Guys, I’m confused. I think there might be something rotten in the state of Disney. I’ve never exactly been a Disney kind of girl. I liked princesses when I was a kid, but these days I kind of have to be coerced into seeing any kind of animated movie.
This is part of the reason why I’m confused. Disney recently released a live-action version of Cinderella, a film I have yet to see, but that I’ve read from reviews is “deeply in debt to the animated version of 1950.” With its success, Disney has also announced a live-action remake of Mulan, and Emma Watson has recently been cast as Belle in the live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast (2017).
I’m confused, I suppose, because I’m excited to see these movies despite the fact that I feel that I’ve sort of outgrown the animated classics from my childhood. I’m excited to see how Disney will retool the stories and characters (if they do at all), how the films will be different without a catchy tune every ten minutes or so. But I’m also skeptical. Instead of thoughtful re-imaginings of the animated films that made Disney the empire it is today, these remakes smell like money-grubbers. Even more, though, the remakes make me wonder what their place is in the fairy tale tradition.
Since Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Disney has steadily established something of a monopoly on the fairy tale industry, if such a thing exists. Disney has made a business out of making pasteurized cheese product out of the stinky, ripe Limburger of the original tales. This really isn’t such a terrible thing. In an era of changing tastes and growing technology, Disney made fairy tales relevant again, and despite the manifold arguments about the influence its movies have on young, impressionable girls, it’s hard to accuse a Disney movie of not being entertaining.
When we think of fairy tales, many of us are likely to think first of Disney and second of the Brothers Grimm, Perrault or Andersen. The latter three (four, technically) are the holy trifecta of “original” fairy tales, and it is from these story-tellers/collectors that Disney finds its source material. But the Grimms, Perrault and Andersen had their own source material, and that source material had source material. While Disney presents us with fairy tale Wonder Bread, fairy tales have a long and epic history from Italian writers like Straparola and Basile to female authors of the 16th century, like Marie-Catherine D’Aulnoy and beyond.
The fairy tale tradition is complicated, long-winded and often exhausting to confront. Unlike so many other literary movements that value about-faces in style and themes in defining innovativeness and literary merit, fairy tales are renovated practically despite themselves. Between versions of the same tale, even between completely different tales, the stories repeat time-honored tropes, plots, character archetypes and symbolism to such a degree that there is an actually a classification system to help differentiate and compare folktale types.
Each generation of storytellers constructs its peculiarities and values around a recognizable tale. The nature of fairy tales is such that they can be constantly re-imagined without losing relevance or significance. Take, for instance, Basile’s The Cat Cinderella, an early but very recognizable version of the Cinderella we’re all familiar with. (Unfortunately, there are no actual cats involved in the story.) Basile’s version, unlike Disney’s, has two evil stepmothers, a father who is still alive (and also a jerk) and murder by decapitation. D’Aulnoy’s version Finette Cendron is long and convoluted and features an ogre. Perrault’s version is the version Disney borrows from, but features the Grimm version (which features lentils, golden shoes and bodily mutilation) in its recent film adaptation of Sondheim’s Into the Woods.
My confusion amounts to this: I still want to see the new Disney live-action remakes, but I don’t think I see the point in them. The fairy tale tradition is one that builds on itself, each story becoming reinvented by the storyteller. Disney took part in that tradition when it made animated versions of Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, The Little Mermaid, etc. In creating these live-action versions, it feels more like Disney is simply redoing their own retellings, revising its own place in the fairy tale tradition. It feels like low-stakes self-plagiarism, or like when a classic album gets digitally re-mastered and released to sell more copies than its original run.
I don’t mean to imply that every classic, beloved story needs a gritty reboot. In 2012, Universal Studios did a live-action, very gritty reboot of Snow White, called Snow White and the Huntsman (which also has an upcoming sequel). In 2011, Amanda Seyfried starred in a fairly gritty and fairly boring reboot of Little Red Riding Hood titled Red Riding Hood, as if taking off “Little” was our clue that we weren’t off to grandmother’s house anymore. What these movies did that I think Disney is in danger of failing to do is to bring contemporary context to the themes of the stories, even though they are set back in ye olden times. Both movies focus on relationships between women, Snow White and the Huntsman especially. They feature increased female agency and self-reliance. Not only do these re-imagine the aesthetics of the story, they also attempt to comment on the stories from a modern perspective.
Disney could do this, but I don’t think that they will. I don’t think Disney going to try to re-approach the stories it has already recreated with a fresh view, when the old ones have proven both successful and profitable. I’m not saying that the lessons and themes of Disney films desperately need to be rebooted for modern womanhood. My argument here, strangely, has less to do with feminism and more with the point of fairy tales in general. When we retell stories, we retell them for a reason. Live-action does not necessarily a retelling make, but I hope that when I finally get around to seeing Cinderella, I’ll be treated to a surprise, that it will be more than just a slightly more humanized version of the 1950s cartoon.
Perhaps Beauty and the Beast and Mulan won’t simply be live-action versions of the animated classics, but will extend into new frontiers. Or, perhaps this retreat back to the original, familiar stories is a sign of something itself, that the values presented in the originals are the same values we have today. I may be confused as to why these stories are returning again, but I’m hopeful it will be worth it.