In a world of recessions, uncertainty and extremism, the cinema has turned to a familiar machine. The remake or reboot has been experiencing a renaissance in recent years, including Point Break (1991 and 2015) and Carrie (1976 and 2013). Whilst these remakes aren’t always successful (one only needs to recall Footloose 2011, and Psycho 1998), they enable a cinema-goer to see something comfortingly familiar, whilst still having the luxury of seeing a new film. These remakes are assured of some box office success, a certain amount of people will see the film just to see what this new version is like. In terms of advertising a remake is a fairly easy sell, people know the storyline, they know vaguely what sort of cinema package they’re getting.
What can this rise in the remake or reboot tell us about the current state of Hollywood and the appetite of cinema? Is it a symptom of a lack of good filmmaking? There’s no shortage of decent, new stories, but there seems to be an appetite from movie studios to remake old ones (the news of the Matrix reboot by Warner Brothers seems to support this). An easy way to explain away this escalation would be to cite the ease of advertising and the assurance of some viewing success.
Disney has also joined the remake boom. Disney’s model has been to film live action versions of classic animated musicals. This has currently included Cinderella (1950, 2015), The Jungle Book (1967, 2016) and Beauty and The Beast (1991, 2017). There are also plans to remake The Lion King (1994), Dumbo (1941), Mulan (1998), Peter Pan (1953) and The Little Mermaid (1989). The live action remakes of Cinderella and The Jungle Book were relatively successful at the box, making 543.5 million USD and 966.6 million USD respectively. So, there is clearly an appetite for these films and one that extends beyond a morbid curiosity of: “I wonder what they did to my favourite childhood film”.
The films that are being remade are part of Disney’s most successful body of work: the animated musical. As a genre of cinema, the musical extends and develops the already polished world of the film. When discussing the music of 1930s and 1940s in her book ‘Strains of Utopia: Gender, Nostalgia, and Hollywood Film Music’, Caryl Flinn states that music has been assigned a utopian function: “Music extends an impression of perfection and integrity in an otherwise imperfect, unintegrated world.”
The utopian function that musicals perform are easy to see in live action films such as The Wizard of Oz (1939) and Singin’ in the Rain (1952). The songs are woven seamlessly into the spoken word so that bursting into song appears normal. In the world of the musical, everything will be alright, boy will end up with girl, because people are singing and dancing. The world of a musical is a sugar-coated world, it often looks similar to our own but it is sprinkled with pixie dust. It is an idealised cinematic portrayal of our world and our stories and it is through music that this utopian mode is extended.
When adding animation into the musical, the model becomes more fantastic and more idealised. An animated musical has a certain magic which is not achieved in other films. This is due to the utopian function of the film musical which is then combined with the sweeping and romanticised world of animation. An animated musical is pure escapism. In ‘Only Entertainment’, Richard Dryer discusses the escapism that entertainment offers: “Entertainment offers the image of ‘something better’ to escape into, or something we want – deeply that our day–to–day lives don’t provide. Alternatives, hopes, wishes – these are the stuff of utopia the sense that thing could be better, that something other than what is can be imagined and maybe realized.” The animated musical is the pinnacle of cinematic escapism, the film watcher is swept up in a world of bright colours and singing teapots. A world far away from reality where, sadly, the crockery doesn’t burst into song during the dinner time.
Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, the latest to receive the remake treatment, demonstrates its escapist ideals. The animated original, released in 1991, whisks away the film viewer instantly in the first few moments of the film. As the movie fades in, the audience is gazing upon a beautiful woodland, with streams of sunlight coming through the trees. The ethereal music, created by the twinkling of piano keys, suggests that this is a magical place. The camera then goes through a gap in the trees, to zoom on the castle, taking the viewer directly into the film and its enchanted world. The viewer does not see the woodland from afar, instead they are amongst the branches and the flowers, plunged within the environment of this tale. This is a technique that has been effectively used within many paintings including ‘Woman at the Window’ by Casper David Friedrich (1882). The viewer is led into the painting by the landscape glimpsed through the window, they are given a sense of the wider world beyond the painted scene. This technique is a secondary space and, as Martha Hollander An Entrance for the Eyes: Space and Meaning in Seventeenth Century Dutch Art’ discusses, it can take many forms: “In landscapes the eye is led into the secondary space by a gap through trees or distant mountains. In interiors, these views are revealed through archways, open doors, pulled back curtains, or the hairline grids of latticed windows, or appear within the frames of mirrors and pictures on walls.” This technique is used in the opening of Beauty and the Beast (1991) to fully place the audience within Belle’s world. The audience is lead from the primary space, consisting of the tree branches and roses, to the secondary space beyond that, which is the prince’s castle. From the second that landscape is sighted and the music is heard, the audience has escaped into Disney.
Understanding this utopia function and this escapism is key to why the remake has become a staple feature of cinematic releases. When watching the original animated versions at home it is an act of nostalgic immersion. It is an act of not only watching, listening, and quite often singing but also of remembering. This act of audio-vision (a term I borrow from Michel Chion) is an act of reliving previous instances of watching the film, of watching it together as a family, of singing along as a child and now singing along as an adult.
In ‘Postmodernism or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism’, Fredric Jameson discusses nostalgia films describing them as movies which attempt to recapture a historical time, citing George Lucas’ American Graffiti (1973). “Nostalgia films restructure the whole issue of pastiche and project it onto a collective and social level, where the desperate attempt to appropriate a missing past is now refracted through the iron law of fashion change and the emergent ideology of the generation.” Although Jameson’s definition of the nostalgic film does not completely apply to the concept of the Disney remake that is being discussed. The idea of a film passed onto a new generation can be applied. Beauty and The Beast, for example as Jameson discussed, has been refracted through our modern fashion filter. This is evident in the photos released of the ballroom scene, particularly in Belle’s dress. Instead of the ruffles and long gloves of the ‘90s, Belle wears a simplified and more contemporary version of the animated ball gown.
The word remake, according to Jameson is not applicable, because the film’s previous versions become embedded in the viewership’s psyche and therefore undividable from the current version: “The word remake is, however, anachronistic to the degree to which our awareness of the preexistence of other versions (previous films of the novel as well as the novel itself) is now a constitutive and essential part of the film’s structure: we are now, in other words, in ‘intertextuality’ as a deliberate, built-in feature of the aesthetic effect and as the operator of a new connotation of ‘pastness’ and pseudohistorical depth, in which the history of aesthetic styles displaces ‘real’ history.” Therefore, with Beauty and the Beast and all Disney remakes of musicals, the original is part of the new films. The remake cannot be separate from the animated original. This is intertextuality is made even clearer through the use of the same songs and music. Like the ball gown, the songs will have subtle alterations but the essence is still the same.
Sadly, Disney can’t resist putting Emma Watson’s voice through the filter of auto tune. This is most noticeable in the few opening lines of ‘Belle’, particularly in the word people, where technicians have tried to move the voice down too many notes and it skips, making Emma Watson sound robotic. I thought after the success of live singing in Tom Hooper’s ‘Les Misérables’ (2012) that movie executives had learnt that audiences can relate to an ‘imperfect’ voice that sings genuinely. Anne Hathaway singing ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ is heart breaking because it is genuine, she acts through her singing. This disappears when a voice is auto tuned.
Perhaps Disney has auto tuned because everything must be ‘perfect’ in the world of fairy tales. However, an earnest princess is more relatable, and her emotions can be truer when you allow an actress such as Emma Watson to sing with them. Perhaps Disney itself is nostalgic for the success of these films? Although a recent addition to the fairy tale family, Frozen, is hardly a failure. In the uncertain political and economic times that are before us all, maybe those of us who got swept away in the tales before are nostalgic for the collective experience of these animated musicals. After all, everything is alright when someone is singing in the movies.
Richard Dryer, Only Entertainment, 1992, Routledge
Caryl Flinn, Strains of Utopia: Gender, Nostalgia, and Hollywood Film Music, 1992, Princeton University Press
Martha Hollander, An Entrance For The Eyes: Space and Meaning in Seventeenth Century Dutch Art, 2002, University of California Press
Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, 1991, Duke University Press