It seems like a long time ago, but really was only less than a decade, when Disney’s animated classics simply existed in our memories, coated in nostalgia and rushing up out of the warm swamp of time to remind us fondly of our childhoods. I have vivid memories of running around my backyard, the crisp winter air of Venice Beach as-yet unburdened by millionaire hipsters riding fixed gear bicycles, belting out classics from The Little Mermaid on an endless loop while my mom took jagged swallows of Vons Brand Zinfandel like it was the only thing keeping the dream alive. A few years later when I had dental surgery, the dentist put me under and I hallucinated that I was on Aladdin’s flying carpet surrounded by a wall of laughing faces while A Strange New World jangled in the background. It was my first experience with drug-induced hallucinations, and it was a gorgeous Disney-inspired one. I still cry when I watch The Lion King.
From the late 80s and through the 1990s, Disney Animation rebuilt its reputation as a glorious dream factory and weaver of masterful fantasies. Hit after hit kept coming: The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King. These were not only huge commercial successes, they were beautiful, touching films. Eventually, of course, that dream was overtaken by a newer one and once Toy Story came into our lives, Disney Animation would never return to its 1990s peak.
And that would have been fine. They had a great run of successful, deeply loved films that impacted a generation of human beings and helped feed a nearly bottomless market for branded merchandise and tie-ins. Glen Keane could have walked off into the sunset with his head held high, and the collective memory of Disney’s achievements would have been folded into the flesh of our shared history reminding us of where we came from and that life is at turns poignant, beautiful and fleeting. Traditional animation as the backbone of big studio tent-poles had its day, and then the world moved on, and that is something all of us who inhabit this earth can relate to and have to reconcile ourselves to in one way or another.
But, of course as you well know Dear Reader, that is not where out story ends.
In 2010, Tim Burton directed an abysmal live action adaptation of Alice in Wonderland that for some reason involved a cameo by the legs of Daniel Elsewhere, better known as the boneless dancing nerd from a viral video that took the internet by storm in the early days of Youtube. It nevertheless proved profitable, and Disney soon turned to live action remakes of Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella. Directed by Kenneth Branagh, the Cinderella one was actually not that bad, but that’s beside the point. Disney was on the march to dig up old titles and spin them into meaningless facsimiles of their source material for no real reason other than because its balance sheet allows it to do whatever it wants with impunity.
But 2016 is when the heat really got turned up. Trusted Disney work-horse Jon Favreau released a “live action” adaptation of the classic 1960s animated film The Jungle Book, itself adapted from the works of Rudyard Kipling, an exquisite mustache masquerading as a symbol of 19th century British colonialism. Double perplexing is that Gollum from Lord of the Rings, at virtually the exact same time, was working on another “live action” adaptation of this very same story because bad ideas, when they come, tend to come all at once.
The “twist” in both of these movies was the use of modern computer graphics to take these stories, which had previously been coffined in rote two dimensionality, and breathe three dimensional life into them for a whole new generation of consumers. To be fair, Favreau’s Jungle Book was pretty OK - the music is good, and the CG was really clean, as far as anthropomorphic talking animals go (Andy Serkis’ version on the other hand ran into several issues related to production and financing, probably because Disney beat him to release, and Netflix ultimately snapped it up and released it, where it was met with at best a collective sigh and at worse outright revulsion stemming from what he forced the faces of animated jungle cats to do).
Had this been a one-off, a brief detour into Disney’s vaults to mine an old and relatively middling piece of IP to ping us in our nostalgia bones, revisit some classic tunes and experiment with new computer graphic techniques, it would have been fine. Somewhat dull, but fine. The movie, however, was a smashing success grossing almost $1 billion. So Disney immediately quadrupled down on its strategy of rifling through its animation library and remaking it. All of it. A live action Beauty and the Beast soon came screaming on the heels of the Jungle Book, and it made over $1 billion. Aladdin, The Lion King and Mulan are in various stages of production. At some point a live action Little Mermaid will undoubtedly hit theaters, piercing the last of our preserved and cherished childhood movie memories as they were before the Great Remakening. And then Dumbo just dropped this week.
I did not want to, but I went to see Dumbo in a mostly empty theater here in Indonesia. At first I held out hope that with Tim Burton’s direction it might offer something of interest. But it did not. It was in fact so utterly soulless that you could almost hear Mephistopheles off in the distance rubbing his boner. On the surface the film looks quite good. The production design is well executed, and the animation job on Dumbo is top-notch, using pixels to replicate emotion in the way we are accustomed to nowadays. But there’s nothing else there. Fundamentally there is no reason for this film to exist, other than to take a piece of American cinema history and revisit it with modern technology. Just because (and to make gobs of money) That’s it. And that is no reason at all.
That the film has no real reason for being makes it feel tragically hollow. Sure, it will help Disney sell merchandise to a generation of people who have no idea the original featured a murder of crows steeped in racist stereotypes. And it will help squeeze more revenue out of an old piece of IP that has just been gathering dust for decades. But the movie itself is completely and utterly empty inside. It just whizzes by like a glomp of stucco falling off a freshly plastered wall, and the whole time you are sat there hoping for it to end and wondering why it even exists in the first place.
It almost sparks a sense of existential dread in the viewer, like someone has pulled back the curtain and revealed that we are all stuck on this demented, feral amusement park ride and forces we can neither comprehend nor control are making it to go faster and faster, and spin in ever tighter loops as is burrows into the ground making a beeline for the underworld. After having watched Dumbo, one can only ask: How can this be the world that we live in, a world where such a thing like this comes into being? And a long, empty silence that swallows all things is the only answer.
Even more frightening is that these movies are going to keep coming off the Disney assembly line, like automatons, one after the other, until every scrap of IP in that vault has been exhausted. And, barring some miracle, they are all going to be equally soulless and empty, drifting half-formed in the ether and flashing the absurdity of human existence back at us at every turn. Is there anything more terrifying, really, than seeing Will Smith done up like a Smurf and doing a Robin Williams impression? I mean, on its face its funny because of how stupid it is, but if you really stop and think about how we as a society have reached this point it becomes less funny.
Why couldn’t we have just let these memories - these milestones of animation and story-telling and the place they occupy in the long tail of American cinema - alone? Why couldn’t Disney, with all of its resources, develop new stories and new ideas? Why are we trapped in this cyclical process of revisiting the things we did before, but this time divorcing them of the very elements that made them good and special? Simply because we can? That’s not good enough. It forces us to confront the meaning of our meager and impossibly short time on this planet, and the way we spend that hourglass as the sands run through our fingers, turning toward the easy comfortable garbage that vaguely reminds us of hours and years and lifetimes we will never get back, hurtling toward an obscene future where all matter and light and memory are recycled endlessly through a Disneyfied loop. It scares me, frankly, that this is the world we have created for ourselves.
I would, however, be very keen on a Fantasia remake.