With Beauty and the Beast hitting cinemas earlier in the year, and footage from The Lion King being shown at D23, the focus for Disney fans at the moment is very much on the company’s repeated revisiting of its history. Opinion, of course, ranges from utter outrage to gleeful celebration, and as a fan of both Disney and creative remixing, I fall very much into the latter category. After all, what’s wrong with re-telling these ‘tales as old as time’ when they come from an oral tradition that enabled each storyteller to craft their version of the story in their own specific way. Surely that’s the point of (and one of the joys of) fairy tales.
Much of the criticism of Disney seems to revolve around a perceived lack of originality, and that’s a fair point. When you think of Disney’s output you probably don’t think much about sequels and remakes. That’s because out of the 56 films that constitute their core offering (their Animated Classics), only one is a sequel: The Rescuers Down Under. Wreck-It Ralph 2 and Frozen 2 will follow before this decade is out, and after their critical and commercial successes last year, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Zootopia and Moana get spin-offs as well. But until recently, sequels and remakes have been a well that Disney has rarely wished into.
Buried away in the Disney filmography is a string of sequels that the studio released during the 90s and early 00s. Spinning off everything from Mulan and Pocahontas to Peter Pan and Cinderella, these films are often dismissed by fans and critics alike and were quickly stopped once John Lasseter took control in the mid Noughties. They were released direct to video (later DVD) and were produced by Disney’s TV animation wing, DisneyToons Studio, which opened its doors in 1990 with Duck Tales: Treasure of the Lost Lamp and has also produced the Planes and (really rather brilliant) Tinkerbell series.
It’s easy to be sniffy about these releases. The animation is often inferior to the Animated Classics, and the scripts are pretty tenuous because, in many cases, the stories don’t strictly need to be told. After all, is there really a need for Bambi 2, a midquel that focuses on the Great Prince of the Forest’s mentoring of his new charge? Do we absolutely have to have The Jungle Book 2, in which Baloo is suspected of having taken Mowgli back to the jungle? And who the heck asked for Cinderella III: A Twist in Time, which finds Cinders (I kid you not) travelling through time?
Some of these films (Cinderella II: Dreams Come True, Hunchback of Notre Dame II, Lion King 1 ½, (which – again, not joking here – riffs on ‘Rozencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead’ in the way the original riffed on ‘Hamlet’) are pretty good and well worth checking out if you liked the first films. But vital necessities? Not really. At least not in terms of telling stories that have to be told. But maybe, when considering these films, we’re approaching them in the wrong way. Instead of thinking if we need them, we should instead think about whether they’re needed by their core audience: kids. And in that case, I’d argue the answer is an overwhelming yes.
When I was young, I watched my favourite films over and over again. The Goonies, Superman, various Disneys, and various Spielbergs all went through the cycle at my house as me, my sister, and my brother learned every bit of dialogue and memorised every beat. I suspect you were the same if you had a film, or films, that you were truly passionate about. When you really love a movie (or a TV show, or a book) as a child, you don’t want it to end, so when you do get to those closing credits, you rewind and rewatch, knowing deep down that everything will happen in exactly the same way at exactly the same time as the other 7,984 times you’ve watched it, but still watching it anyway.
Films are windows into lives that kids haven’t yet experienced. They help them understand emotions they could be struggling with and get to grips with empathy, associating so firmly with certain characters that they don’t want to let go of them. It’s why fan fiction and fan art have become so significant as mediums for self-exploration in recent years, and why the pressure is greater than ever for film-makers to be more inclusive. In a world that’s as divisive and fraught as ours is, the safety of fiction offers a comforting arena where anyone can be anything without fear of judgement or reprisal.
Giving kids further adventures with their fictional heroes is therefore not simply a money-making venture, but something of genuine worth. I know I wish I’d had further adventures with the likes of Elliott and Chunk to enjoy when I was a kid. And I suspect the kids of today are lapping up the wonderful Frozen comic books produced by Joe Books and are thrilled at the prospect of seeing weekly stories from the worlds of Tangled and Big Hero 6. They represent a very real, very important map through the chaos of growing up and that, surely, is more significant than star ratings and rankings on Rotten Tomatoes.
So when we think of these sequels and remakes like Beauty and the Beast, it’s wise to remove ourselves from the equation, regardless of how artistically significant we see the original, or financially motivated we view the new stories. Art, in whatever medium it comes, is not static and it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It exists, and needs to evolve, in order to illuminate, engage and inform, as well as simply to entertain and stand as great work. That illumination shines in different ways to different people and if illuminating the lives of younger audiences requires a few sequels or remakes of variable quality, I’d say that’s a fair trade.