Why all the Disney remakes?

beauty and the beast

In March this year, the live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast hit screens worldwide. Boasting a cast of Hollywood heavy-hitters such as Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Sir Ian McKellen, Luke Evans and Emma Thompson, the film has widely been considered a success.

It brought in some serious money for Disney, gaining around $1.2 billion USD worldwide while sharing the beloved classic fairytale with a new generation. The last animated version, however, was only released in 1991, and is in itself considered to be a popular classic of the Disney franchise.

So, why did we need another one?

Beauty and the Beast is, of course, not a stand alone project. It is one of several live-action remakes have been churned out by Disney in recent years. The pattern began in 2010 with the re-release of Alice in Wonderland directed by Hollywood icon Tim Burton. It was followed by the 2014 Sleeping Beauty spin-off, Maleficent, and the almost immediate announcements of Cinderella (2015) and The Jungle Book (2016) after Maleficent’s success.

jungle book film shot

Image: The Jungle Book (2016)

There’s plenty in the pipeline too. Disney has already announced a central cast for the upcoming new version of the massive 1994 box office hit, The Lion King, in which Donald Glover will play Simba and James Earl Jones will reprise his role as Mufasa. Mulan (1998) is also coming back in 2018 to retell the story of the famous Chinese heroine.

All of these remakes, like the ones before them, are highly anticipated. Even the original Disney versions are remakes of literary works or previous films. So how is it we’re so willing to continue watching the same story on repeat?

In an article for the Journal of Consumer Research, Cristel Russell and Sidney Levy posited some theories as to why people return to old stories over and over again.

The first is pretty simple. We like them. Russell and Levy cite a central driver of what they call “reconstructive consumption” as the pure ease with which our brains can take in a film whose plot we already know and love. The repetition involved in going to see a remake is almost therapeutic: it cannot surprise us, and engaging with it is therefore a very easy way to regulate our emotions.

In fact, they also suggest one of the main reasons young children are able to rewatch televisions shows and films so often is simply because they find comfort in their ability to understand what will happen every time. A familiar movie provides a child with the ultimate sense of assurance in a world full of things it does not know.

Russell and Levy even suggest the reason might be even deeper, arguing the “dynamic linkages between one’s past, present and future experiences through the re-consumption of an object allow for an existential understanding.” Re-engaging with an old film or show, they say, allows consumers to “consider their own particular enjoyments and understandings of the choices they have made.” In other words, reconnecting with a favourite film provides a chance to bring our new perspective of today and apply it the old memories of our past.

The “new perspective” of content creation itself is also a big factor in these remakes. Contemporary viewers are very used to the incredible visual effects allowed by CGI technology, and a major reason for creating live-action versions of these classics is to ensure new generations will want to engage with them. To anyone born after the late-1990s, Disney’s original animation may seem outdated, regardless of plot.

Image: Disney's Maleficent (2014)

Image: Disney’s Maleficent (2014)

Of course, the final and very obvious reason is nostalgia. I must admit, I’ve gone to see each and every one of these remakes at the cinema, in large part for the fun of revisiting a very happy part of my childhood. Any millennial who grew up watching these original Disney classics would attest to their almost magical quality. Parents, too, are taking their now-adult children to the remakes to revisit a tradition they may otherwise have outgrown. Of course, the universality of these stories is a major reason they are able to be remade over and over again and still resonate with the audiences of their time, as well as those who know the plots exactly.

Let’s not forget though these remakes are, first and foremost, designed to be money-makers, and Disney is much less concerned with making its audiences all warm and fuzzy again than it is with bringing in the bucks.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t love them, too.

Personally, I hope The Aristocats is up next.