Updated: Oct 18, 2021
Walt Disney Pictures has produced a live-action remake of an animated film every year since 2014. At least 11 more, not including sequels or prequels, are in the works as well. Live-action remakes may seem appropriate for some movies, like Sleeping Beauty or Aladdin, but for others like The Lion King or Beauty and the Beast, it seems counterintuitive since a great deal of the movies consist of computer-generated imagery (CGI) anyway. This trend, unfortunately, is indicative of a larger issue: traditional animation is often not seen as a respectable medium in its own right, even though it has exceeded the limits of filmmaking time and time again.
There are very few animated movies or shows whose target demographic is adults, so by association, animation is often considered childish. However, children’s content is not inherently immature—series like Gravity Falls, Avatar: The Last Airbender, and Phineas and Ferb are well-written, critically-acclaimed, and explore themes like growing up, colonization, and healthy relationships.
Walt Disney’s legacy is almost entirely based on animated works, yet today, Walt Disney Pictures is ironically the biggest offender against traditional animation. Disney first established his studio in 1923 to distribute his cartoon, Alice’s Wonderland. He rose to prominence with the creation of the Mickey Mouse character and the Silly Symphonies series, the latter of which won the first Academy Award for Best Cartoon in 1932. His 1937 film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was the first full-length cel-animated feature film and set a precedent of excellence for the company.
Despite this, Walt Disney Pictures now spits on its origins with its extensive list of live-action remakes. One of the most egregious examples is the 2019 computer-animated remake of The Lion King (1994). The original has one of the most impressive legacies of any animated work, as it became the second-highest-grossing film of all time at its release, procured two Academy Awards, and led to a Broadway musical that is currently the highest-grossing Broadway production in history. And then, in the pursuit of money, Disney produced a photorealistic remake featuring a voice cast riddled with celebrities like Donald Glover, Seth Rogen, John Oliver, and Beyonce. It just seems strange that Disney would take one of its most applauded films in its filmography—a standard that was, from the very beginning, impossible to live up to—and remake it.
Needless to say, The Lion King (2019) did not receive very gratifying reviews. It has a 52% critic rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with one particularly harsh critic from AV Club stating, “It’s as if every creative decision were subordinate to the film’s misguided insistence on realism.”
This perfectly exemplifies the problem with Disney remakes. The magic in Disney’s non-photorealistic animated films is derived from the medium—scenes like “Be Our Guest” from Beauty and the Beast, the dress transformation in Cinderella, and “Friend Like Me” from Aladdin are impossible to recreate in live-action without the help of CGI, and that’s the point.
Animation makes the possibilities endless for filmmakers; they are allowed to be as creative as they want and push their imaginations to the fullest in their cinematography without focusing too much on the laws of nature or appearing realistic enough. Just look at Phineas and Ferb—the two title characters do not have bodily proportions even close to human, but they still clearly represent human characters, and the art style physically portrays their respective personalities through their character design.
Unfortunately, imagination is also often seen as childish, which may explain why animation is shunned so often. No animated feature film has won an Academy Award for Best Picture—ever. Only three have ever even been nominated.
No doubt Disney has capitalized on the nostalgia its animated films produced, but in doing so they have sacrificed the originality that their company was founded on. What’s even more laughable is the certainty that they will never be able to recapture the feeling their originals invoke. At their very best, these remakes will always be at least somewhat off from the original—just barely missing the mark—and at worst, they will be an atrocious waste of time that bastardizes every movie that constituted viewers’ childhoods.