Disney is pushing out remake after remake and no one has been more annoyed about this than me — until I saw The Jungle Book and realized these remakes’ full potential.
There’s magic in Jon Favreau’s fingertips.
Not only can he be attributed with a large chunk of the success of Marvel Studios’ modern resurgence (Kevin Feige deserves some of the credit too, wink wink) — elevating the franchise from its lackluster pre-MCU days with his gripping, impressive and emotionally resonant Iron Man in 2008 — but now he’s gone and done it again with the Disney remake wave.
While most people appreciated the visual display of Kenneth Branagh (incidentally, another new-wave Marvel director)’s Cinderella, and even conceded that it was relatively feminist compared to its animated counterpart, nobody was really that excited for Disney’s plans to basically remake its entire catalog as “live-action” (except it’s basically just actors running around on a green screen) movies.
With everything from Fantasia and Dumbo to Beauty and the Beast and now The Little Mermaid on Disney’s live-action remake slate, audiences are understandably wary about Hollywood essentially recycling its own narratives for easy (and plentiful) cash.
But then came the masterpiece that was The Jungle Book.
I wasn’t planning to like it. Truth be told, I wasn’t even planning to watch it. But fellow Hypable writer and Hype Podcast host Marama Whyte — toughest critic in the world, if you take her own word for it — saw an early screening and absolutely adored it. Even more astonishingly, she advised the rest of us to watch it in 3D.
Now, I hate 3D, and usually avoid it at all costs. But with Marama’s recommendation I decided to splurge for the full IMAX experience. And I was transformed. There I was, eight years old again, watching Aristocats on a ratty couch in the middle of a snowstorm, drinking cocoa and feeling fully immersed in the power of imagination like only a child could be.
The Jungle Book brought me into Mowgli’s world; Jon Favreau updated the original so seamlessly, making me at once nostalgic for the past and feeling like I was watching a brand new movie. I cheered the bits I recognized. I felt a thrill when the story took an unexpected turn. I enjoyed every second of it.
The sparse but welcome use of the classic Jungle Book songs, the strong emotional bonds between Mowgli, Baloo and Bagheera, the clever way they updated King Louie (giving him Christopher Walken’s gangster drawl instead of, you know, the super racist original version) and most importantly, the fantastic character of Raksha, who is very possibly the greatest female character of 2016. At the end of the movie, she… well, spoiler alert, but it’s awesome and sealed the deal for me as far as the Disney remakes are concerned.
The movie made me laugh, cry, and truly fear for these animals I very quickly came to know and love. I watched Baloo’s fur shift and Shere Khan’s muscles flex and my jaw dropped because the CGI emulation of real animals was so real. I felt the water droplets, and the leaves on the trees, and the heat of the fire.
I’m not ignoring The Jungle Book‘s rough patches, of which they were quite a few. Ultimately, what the movie proved to me wasn’t that the Disney remakes will be above flaw, but rather that they have something new to say. While aiming to recapture the magic of the originals, Disney wants to update these stories, give them new value appropriate to this decade, and its modern audience.
Mixing nostalgia and well-known stories with fresh messages of diversity and empowerment can be extremely effective. I’m not saying every Disney remake will be as empowering as The Jungle Book (I still maintain that Cinderella didn’t even come close), but I’m now beginning to see the possibilities. There’s an element of re-imagining which intrigues me, and which goes beyond the simplistic “remake” label we’ve been using so far.
And, I’m not going to lie: Sometimes it’s what on the outside that counts. The Jungle Book was, in a word, stunning. The “live-action” label can be applied only figuratively because literally everything but Mowgli himself was CGI, but it doesn’t matter. It looked and felt entirely real — and, for once, 3D actually improved its credibility (I know because I went to see it again in 2D, because the movie was just that good).
Employing that same technology, just imagine what they can do with the underwater sequences in The Little Mermaid, or how they’ll portray the twisted tales of Pinocchio. Look at how gorgeous the Beauty and the Beast trailer is, and that only offered a glimpse of what we can expect!
Stories like Mulan, The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast deserve modern retellings, which can benefit both on a story level (with updated empowerment values) and in terms of the visuals, with Disney’s first-class level of CGI technology. More obscure/unlikely classics like Dumbo and Cruella deserve a second chance to prove their value, and I’m looking forward so seeing how new writers and directors will spin their stories.
My one remaining issue with the remake wave is that most of these stories, bar Mulan, feature white protagonists. Remaking the movies with primarily white casts would only serve to contribute to Hollywood’s perpetual discrimination against actors of color. So I’d offer a challenge to Disney: Use these remakes as an opportunity to diversify these classic stories, giving a new set of actors a chance to embody the iconic, inspiring characters and provide representation for those the original cartoons denied.
For now I’ll contend with the fact that The Jungle Book was, to my complete surprise, a truly impressive movie. Watching it felt like walking into a magical kingdom, and isn’t that what Disney’s all about?
I’m now a lot more optimistic about the shape of things to come. Beauty and the Beast looks fantastic, and many of Disney’s wilder remake ideas (specifically Sword in the Stone and Night on Bald Mountain) suddenly seem a lot more interesting. So I’m game, Disney. You reeled me in. Let’s see what you’ve got.