An abused elephant with oversized ears joyously takes flight.
A kitchen comes to life, each piece of hardware and furniture bursting into song.
A street urchin and a princess soar through the clouds on an enchanted rug.
A lion cub is foisted into the air, as all the jungle’s creatures bow in deference.
For a generation of moviegoers, there’s little doubt that each of those sentences conjures up some intense feelings as the moments described, each from a classic Disney animated film, begin to play back in their minds, perfectly recalled from memory. You can almost hear the songs now, can’t you? The nostalgia, as they say, is real.
And that’s something that Walt Disney Pictures—the live-action production subsidiary of Walt Disney Studios—has been banking on since Tim Burton‘s 2010 live-action adaptation of Alice in Wonderland. Since that film arrived in theaters to become the fifth-highest-grossing film of all time with a worldwide gross over over $1 billion—it’s since been unseated in ranking and now hovers at the 40th-highest-grossing, not adjusted for inflation, highlighting just how strong the box office has been in the last decade—Disney has employed a strategy of mining its own beloved and deep bench of animated classics for live-action adaptations with bonkers budgets. And with the October 18 release of Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, we’re finally finished with 2019’s planned release of four live-action films that are either direct adaptations of classics or, as is the case with this week’s release, a sequel to an earlier adaptation.
It’s a business decision that flies directly in the face of Walt Disney‘s own edict on the prospect of returning to familiar territory, with the legendary innovator reportedly responding to requests for sequels for his wildly successful 1933 animated short “Three Little Pigs” by declaring, “You can’t top pigs with pigs.” (He would eventually relent and produce sequels, though their moderate levels of success only furthered his resolve to pursue new artistic risks over retreads.) And it certainly ignores former Walt Disney Studios chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg‘s 1991 decree about the pursuit of original ideas. “People don’t want to see what they’ve already seen,” he wrote in a 28-page memo to colleagues. “Our job is not to count on recycled formulas, but to create and develop fresh, new stories.”
And yet, it’s a winning strategy that’s entirely in step with our reboot and revival-crazed, nostalgia-obsessed times. With more entertainment being made now than ever before, it can be hard to cut through the clutter. When your project is a property that people are already familiar with, it can help. When that property is a practically universally beloved entry in the Disney Animation vault, it’s the key to billions.
When CEO Bob Iger appointed Sean Bailey to president of Walt Disney Pictures in 2010, followed by the appointment of Alan Horn as Walt Disney Studios’ chairman in 2012, the path to building up the Mouse House’s live-action production slate became clear. “We thought if Iron Man and Thor and Captain America are Marvel superheroes, then maybe Alice, Cinderella, Mowgli, and Belle are our superheroes, and Cruella and Maleficent are our supervillains,” Bailey told Vulture in 2017. “Maybe if there’s a way to reconnect with that affinity for what those characters mean to people in a way that gets the best talent and uses the best technology, that could become something really exciting. It feels very Disney, playing to the competitive advantages of this label.”
There appears to be no end in sight for Disney’s plans to mine their existing IP in this way—after this year’s four releases, which also included March’s Dumbo and to Aladdin, to much anticipation from nostalgic millennials across the globe, there are adaptations of Mulan, Lady and the Tramp, Lilo & Stitch, and The Little Mermaid, all in varied stages of development, on the way in 2020 and beyond—not at least until they work their way through all 56 canonical animated classics and run out of original material to reproduce.
Back in 2017, Bailey told Vulture that the studio’s line in the sand, as it were, on which films in the library were ready for adaptation and which were too fresh was around the year 2000. “We’re not looking at anything very recent, [anything] that still feels like it’s still the provenance of current Disney animation,” he told the outlet. Though, the 2018 announcement of Lilo & Stitch‘s adaptation seems to calls that into question. (The film was released in 2002.)
At any rate, Bailey doesn’t seem to want to limit the studio in terms of what’s up for adaptation grabs and what’s not. When asked by The Hollywood Reporter in December 2018 how deep into its library Disney was willing to go, he told the trade publication he wasn’t sure. “I don’t know, because we might hear something that excites us,” he said. “Take Maleficent. She was a character who cursed a baby because she didn’t get an invitation to a party, and we thought, ‘This is interesting.’ We made a movie, and now we are making another movie. We will continue to play around in ways that I hope are interesting and unexpected.”
And if the money continues to pour in, why not? Since Alice in 2010, the 11 live-action adaptations to be released by Disney have grossed over $7 billion combined worldwide.