Aladdin Is A Nostalgia Roller Coaster First
Disney is, first and foremost, nurturers of nostalgia. Arguably no other studio in Hollywood has done more to make commercial and critical bank from appealing to audiences’ nostalgic desires. From their earliest period as feature filmmakers, Disney has specialized in telling stories that appealed as much to the inner child in adults as children themselves. That’s why fairy-tale adaptations were so popular. While other stories have done well for them, the meat of Disney’s success has come from their oft-imitated ability to tap into that part of ourselves that reminds us of the warmth of our youths. Indeed, Disney’s identity is in large part defined by how they’ve ingrained themselves into the very notion of our collective childhood and that has carried over for generations.
Nostalgia has always defined Disney, but in their live-action remake age, it has only become further weaponized. What better way to appeal to those nostalgic yearnings than to remake the films people loved so much as kids? It’s a strategy that’s worked incredibly well for them so far, so why wouldn’t it work for Aladdin? These live-action remakes, from Tim Burton’s 2010 version of Alice in Wonderland onward, have to walk a fine line between giving audiences everything they loved about the original versions while adding enough new material so that the remake can justify its own existence. Disney has already reassured fans that Aladdin will contain all the things they loved from the animated film, from the music to the characters, to the Genie eventually being blue (something Smith confirmed on his Instagram account). Even with all the changes made in terms of costuming – why is Aladdin wearing a shirt underneath that vest? – audiences never fail to recognize it as Disney’s Aladdin. But that’s also a big problem for the film - and for Disney themselves.
This Has Been Disney's Problem All Along
Unfortunately, Disney's live-action remakes are their only good movies, aside from films coming out of their other studios - but that doesn't mean those remakes are innovative. They stick stridently to their source material, making only superficial changes in order to retain the stylistic and thematic elements that are both familiar to fans and a key part of their branding strategy. These films aren’t just easy cash grabs; they’re an effective means of strengthening trademarks and extending the shelf life of those iconic properties. From a purely business driven point-of-view, this strategy is genius, but it comes with incredibly narrow creative confinements, and this is a problem that affects all of Disney’s live-action remakes.
The recent glut of live-action remakes have made some notable deviations from their source material: Beauty and the Beast padded out the backstory and mythos as well as developing Belle’s late mother; Cinderella gave greater depth to the step-mother character; The Jungle Book gave a solid reasoning for why Shere Khan hated humans and wanted Mowgli gone from the jungle. But, ultimately, these were superficial changes; the core of the stories and visuals stayed true to the cartoons, even when it didn’t make sense to do so (see: turning King Louis into a monstrously large animal, then still having him sing I Wanna Be Like You in The Jungle Book). There are some points in these films where one could swear the remakes are just a scene-for-scene copy of the original, akin to Gus Van Sant’s Psycho. The trailer for the upcoming remake of The Lion King inspired similar sensations, right down to the dialog being lifted from the original film and scenes being recreated in perfect detail. It may make billions and appeal to millions of fans, but, from a creative standpoint, there’s an obvious hollowness at play.
The problem with this approach, as financially sound as it is, is that it has an inevitably short shelf life. Audiences will get sick of it just like they got bored of Disney’s formula in the 1990s. It also stifles the directors hired for the job as well as the actors, screenwriters, production team, and songwriters hired to expand upon the material. How do you stretch your creative muscles when you’re confined to such limited parameters? This is nothing exclusive to Disney. Every franchise based on recognizable properties, and working under a major studio, has to adhere to this system. There’s no incentive to change the formula given how successful it’s been so far, but its weaknesses are never more exposed than when fans get exactly what they’ve been given for years and respond with apathy, as they’ve done with the first looks at Aladdin.
When a project has nothing to offer but a recreation of something else, with only surface level changes, you can’t blame audiences for getting bored of it. Aladdin has more riding against it than the Disney live-action remake problem, but its fate is not helped by that issue at its heart. Disney won’t allow these remakes to be anything beyond slavish recreations of their most beloved brands because to do so would expose the entire cynical exercise. That’s not to say there isn’t something to enjoy in these films, but Disney’s strategy is an inherently flawed one. Aladdin may be able to rise above that initial cynicism, but in the long-term, Disney have other things to worry about with their live-action remakes. After all, they’ll run out of things to remake at some point.
- Aladdin (2019) release date: May 24, 2019