Movies & TV

Why Hollywood Remakes Are a Good Thing

Perhaps the point of creativity is to take from the past in order to give the present something better.
IMAGE Walt Disney Pictures/IMDB
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It would be terribly unoriginal to begin a piece on Hollywood’s spate of remakes—including today’s particularly hot topics, The Little Mermaid and Mulan—by invoking Jim Jarmusch’s 2004 interview with MovieMaker Magazine in which the director declares “Nothing is original.” And yet, here we are. 

Those unfamiliar with the quote, however, might’ve instead read something similar in Austin Kleon’s 2012 book, Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You about Being Creative. Inside, Kleon writes, “What a good artist understands is that nothing comes from nowhere. All creative work builds on what came before. Nothing is completely original.”

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Photo by Walt Disney Pictures/IMDB.

Or, perhaps, they might’ve watched Kirby Ferguson’s 2012 “Everything is a Remix” TED Talk, which presents the same general idea that Jarmusch expressed, only using different words, and with multimedia elements mixed in.

Regardless of which mouthpiece the message comes from, its point stands: Everything is born from something else. True creativity comes from how one adapts the myriad stimuli around himself into a singular form; past inspirations are always distilled into something novel. 

But one might argue that this doesn’t apply to remakes, that “reimaginings” supposedly bear less creative value than remixes. After all, what’s the point of taking something as beloved as The Lion King and rendering it in photorealistic CG, beyond cashing in on nostalgia? Isn’t the original timeless enough? Why do we need Donald Glover?

These are, admittedly, valid criticisms. Capitalism does, after all, lead to the unnecessary re-release of box-office record-breakers. And sometimes, it does lead to suspicions of laziness, or at the very least a shortage of creative effort. The case of Let the Right One In’s regrettable 2010 American remake comes to mind.

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It should be noted that despite examples to the contrary, there are remakes that are truly inspired. For every Oldboy (2013), there’s a stellar film like 1986’s The Fly. Little Shop of Horrors (1986) brought the Broadway musical remake of Roger Corman’s 1960 B-movie to the silver screen, and gave audiences one of Rick Moranis’ most enduring performances. Martin Scorsese’s The Departed won the Academy Award for Best Picture, despite being a remake of the 2002 Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs.

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Photo by 20th Century Fox/IMDB.

From these films, we can see two things that separate good remakes from the chaff: intent and execution. Both these aspects need to be excellent to justify a remake; failing one or the other gives viewers fair license to question a film’s existence. Since the upcoming remakes to The Little Mermaid and Mulan have already been mentioned, Disney is a prime example of a studio that manages to get remakes both right and wrong, in these respects.

Take, for instance, the woefully dreadful Maleficent, which turned the story of one of Disney’s finest villains into an allegory for rape. It was clear that the intent was to transform the fallen fairy into a sympathetic character, and to remind audiences that those we hate are worth listening to. But to do so by reducing a strong female character into yet another victim was loathsome execution.

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Photo by Walt Disney Pictures/IMDB.

Photo by Walt Disney Pictures/IMDB.

On the flipside, Alice in Wonderland (2010) was a spectacular film in terms of pacing and technical execution, but the odd choice to turn it in some sort of wartime fantasy epic—far from the coming-of-age story that the book and the superior animated film told—left audiences asking why Disney ever bothered making it. The changes to the narrative made the film incoherent and devoid of any magic beyond Tim Burton’s visual signature. The intent was clear: Rather than tell a good story, the studio wanted to wow people out of their money. And perhaps to hold on to the characters’ rights for another few decades.

In contrast, Disney’s finest live-action remake thus far might be Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book (2016). In a 2016 interview with the LA Times, Favreau mentioned that one of his intents for making the film was to change the original story’s perspective of nature. "This was an opportunity to tell a story for now," he said. "Things have shifted. In Kipling's time, nature was something to be overcome. Now nature is something to be protected."

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Photo by Walt Disney Pictures/IMDB.
Photo by Walt Disney Pictures/IMDB.

The director made sure that while he changed the story’s intent, its execution would blend the new movie’s now-ness with the same joyous spirit that made the 1967 animated film so beloved. It was as much as homage to the original as it was a necessary update. Favreau’s success, it should be noted, sets expectations high for his upcoming remake of The Lion King.

In the case of The Little Mermaid, not much can be surmised yet regarding its intent and execution. Despite what speculations critics may make of Disney’s “politically correct agenda,” Halle Bailey was chosen to be Ariel as a result of colorblind casting rather than a conscious decision to go with a black actress. All this tells us that Disney was intent on having its princess portrayed by the best available talent, regardless of skin color.

As for Mulan, the intent quite clearly justifies the remake. Disney’s 1998 animated version of the tale tells a vastly different story from the legend that inspired it; one of the remake’s actors even recalled his Chinese grandmother being “aghast” at what the Americans did to the story she loved. Mushu the dragon is noticeably absent from the recently released trailer, and probably for good reason: Not only was his name a form of casual racism (imagine a Filipino character being named “Adobo” for laughs), but his small stature and annoying personality was an affront to a culture that holds dragons in reverence. Disney saw a chance to make things right with a more respectful live-action movie, and it took it.

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Photo by Walt Disney Pictures/IMDB.
Photo by Walt Disney Pictures/IMDB.

This, perhaps, is the noblest reason for a remake: Building upon the past allows us to correct our present. Every film is an artifact of its time, and bears all the warts of its day. Its story, however, remains immortally in the now. If we continue to share the tale in a form that carries over yesterday’s flaws into today, it then becomes an impediment to our progress. 

We can continue to be fascinated by the adventure and romance of the original Little Mermaid, but all those emotions exist in a world without people of color. But there’s also a chance we could find that exact same magic in a live-action reimagining more representative of the people in our world. We could continue with our disrespectful interpretation of the Mulan legend, or we could learn to appreciate the story that inspired countless Chinese men and women. That’s certainly worth the risk of making movies not everyone might agree with. 

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Photo by Walt Disney Pictures/IMDB.

If nothing is original—as Jarmusch and Kleon and Austin and probably dozens others said—then perhaps the point of creativity is to take from the past in order to give the present something better. While Hollywood’s current fetish for cannibalizing its own history for remakes may leave viewers hungry for newer properties, that in itself doesn’t qualify remakes as a “bad thing.” 

They just have to be done right.

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Marco Sumayao
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