, Return to Treasure Island, in 1986. As it's also a work of classic literature, it's no surprise the studio would try adapting it again. The first of these new adaptations starred the Muppets. After Jim Henson's Muppets came under the Disney umbrella in the 1990s they made the hugely successful Muppet Christmas Carol. When that was a success, it seemed only natural to follow it with another classic English literary adaptation. While not as strong a film, Muppet Treasure Island is a lot of fun. Finally, the animation studio tried a fresh take on the novel by setting it in space and calling it Treasure Planet. This movie is wildly ambitious and while it doesn't all work as well as it could, it has some standout moments and visual ideas. Treasure Planet was nominated for an Oscar for Best Animated Feature.

18. That Darn Cat! (1965/1997)
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Now it's time for a little story. Back in 1997, there was a major theatrical re-release of a little film you may have heard of called Star Wars. I was so excited to go see the Special Edition on the big screen. So one Saturday I talked my mom into dropping me off. I was there an hour early, and it was sold out. I was devastated. But I had to see something because everyone else was off at Chuck E. Cheese for the next few hours. So instead of seeing Star Wars, I went to see the remake of That Darn Cat! starring Christina Ricci. Not exactly a loss, because I had a huge crush on Ricci at the time. It's easy to forget the original with Dean Jones and Haley Mills, as well  as the remake, in which Jones also appears. It's weird how many movies Disney made about cats and dogs in the 1960s. Anyway, there you have it, there was a remake of That Darn Cat!

And I never did get to see Star Wars on the big screen until last year.

19. THE PARENT TRAP (1961/1998)
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Well, if one Haley Mills remake could be moderately successful (two if we count Pollyanna), why not remake her most famous movie in which she played opposite herself? The Parent Trap had already spawned three television sequels with Mills reprising her role(s), but perhaps it was time to update the property. Enter Lindsay Lohan. With new motion control camera technology, Lohan burst on the scene in a well-received remake that tweaked just enough of the original. For example, the stuffy Boston of 1961 was transposed to London, England for the remake. I personally think the original has enough charm on its own, but the Lohan version remains one of the standout Disney remakes that actually works. And it reminds us of a time when Lindsay Lohan was young and innocent.

20. THE SHAGGY DOG (1959/2006)
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Another bizarre movie from the Walt era about a boy cursed to turn into a dog, The Shaggy Dog is somehow one of those movies that sticks in the memory. So it is no surprise that the studio would eventually try their luck with it again utilizing modern visual effects technology. The new film starred Tim Allen as the guy who becomes a dog, already a change from the original. However, this idea of an adult turning into a dog does not originate with the remake. Disney in fact had made two sequels to the original film, both of which contradict each other. In the 1970s, Dean Jones portrayed an adult Wilby, now married, in The Shaggy D.A. In 1987, The Magical World of Disney aired the original film, and then followed it up with a new television sequel, The Return of the Shaggy Dog. This sequel ignored the earlier one, as Wilby is only just getting married in this one. I have still not seen the Tim Allen version.

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It's really not exactly a remake, but it's worth mentioning the Tim Burton Alice in Wonderland movie. This film is a very different sort of take on the Lewis Carroll stories, as Alice is grown up. It's more Alice by way of Return to Oz. And yet it should also be noted that the 1951 version is not the first attempt the studio made at adapting Carroll's work. In 1938, they used many elements from the books in "Thru the Mirror", a Mickey Mouse cartoon that paid tribute to the Alice stories. Walt Disney in fact had built a name for himself making short subjects about a live action girl in animated scenarios in the 1920s. These were dubbed the Alice comedies, with the pilot film, Alice's Wonderland, making explicit the homage to Carroll behind the idea. In the 1990s, the notion of Alice and Wonderland was re-imagined in an attempt to make a hip, cool, educational program for children, Adventures in Wonderland. You can tell it was made in the '90s because Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum are rappers in parachute pants and the White Rabbit goes around on rollerblades (there's those blades again!). With all of these trips to Wonderland (including the recent sequel Alice Through the Looking Glass), it's perhaps surprising that Walt hated the 1951 film, believing that it was a lot of craziness that had no real story behind it.


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Sleeping Beauty is my favorite Disney movie of all time. So when a quasi-remake was announced telling the story from Maleficent's point-of-view, I wanted no part of it. It was rumored after the success of Alice in Wonderland, and finally became a reality in 2014. It's not exactly a remake, as it's telling things from a totally different perspective, but it also really cemented the current trend toward remaking the animated canon. I still have never seen it.

23. PETE'S DRAGON (1977/2016)
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This year's Pete's Dragon bears little resemblance to the film that inspired it. All it retained were a boy named Pete, a magical dragon named Elliot, and a woman that befriends them. This year's film has a certain charm of its own, but it's a very different movie. As wacky as the original is, there's still something I prefer about it. Between the two of them, you're bound to find one that suits your taste.

24. CINDERELLA (1950/2015)
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Which brings us to Cinderella. I was pleasantly surprised by a lot of things about last year's remake. I went in truly expecting to hate it. In fact, the only reason I paid to see it was that the short "Frozen Fever" was screening before it. And while the animated film remains a masterpiece, the remake is not terrible. The worst parts are when it tries to draw direct connections to the animated version instead of standing on its own. There's no need to give the same names to the mice (though Jaq gets a sex change in the new one), or to have a cat named Lucifer. And Helena Bonham Carter as the Fairy Godmother was a total misfire. But so much of what remains is a lovely retelling of a classic story and I recommend seeing it. I still consider the animated film one of the smartest adaptations (making the story turn on the fact that Cinderella not only fits the shoe, but has the other one). Pay attention and you'll see they pepper in how Cinderella has a habit of losing shoes on stairs. This makes the dramatic moment at midnight not just a story contrivance, but totally in character.

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But I would be remiss in my duties if I did not point out a third Cinderella that Disney made, and once again it was made for television. This was the 1997 remake of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella, starring Brandy and a multiracial cast. Where this worked in Polly, I never felt it worked as well here. I think it's the weakest of the three R & H Cinderella productions for a number of reasons. But that leads me to another thing interesting about this movie: it's a remake of a non-Disney film. And it's not the only one. So before we go, let's take a look at some other times Disney remade something they didn't originate.

This effects-laden sports film was actually remade from a 1951 movie of the same name.

Tim Allen's follow-up to the hugely successful The Santa Clause was an English-language remake of a French movie called Un Indien Dans La Ville. I actually remember that a dub of the original had a very short theatrical run State-side in 1994 under the title Little Indian, Big City. Somewhere I have a tape with one of the TV spots for it.

This King Kong follow up of the 1940s was done by Disney with modern effects in 1998 starring Charlize Theron. As a kid, I noticed the obvious parallels to Kong, but never knew that it was a remake of a film in its own right.

Finally, one of our most recent Disney remakes is Adventures in Babysitting. This Disney Channel Original Movie is not so original at all, as it's a remake of the classic 1987 film starring Elisabeth Shue.

So I hope you've appreciated this little trip through Disney film history. Disney remakes are nothing new. All we can do is hope that those to come won't be too bad, and we'll ride out this wave until the next one comes along.