In 2019, the Disney company released not 1 or 2, but 3 live-action remakes of their own bona-fide classic animated films. But watching them all back-to-back gave me some clarity – or drove me insane – about why these remakes are being made the way they are. All 3 of them approach the material in subtly different ways – one overhauling the story quite a bit, another playing it rigidly straight and another that through sheer filmmaking energy, kind of makes it work.

Yes, all of these movies make mountains of money for the Mouse House, that is no doubt. The cynic in my says it’s the Disney version of banging out CSI spin-offs, trust the name of a reliable property to get families in the seats. But there is also a strategic advantage that these live-action movies have that their hand-drawn counterparts don’t: length via cost. Hand drawn animation is both time-consuming and expensive. It’s the reason that most Disney renaissance films run a little over and hour and cap out at 90 minutes. It wasn’t until Pixar’s The Incredibles that a Disney narrative film clocked in at about Miyazaki-length 2 hours. But live-action, where you don’t have to draw every square inch of the background, can afford you the length to flesh out a story, delve into the characters more and let the movie breath. Or you can just more quickly crank out annual sequels. The question is how are they using that time?

Dumbo

Directed by Tim Burton | Original: 1 hr 3 mins | Remake: 1 hr 52 mins

Disney’s 1941 hand-drawn classic hasn’t aged well in some well-publicized aspects, but holds up very well from a storytelling standpoint. A film that emerged out of the 30s era Disney renaissance with  Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Pinocchio, Dumbo is a wacky movie, bouncing with surreal, exaggerated cartoonish energy it is exactly what can be so creatively brilliant about animation. The storks that buzz through the rain like fighter jets over an areal view of Florida that says “Florida” on the land. The movie also builds a little animal world within it’s Dust Bowl era travelling circus, one with a chattering class of aristocratic elephants and a huckster mouse. It is, quite ironically, one of the best examples of using animals to tell universal human stories.  One where Dumbo’s big ears are a source of mockery, and the thing that society excludes him for ultimately become his greatest strength.

But Dumbo is a very short film at 1 hour and 3 minutes, ending with the punchline of a flying elephant. 2019’s Dumbo doesn’t want to make a movie about one character’s journey to self-actualizaiton, it wants to make a movie about a CGI flying elephant and that’s where director Tim Burton picks it up. Burton – the man who started thi nightmare with Alice in Wonderland – is the right choice visually for this.  He recreates a fluid world of the carnival with a perfectly cast Danny DeVito, the ultra modern Disney-esque big city tourist attraction run by a camped-out Michael Keaton and a music-only rendition of the “Casey Jr” theme song.

Much of the original’s charm is how it plays like a silent film in parts, allowing us to empathize with animals through their actions. In 2019 we have no empathy and realism rules the day. Dumbo is ultimately the most interesting of these 3 remakes in how the movie chooses to meet the challenge of a film that demands a timely update. Written by Ehren Kruger (who has been adding unnecessary human stories to Transformers films for years, a fact that will be very important in a second) the script has a few clever nods, expanses in the story and threads touchstone moments from the original through it. Opening and closing with realistic storks and thinking of a necessary new way for Dumbo to get his magic feather. Several lines, like the crow’s song lyrics, and the Elephants on Parade number are cleverly repurposed.

Some of the changes are necessary and several are just there to blow out the running time, conforming this Dumbo to look and sound like every other family film in the market today. Weirdest of all Krugar and Burton don’t trust Dumbo to carry the movie, instead revolving it around a human family (Colin Farrell as a Great War veteran raising 2 kids) to verbalize all of the wants and needs implied in the animation of the original’s animals. This flips the story fundamentally, from one of how we treat ourselves (the elephants ostracizing Dumbo and Mrs. Jumbo) to one of how we treat animals. Ultimately, this is a movie that decided it needed a remake because the original wasn’t anti-captivity enough, didn’t have a caper, didn’t have an evil businessman villain and didn’t climax in a big destructive fire that tears everything down.

The original film is a unique, distinctly cartoonish piece of work and while Burton’s Dumbo doesn’t come off as soulless like many of these do (I’m a sucker for this 20s era production design), it does force it into a template and then goes through the motions. I appreciate how Dumbo attempts to stear the story into new directions and gives it  space to breathe a bit. Plus, Dumbo is adorable if a side character in his own movie. It undercuts the message of the original and what it does replace it with is nothing new, but it’s entertaining.

Aladdin 

Directed by Guy Ritchie | Original: 1 hr 30 mins | Remake: 2 hrs 8 mins

This is the one I expected to hate. The idea of Guy Ritchie frenetically running roughshod over 1992’s Aladdin for over 2 hours sounded like the most garish thing. And yet here it is, the most fun film in the group – maybe of all of the Disney remakes. Guy Ritchie (who also co-writes) doesn’t have to do as much heavy lifting here as Aladdin is already a complete, satisfying story by modern standards and one already populated with humans. Ritchie just has to recreate it, build a few interesting sets, keep all of the original themes intact and generally not screw it up. The story still comes out of the character’s already defined arc, and not a forced 2019 social message. Where Burton left his whimsical visual style to Dumbo, Ritchie adds his vibrant energy to this production. There is only one slow motion sequence and it’s very effective. The movie never gets too frenetic, actually it’s often quite bright and beautiful.

Will Smith’s genie is, at first sight, cringing. Smith is handed the unenviable task of following up Robin Williams’ mad-capped, improvised voice performance with heavily choreographed wackiness, but Smith’s genie eventually grew on me too.  Ritchie is not able to make the sight of 2 people flying on a magic carpet look at all convincing and much of the movie’s humor is the awkward variety forcing Aladdin and Genie to bumble through wooing their palace women. Everyone acts very modern, nobody has a regional accent and Jafar has been aged down about 40 years, but overall Ritchie’s Aladdin is an infectiously fun adventure that clicks together shockingly well.

The Lion King 

Directed by John Favreau | Original: 1 hr 28 mins | Remake: 1 hr 58 mins

It’s hard to convey just how huge The Lion King was when it came out in 1994. Disney’s beautifully animated, Elton John-fueled Hamlet with lions swept through this country like a hurricane. If you grew up in the 90s The Lion King is sacred text, which makes the prospect of revisiting it like a DisneyNature documentary with hyper-realistic animation all the more depressing. This film takes the polar opposite approach as  Dumbo, relying entirely on the audience relating to talking animals and creating a society for them in barren Serengeti landscapes. Let’s pause on the setting for a moment. The African Serengeti in the original film, feels warm and lived in. The dusty, rocky Serengeti of this Lion King feels cold and post-apocalyptic. It looks like something Orson Welles shot on the surface of Mars.

We can be grateful that John Favreau’s The Lion King does go that direction and doesn’t force Simba and Moufasa to team up with a family of Americans visiting Africa so they can all fight against poachers. Instead we have Favreau (who went over this territory before so much better with The Jungle Book remake) so caught up in slavishly recreating the details that the movie becomes an empty slog. It’s the Disney version of Gus Van Sant’s shot-for-shot Psycho. More of a “Because we can” experiment than a living, breathing film.

With the exception of letting Seth Rogen and Billie Eichner run wild as Timon and Pumbaa, the movie is so painstakingly recreated that I found myself hung up on all the tiniest changes in shots, musical tones and line deliveries and each time this version came up half-hearted. 1994’s The Lion King is kind of magical. Favreau’s is a huge bore. Watching it back-to-back with Aladdin also highlights how similar the material is, both villains part of the familiar royal court who think the throne should be theirs.

One of the biggest problems with The Lion King is a problem that affects all of these live-action remakes. In the original we get a show-stopping villain musical number by Scar in “Be Prepared” in which the lion (voiced by Jeremy Irons) flourishes his paws and preens with stage play theatricality. Forcing that into a hyper-realistic setting with real animals walking around on all 4s loses that theatrical flourish and, frankly, I’d take that over realism any day.