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Jim On Film
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by Jim Miles (archives)
July 25, 2002
If Jim ran Disney … Jim discusses what's wrong with Disney live-action films.

Disney Live-Action Films:
If I Ran Disney
Part 1

Recently, Disney announced that it was going to film a remake of its 1959 classic The Shaggy Dog. It was Disney’s first comedy, and its success inspired two decades of zany family-friendly Disney comedies. It was, naturally, sequeled, though not until 1976, in The Shaggy D.A., which starred Dean Jones and Suzanne Pleshette. This was followed with a 1987 television sequel and a 1994 television remake. Simply put, Wilby Daniels has had more lives than most cats.

Of course, he is being rivaled by Annabelle Andrews, the teenage girl in the 1977 comedy Freaky Friday which starred Jodie Foster and Barbara Harris. In 1995, the television remake starred Gaby Hoffman as the daughter and Shelley Long as the mother. Not to be outdone by past success, Disney is now cashing in on the familiarity of the story and is filming a remake for theaters starring Annette Benning.

Similarly, since the late 1980s, One Hundred and One Dalmatians, The Absent-Minded Professor, The Parent Trap, That Darn Cat!, and The Incredible Journey have all received remakes. This is, of course, by no means an exhaustive list, nor does it take into account any number of television remakes Disney has made of other films.

Of the list above, it can probably be argued that the only one to add anything of value to the story was Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey, which gave the animal characters voices and stronger personalities. Other additions have either been in seeing the characters in contemporary life (like The Parent Trap) or changes that did not improve anything (like That Darn Cat).

There is also the list of films Disney has made that remake other studios’ works--Inspector Gadget, George of the Jungle, My Favorite Martian, and so on.

What is the point? Other than potentially easy money due to name recognition, why constantly remake what was done right in the first place?

The issue is not that there is no room for remakes in filmland. The Angels in the Outfield remake is probably a good example. First, it is a remake of a lesser-known film. It’s not one readily shown on television or for sale at the local Target. The filmmakers didn’t have a strong name-recognition factor to rely on, which suggests that there was an artistic interest in the project; they weren’t doing it in hopes of having an easy audience. Secondly, the Disney remake added to the story by visualizing the angels. It wasn’t a matter of simply updating the time or adding trendy slang, but it was an attempt to make something different.

Remakes should also be reserved for stories that can be told in a different way, can be told in a better way, or can bring something different to the medium. The 1973 animated Robin Hood revisited an excellent live-action adaptation Disney made in 1952 (not to mention versions by other studios). While it has the same basic plot outline, it adds elements, changes tone, and is largely different from the studio’s earlier version.

Perhaps the main problem with Disney’s remake mania is that Disney is so busy remaking their best films for the sake of name recognition that they forget the presence of several films in their live-action canon which held great potential but were never fully realized. Take, for example, The Island at the Top of the World. Sluggishly plotted, sluggishly written, and with special effects that vary in success, The Island at the Top of the World was based on Ian Cameron’s novel The Lost Ones. The novel is, overall, an exciting piece of science fiction, blooming with interesting lore and exciting action. The Island at the Top of the World is only a light Xerox of what it could have been. But Disney would probably never consider the remake potential--the opportunity to realize what the film could have been--because it was not successful the first time around.

Other Disney films that might make great remake material are Napoleon and Samantha, Snowball Express, The World’s Greatest Athlete, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Tom and Huck.

Furthermore, there is really no need to re-film stories that have already been done successfully. The world is full of stories waiting to be told. Why revisit the past? This only becomes more apparent when the originals shine so much brighter. Flubber, for example, was inventive in adding the Weebo character, but the rest of the film lacks greatly in comparison to the original. The That Darn Cat remake held great potential by altering the focus, but with humorless writing, the attempt became the true crime. Even The Parent Trap, which is probably one of the best of Disney’s remakes, couldn’t top the original.

There is a vast catalog of excellent young adult novels that would adapt well into a Disney film. The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare, The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle by Avi, and My Brother Sam is Dead by James Lincoln Collier and Christopher Collier come to mind. There are also a great many historical people whose lives would make interesting Disney films, a great many plays that have never been made into films, and furthermore, Hollywood is filled with talented writers who have something new up their sleeves. But with resources being channeled to a second wave of remakes, Disney cannot develop the next generation of Disney memories.

With all its resources and talent, Disney can and should be making exciting new films to draw in family audiences. The Santa Clause, The Kid, Remember the Titans, The Princess Diaries, and The Rookie show what great potential the studio has to reach new audience with new stories. They just need to take away the so-so safety net and remember what it means to take chances.

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-- Jim Miles

A graduate of Northwestern College in St. Paul, Jim Miles is an educator, play director, and writer from Minnesota. Besides writing for LaughingPlace.com. he is currently working on revising his first book (a literary mystery/suspense novel) and revising the libretto for an original musical. He also writes and directs skits and plays for his church. His article "Disney’s Snubbed Films" was selected for publication in ANiMATO! shortly before the magazine was no longer published.

Jim On Film is published every other Thursday.

The opinions expressed by our guest columnists, and all of our columnists, do not necessarily represent the feelings of LaughingPlace.com or any of its employees or advertisers. All speculation and rumors about the future of Disneyland and the Walt Disney Company are just that - speculation and rumors - and should be treated as such.

-- Posted July 25, 2002

Copyright Jim Miles. Licensed to LaughingPlace.com.