Can We Stop The Bloated Live-Action Remakes of Animated Movies?
Hollywood has always been a factory, finding trends and exploiting them until well past viability. The latest product to get manufactured en masse by studio executives is the live-action remake of animated films. It started with Tim Burton's not-so-remake of Alice in Wonderland in 2010. Then came Maleficent, and Cinderella, and The Jungle Book, and now Beauty and the Beast. Disney's business model of capitalizing on our collective childhoods is fully eating its own tail, with many more live-action remakes of classic animated films on the way.
And Disney isn't the only one. Other studios are playing a similar game, remaking classic anime films and series. This weekend, Ghost in the Shell will attempt to bring the incredible 1994 anime film to "life" with star Scarlett Johansson.
There's nothing wrong with this trend per se. Movies get remade and reimagined all the time. People complain, and usually the remakes aren't as good, but then most movies aren't actually that good so it's no big loss. It's not like the originals have disappeared. Yet there is something somewhat perverse about the endeavor to remake animated films in live-action. It's not that studios have found new and interesting ways to tell an old story. Instead, they're making a bet that what audiences really want is the same story—only "real."
It turns out they're not far off base at all. Disney's remakes of their own animated canon have been wildly successful. Beauty and the Beast is on track to make over $1 billion worldwide. Ghost in the Shell will be a harder sell. The trailers are strange, giving little insight into a convoluted plot, and the controversy surrounding its decision to cast white actors in a Japanese story may have tainted perception of the film in some circles. Whitewashing isn't the only problem Ghost in the Shell faces, though. The truth is, the concept of a live-action remake of an animated film is flawed to its core. For whatever gains in supposed realism, there is so much more lost by ditching animation.
On Twitter, Nick Bertke pointed out one of the problems with the recent slate of live-action remakes.
Animated films were animated for a reason. Animators and animation fans often point out that animated films are not a genre, but rather a medium or a format. Animation is merely way of telling a story, with its own unique quirks and advantages. One of those advantages is a degree of exaggerated expression almost entirely unavailable in live-action, where photorealism, as Bertke shows, limits possibilities.
The urge to make a film like Beauty and the Beast—which takes the original, updates it a bit, but sticks to it pretty slavishly—signals a kind of disrespect for animation.
The urge to make a film like Beauty and the Beast—which takes the original, updates it a bit, but sticks to it pretty slavishly—signals a kind of disrespect for animation. There's an implication in the effort that while the animated film might be great, what it could really use is a dose of reality. Animated films are a trifle; live-action films are real films. To remake Beauty and the Beast in live-action confers onto it a dignity usually reserved for films with real photographed actors and photoreal visual effects. I mean, it's not like Disney's animated Beauty and the Beast was a widely acclaimed masterpiece and the first animated film nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars or anything.
In the latest episode of the Slate Culture Gabfest, the hosts talk about their appreciation for the fact that the new Beauty and the Beast mostly stays away from being too theatrical, too "Broadway." The restraint is a plus. But of course. Live-action films, especially modern ones, are meant to avoid all impression of artificiality, theatricality, exaggerated expression. God forbid somebody sing with gusto and the story move with all the force of melodrama. The original Disney film was a direct descendant of Broadway. Alan Menken and Howard Ashman brought their stage sensibility to the music and story of Beauty and the Beast, letting the animators take full advantage of the range available in the medium to take a strikingly simple story and turn it into an epic, classic "tale as old as time."
Ghost in the Shell, meanwhile, featured some of the most impressive animation of any animated film in the '90s. Its melding of traditional and computer animation was used to build a world of incredible intricacy and wild flights of imagination. Its action moved in ways no live-action film ever could. Of course, Hollywood had to try. Sure, it's cool to see impossible stunts in animation, but wouldn't it be cooler if it were "real?"
The appeal of such an attempt is on some level undeniable, but it also misses the point. Animation wasn't used because the action couldn't be done in live-action; rather, it was used because it allowed a fullness of motion and expression to match its story. To reimagine Ghost in the Shell as just another sci-fi action film is to almost entirely miss the point. Its animation was crucial. Take that away, and you'd better have something special to add.
It's not that live-action remakes must be bad. Maleficent was decent enough. Cinderella and The Jungle Book were surprisingly good! Those films each managed to bring something unique to the table outside of the simple fact that they were live-action. Still, the factory mentality of it is unsettling. One of the upcoming Disney remakes is The Lion King, which will be entirely animated, but in a photorealistic way. "Live-action." What's the point? What does that bring to the table except a pitch for seriousness? As though The Lion King isn't one of the most beautiful, majestic family films ever made. As though it doesn't make everyone who watches it cry. As though it doesn't already feature deep human complexity. But like the original Beauty and the Beast, or Ghost in the Shell, I guess it's just not serious enough. Audiences crave something more grounded in reality. So we'll keep remaking animated films in live-action until we run out of animated films—or the box office returns dry up, whichever comes first. And then it'll be off to the next trend.
This story originally appeared on Esquire.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.