This week sees the release of A Wrinkle in Time, the long-awaited big-budget adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s iconic children’s novel. It’s a book that’s been a part of many generations’ childhoods, so it only made sense that someone would turn it into a movie. Under the direction of Ava DuVernay (Selma) and screenwriter Jennifer Lee (Frozen), the film became Disney’s latest live-action project outside of the Star Wars franchise and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. As well as being the first movie directed by an African-American woman to receive a budget exceeding $100m, it signalled a potential shift in Disney’s strategy – both in terms of live-action films and non-franchises. However, that plan hasn’t gone well for them in the past.
Looking at Disney’s questionable past in live-action blockbusters that aren’t descended from their own intellectual properties, the results have not been great. Indeed, some of them have been near mythic flops. The 2012 sci-fi epic John Carter, based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ stories, under-performed so much that Disney took a $200m write-down on the project. The following year, Gore Verbinski’s take on The Lone Ranger, starring Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer, made $260m on a $250m budget (it reportedly needed around $650m just to break even). Tomorrowland, an attempt to replicate the success of Pirates of the Caribbean by adapting yet another theme park attraction, also seriously under-performed, resulting in the company losing between $120 – 140m.
These were pricey, highly ambitious projects that eschewed many preconceptions about what constituted a Disney movie. The ideas behind them were solid, but audiences had little to no interest in seeing them – and if the early box office numbers are anything to go by, A Wrinkle in Time seems doomed to suffer the same fate.
What A Wrinkle in Time Means
It’s too early to completely write off A Wrinkle in Time, but the parallels are hard to ignore. On paper, this is exactly the kind of movie Disney should be making: a colorful, unabashedly vibrant and earnest movie that appeals to families and allows them to create new franchise opportunities. The book is beloved and, crucially, it’s the first in a series. As major franchises tend to skew older – aiming more for teenage audiences and upwards – there’s a growing gap in the market for this sort of movie series, and Disney are experts in appealing to those audiences.
It’s also something of an outlier in terms of Disney’s current live-action strategy. The studio has experienced stunning success over the past few years through live-action remakes of classic animated Disney features. 2016’s The Jungle Book grossed close to $1bn, while the following year’s Beauty and the Beast became the 11th highest grossing film of all time. Other remakes in the pipeline include Dumbo (directed by Tim Burton), The Lion King, Mulan and Peter Pan. Aside from the upcoming re-imagining of the classic ballet, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, A Wrinkle in Time feels like the odd one out in this slate – but it also makes the most sense as a long-term investment.
Those live-action remakes are a smart move – Disney’s back-catalogue is beloved, and the nostalgic pull is undeniable, as well as the opportunities to strengthen their brand – but the studio will eventually run out of things to remake. Or, at the very least, they’ll run out of their most popular properties to give this treatment (it remains to be seen if audiences would be as keen for, say, a live-action Home on the Range or The Black Cauldron). It stands to reason that they would wish to expand upon their admittedly impressive vault of offerings and delve into new genres, stories, and so on.
Of course, this is reliant on such films actually appealing to those audiences. So far, at least in the current era of Disney at their most dominant, it’s been a mixed bag. The live-action stuff doing well has either been those remakes or additions to already established franchises like Pirates of the Caribbean.
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