So now word has come down that Tim Burton is going to direct a live action remake of Dumbo for Disney, right after he finishes his adaptation of Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiars. Of course he is. The man who rode another live action remake to a billion dollar worldwide gross will bring all the usual visual bells and whistles he normally brings to the table and all but insure another big grosser for the studio.
Now, Dumbo isn’t Alice in Wonderland, of course, and PETA is already calling for him to change the ending (74-year-old spoiler alert!), but the idea is pretty much the same. It’s another example of a studio looking back into its own properties to wring some new life, and new dollars, from its library. In this case, a beloved classic reimagined by one of the most revered directors in Hollywood, a man with an established track record of success.
We all know that the shelf life of, say, a standard superhero is limited. There have been three different versions of Superman, two sets of Batman films (with four different actors) and yet another on the horizon, two Spider-Mans and another of those on the way, and so on. A new Fantastic Four will be introduced this summer, a new Green Lantern next year (possibly), there is now a third version of Star Trek about to shoot a third movie, there is a new interpretation of Robin Hood seemingly twice a decade, it all adds up. Franchises, as we have discussed ad nauseum in this space, are kings of the new Hollywood, even as original ideas continue their long, slow march toward inevitable death.
Which is why it shouldn’t have been surprising to learn that Burton would be taking on this re-do of an animated classic. What would be surprising, actually, is if these projects weren’t being developed. Look at what happened with Cinderella. Kenneth Branagh’s live action, non-musical adaptation of the timeless cartoon grossed over $70 million, which had to reinforce the thinking of the Muckity-Mucks in charge that this business model is as good as any other. Forget shared universes, why bother spending money on new ideas when there are perfectly good old ones just sitting around, gathering dust? Bring them out, shake them off, give them a new spin and, voilá! A brand new, moneymaking property.
To wit: Jon Favreau’s upcoming live action take on The Jungle Book, David Lowery’s Pete’s Dragon remake and, of course, Bill Condon’s star-studded take on Beauty and the Beast. Each of those, by virtue of their being live action and, thus, separate from their animated predecessors, therefore become fresh takes that have never been told before (even though they are not really separate, and they obviously have been told).
Disney has several others in development, including one for the unfortunate 1970s sci-fi adventure, The Black Hole, though it is bafflingly light on adapting old animated films. Sure, the concept of re-imagining something like Song of the South might not be the most politically correct move in this day and age, but it’s a bit curious that the studio isn’t working on something fun like The Rescuers or The Aristocats for a modern audience.
The thing is, it’s not like Disney is the only one doing this. Far from it. Warner Bros., for instance, has no fewer than two dozen of its previously-made properties lined up for revisitation. Some of them, like the long gestating Logan’s Run, make some sense in a more technologically advanced age than when the original was made, but there are plenty that scream sacrilege.
We should be paying attention to what titles are being considered.
Like Bullitt, for instance. I don’t know about you, but as big a fan as I am of the original, the story is kind of nonsensical and all the movie really does is allow Steve McQueen to be Steve McQueen while also including one of film’s great car chases. Without McQueen, who’s only been dead for 35 years, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, and yet it’s actually in development. Sacrilege!
Some of the other titles being bandied about for the remake mill are Soylent Green (sacrilege!), Super Fly (Sacrilege!), The Bad Seed, The Hunger and The Dirty Dozen (SACRILEGE, SACRILEGE, SACRILEGE!).
The thing is, though, we can belt out to the back row our displeasure about things like this, but as long as we keep flocking to the theater to see the finished products, we’re playing right into the studios’ hands. The simple truth of it is that, rather frequently, these kinds of things work out awfully well for the companies making them. Doubt it? Here are some recent titles that have been recycled to great success: Planet of the Apes, Godzilla, The Karate Kid, Tron, Clash of the Titans, True Grit, and Sherlock Holmes, just to name a few. There are more, obviously, especially when it comes to monsters like Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolfman and The Mummy, but you get the idea.
I’m not saying that we should all boycott these projects when they come out, especially because there is great talent attached to them and, more often than not, the end product is pretty good. My point is that we should be paying attention to what titles are being considered. Do we really need a new version of The Searchers without John Wayne? Or an updated Captain Blood without Errol Flynn? Or even The Incredible Mr. Limpet without Don Knotts? The fact that this last one has gone through such a disastrous development process should be a sign to everyone involved that it’s just not meant to be. Not that this is really going to stop anyone, of course, but I’m noting it for the record.
It’s one thing to revisit a beloved old property when there is no single personality attached to it, which makes the joining of Dumbo to Tim Burton somewhat appealing. But when the studios lose sight of the fact that a previous success has as much to do with who was in it as it does with what it was about, that’s when I think we start to run into trouble.
Like a Bullitt without McQueen. Good Lord, no.
Neil Turitz is a filmmaker and a senior editor at SSN Insider.
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