As Disney’s The Nutcracker and the Four Realms flops at the box office, it proves that the studio’s live-action strategy works best with remakes. When The Walt Disney Company announced their plans to re-imagine the classic fairy-tale and ballet The Nutcracker as a movie in the traditional Disney style, many fans were openly skeptical.
On top of the problems of turning a well-known public domain story into a new brand, The Nutcracker didn’t seem to be a property fans were crying out for a Disney version of. The film never seemed to get over that cynicism, and it opened last week to tepid reviews (the worst the studio has received in 2018) and disappointing box office numbers.
Disney has become an indisputable titan of the entertainment industry, even more so over the past decade and a half thanks to their acquisitions of Marvel Studios and Star Wars. With their acquisition of 20th Century Fox set to be confirmed in the near future, Disney will soon dominate around 40% of the box office (they currently have four of the top ten places on the list of highest grossing movies of the year). One of the ways they have strengthened their hold over the box office has been with their live-action remakes of their animated classics.
Why Disney’s Live Action Remakes Are So Successful
Last year, Beauty and the Beast grossed over $1.26 billion worldwide and came second in the highest grossing movies of 2017, right behind Star Wars: The Last Jedi. The year before, the remake of The Jungle Book by Jon Favreau took in over $966 million. 2015's Cinderella took in over $543 million, at least five times its original budget. The film that kickstarted this new era of Disney live-action remakes was Tim Burton's re-imagining of Alice in Wonderland that, in 2010, grossed over $1 billion worldwide (almost double the $591 million made by Disney's big animated movie that year, Tangled).
Disney, better than any other major Hollywood studio, has always prided itself on its ability to tap into its audiences’ nostalgic emotions, not to mention the decades they have spent ingraining themselves into the very notion of their demographics’ childhoods. The live-action remakes Disney has made since Alice in Wonderland frequently change small details to modernize their narratives but overall the products they make are near identical in style, tone and emotional responses to the original stories. This isn’t a strategy that can easily be applied to non-remakes.
Why Disney’s Live-Action Non-Remakes Haven’t Worked
The film that truly started the current era of Disney, following their much-vaunted animation renaissance of the 1990s, was Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. Their adaptation of a theme park attraction was a major risk at the time but its startling critical and commercial success gave Disney a major foothold in the entertainment market at a time where the franchise blockbuster was becoming the new default mode. The live-action market remains more dominant than animation right now, so it makes sense that Disney would want to continue building on that brand.
Yet their recent track record on this front has been oddly discouraging. Beyond The Nutcracker, there was the disastrous flops of John Carter and The Lone Ranger, the disappointment of Tomorrowland (failing to replicate the theme park adaptation success of Pirates), Steven Spielberg's critically appreciated but financially disappointing take on The BFG, and this year's A Wrinkle in Time. Even remakes not based on animated classics failed to find an audience, like Pete's Dragon. Then there was the latest Pirates of the Caribbean film, Dead Men Tell No Tales. While the film was hardly a flop – it still made just under $800 million worldwide – it was the second lowest grossing film in the franchise overall and the lowest grossing one domestically. Now, there’s already talk of that franchise being rebooted.
Strategically speaking, it was a creatively satisfying decision for Disney to step outside of their own wheelhouse and make films like, say, an adaptation of a children’s classic be Madeleine L’Engle or to develop another iconic theme park attraction into a new narrative. Disney is big and financially secure enough to the point where taking risks shouldn’t be a bad thing. Yet there’s a difference between risky choices and sinking upwards of $200 million into an untested idea that audiences have little interest in. Disney know their formula works with their live-action remakes of animated classics because said classics have decades of evidence in their favor.
Disney’s formula is often accused of being staid and derivative but they have little incentive to change it up when the remakes make money and the other stuff doesn’t. On top of that, it’s the remakes they have more to gain from in terms of brand synergy, merchandizing and expanding their history. It may not be that Disney is only good at remakes when it comes to their long-term live-action strategy, but when they have Marvel and Star Wars to back them up and they have greater incentive to stick to their reliable properties, it may simply be that they don’t need to be good.