Over the course of nearly a century, the animated films created by Disney Studios have become instantly recognizable components of our cultural backbone. Many of these movies have become more than just iconic – indeed, they have often become the definitive, modern versions of the stories and folktales they set out to adapt.
Thus, it comes as no surprise that Disney has given 1959’s Sleeping Beauty a new adaptation of its own, re-imagining the story as the live-action Maleficent. Whether one reads the film as a passion project for Angelina Jolie or as Disney’s attempt to cash in on the current interest in fantasy/costume epics, it’s an undeniably fascinating attempt to reshape a familiar IP for a 21st-century box office.
If Maleficent is successful, it could open the door to yet more new versions of older Disney stories. As such, Screen Rant has compiled a list of 6 more Disney animated feature films that could work well as live-action adaptations or reboots.
1. The Sword in the Stone (1963)
Viewed without the rosy spectacles of childhood, The Sword in the Stone is a notably odd entry in Disney’s canon. One part earnest historical drama and another part goofy episodic comedy, The Sword in the Stone has a rambling narrative that belies its mythic underpinnings.
Nonetheless, The Sword in the Stone remains a fairly iconic piece of Disneyana. Its preponderance of quirky characters, interesting set-pieces, and wall-to-wall magic could make it a prime candidate for a modern, effects-heavy reimagining.
Given that the story of King Arthur has already been adapted into almost countless action/adventure and drama films, retaining the comedic edge of The Sword in the Stone is probably imperative. A smart adaptation could update the original’s focus and comedic cadence for a contemporary audience. It doesn’t need to be a shock-humor flick that rolls its eyes at its source material (see: Your Highness); recent family flicks such as The LEGO Movie prove that one can create a multi-generational comedy that truly caters to the entirety of its audience.
Then again, we may simply be channeling our deep, nerd-intrinsic love of Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
2. The Black Cauldron (1985)
The Black Cauldron had a famously expensive and troubled production, and its abject failure at the box office led to extensive restructuring of Disney’s feature animation department. It’s actually not a terrible movie; though noticeably truncated, The Black Cauldron provides a thrilling fantasy adventure quite different from anything Disney had released up to that point.
Much like The Sword in the Stone, The Black Cauldron is a strong candidate for another adaptive pass. As in the previous case, there is plenty to already pull a script from – specifically, the “Chronicles of Prydain” novels written by Lloyd Alexander.
Surely Disney still holds the film rights to The Black Cauldron‘s source material. With five novels and several short stories’ worth of narrative to draw upon, an updated movie (or movies, given the current predilection for franchises) could be both richer and more faithful to its origins. Disney executives (and Lloyd Alexander himself) were said to be disappointed with how The Black Cauldron handled the “Prydain” books. Perhaps the company can get it right outside of its animated comfort zone.
3. Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001)
On paper, Atlantis: The Lost Empire sounds like one of the most ambitious productions in modern animation – much less something from the Disney stable. It’s a quasi-steampunk, two-fisted adventure with more in common with Indiana Jones than the typical Disney flick. It even sports character and environment designs by Mike Mignola, the creator of Hellboy and veritable impresario of latter-day pulp illustration.
And yet, the movie itself doesn’t quite work. Atlantis is a movie filled top to bottom with barely missed opportunities.
Bluntly put, the script ideas, design, and overall aesthetic of Atlantis would probably play better as a live-action blockbuster than a traditional Disney animated feature. While a stone-faced, self-serious adaptation of the film would probably work out poorly, the elimination of some of Disney animated films’ trademarks (wacky humor, one-joke characters) could help alleviate the original movie’s tonal issues. Of course, the slapdash plotting and characterization would have to be ironed out beforehand as well – even the transfer to live action wouldn’t be able to clean those up automatically.
4. Mulan (1998)
Much of the charm of Disney’s animated oeuvre is its ability to take archetypal old tales and translate them skillfully for contemporary viewers. For instance, the story of a woman who disguises herself as a man to fight for her family is as old as war – and in the case of Mulan, is also one of China’s most beloved folktales.
Other than some jokes that fall flat, there’s not much wrong with Disney’s Mulan. That said, imagine a version of the story in the grand tradition of Chinese martial arts cinema – whether as a kung fu flick or with wuxia (wire-fu) swordplay.
Additionally, an updated version of Mulan could tackle aspects of the legend untouched by the animated film. For instance, in the original telling, Hua Mulan stayed in the Imperial Army for many years and eventually became an esteemed general.
NOTE: Admittedly, a live-action version of the legend of Mulan has already been made. The Chinese production, titled Mulan: Rise of a Warrior in the West, starred Wei Zhao (Kung Fu Soccer) and was released in 2009. Fortunately for our speculative purposes, the film was not terribly well received. If Disney sees a future in re-adapting its own material, it would be fascinating to see how they might take a crack at it.
5. The Reluctant Dragon (1941)
If we can reasonably classify The Sword in the Stone as “odd,” The Reluctant Dragon is straight-up bizarre. Initially framed as a “filmed tour” of the Disney animation offices, the movie features live footage of comedian Robert Benchley (playing himself) as he pratfalls through the company. The movie centers on the titular cartoon segment, a 40-minute-long short that follows a dragon more interested in reciting poetry than he is in fighting knights-errant.
Though the kind of compilation film The Reluctant Dragon epitomizes is as alien to modern viewers as Vaudeville, the actual animated segment shows much promise as the centerpiece of a larger, comedic feature. The short film-within-a-film is light and sleepily paced, but is also weirdly charming.
Changing the tone of The Reluctant Dragon would probably be poisonous to that aforementioned charm. Just as with The Sword in the Stone, it might have the makings of a “big-budget comedy” that combines both quirky humor and CGI-aided visual gags.
6. Aladdin (1992)
For many Millenials, Aladdin represented the apex of Disney’s animation empire; perhaps only The Lion King is as unabashedly adored by those that came of age in the 1990s. Aladdin remains a slick, exciting adventure-comedy whose visuals are undeniably some of the best to come out of the House of Mouse.
That said, Aladdin is also starting to show its age. Though the film is barely old enough to buy a drink, its gags (especially those thrown out by Robin Williams’ manic Genie) are fairly dusty at this point. Additionally, the movie contains elements that edge uncomfortably close to racist caricature (a charge Aladdin had to deal with upon its release).
At the same time, Aladdin is a rather broad – and one might say “homogenized” – adaptation. The original tale (from The Book of One Thousand and One Nights) is set in China, and involves multiple genies, multiple sorcerers, and a magic ring to complement the magic lamp.
This rich source material could be mined for a more faithful – or at the very least, differently imagined – live-action adventure. Heck, one could throw in further elements from the stories surrounding “The Wondrous Lamp” for a full-on epic based on one of the planet’s greatest repositories of folklore. In an increasingly multicultural world where movie profits pull heavily from an international box office, this kind of adaptation could be the future of Disney filmmaking.
Of course, Maleficent is far from the first live-action adaptation of a cartoon from Disney’s vaults. So far, these have been little-loved by critics or audiences. The Jungle Book saw a somewhat head-scratching live version in 1994; similarly, 2010’s Alice in Wonderland was greeted by boredom and general fatigue with Johnny Depp’s “quirky accents and weird costumes” period (though this didn’t stop it from bringing home a tidy profit).
Maleficent will also not be the last of Disney’s planned live-action adaptations of its own material. Cinderella will soon get a similar treatment via director Kenneth Branagh (Thor) – though it’s up in the air whether it will receive a similarly “fractured” retelling as Maleficent. The Jungle Book will once again get a live version soon, directed by John Favreau (Iron Man).
After all this speculation, we do have to ask: Is Disney raiding its own vaults like this actually a good thing? With Maleficent currently drawing mixed – though rarely vitriolic – reviews, one wonders if any of these animation-to-live-action adaptations will ever match the quality of their source material. So far, it’s been a bust.
That said, it’s clear that Disney has an immense amount of IP to work with within their animated archives. Who’s to say what could be spun from all the ink, paper, and animation cells that make up the company’s illustrious history?
Maleficent casts its spell on theaters today, May 30th, 2014.
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