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You Better Get Used to Disney’s Nostalgic Remakes

Disney is hoping to grant its shareholders’ wishes by delivering another box office hit with this weekend’s Aladdin, one of four live-action nostalgia-based adaptations set for 2019.

The remakes make up more releases than the studio’s other two big money-making franchises, Marvel and Star Wars. The Mouse House is only releasing two animated features, previously a significant part of its business, in 2019—Toy Story 4 and Frozen 2.

The pivot to remakes and reimaginings is big business for Disney. Since the current spate kicked off in 2010 with Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, remakes of older animated features have grossed more than $5.3 billion worldwide according to Box Office Mojo. Even though the most recent remake, Dumbo, underperformed, analysts expect upcoming releases to be big business. The key ingredient? Nostalgia.

“Nostalgia definitely comes into play,” says Daniel Garris of BoxOfficeReport, who expects significant box office numbers from Aladdin and The Lion King, both coming out in time for the summer movie season. The films are based on originals released during the Disney Renaissance—a period in the late 1980s and 1990s where the studio’s animation department cranked out hit after hit. Those movies performed well in theaters and also were among the first to have prompt home video releases, meaning fans could watch them again and again.

“We’re nostalgic for these films in part because they were a lot more accessible for us,” Garris says.

Dumbo, Garris argues, never had a huge fanbase. The 1941 original grossed a mere $1.6 million, compared to Snow White’s $66 million at the box office a few years earlier. The 2019 remake has made just over $339 million so far, which wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t for a sky-high $170 million production budget.

Dumbo’s ticket sales are a far cry from 2017’s Beauty and the Beast—also a remake of a Disney Renaissance movie—which grossed $1.26 billion worldwide on a $160 million budget. Beast shows the power of millennial nostalgia for that era’s films: the two largest demographics groups who saw the movie opening weekend were millennials aged 26 to 34 and kids under 12, according to Variety.

“Who is seeing these movies? Millennials, overwhelmingly,” says Lindsay Ellis, a video essayist and author whose videos on Disney—including one expressing her dislike for the Beast remake with the slogan “Thanks, I hate it!”—have millions of views.

Millennials were kids when the Renaissance movies came out, and now they’re taking their own kids to see the stories they loved.

“But childless millennials will absolutely see this because it hits that nostalgia thing in their brains,” Ellis says. “Even with The Lion King, it’s like ‘oh, it’s that thing I liked—but Beyoncé is in it. Which makes it good.’”

As children, millennials consumed media much differently than their parents or the Dumbo generation. Thanks to VHS tapes, they could watch the Renaissance movies again and again, memorizing songs and burning witty lines into their brains. The Renaissance period also saw the home release of classics like The Jungle Book, meaning millennials watched older Disney movies on repeat as well. That might explain why the 2016 Jungle Book remake grossed nearly a billion dollars—the original was consistently a top-seller among video releases in the 1990s, along with Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, and The Little Mermaid. Dumbo didn’t even crack the top-10 list.

“As a generation, millennials have retained this intense affinity for their childhood media. They still watch it,” Ellis says. “Millennials might have been the first generation that had decent enough childhood media that it’s worth revisiting.”

Disney is banking on this intense nostalgia to draw audiences. The power of nostalgia also means that the movies don’t actually have to be good (or even as good as the originals) to make a ton of money, Ellis says.

“I think they just need to be remakes,” she says. “Look at Beauty and the Beast, it uses the same music and everything. There’s no appreciable difference between the animated movie and the new movie.”

Even though the remake performed well at the box office, the critical consensus on the remake was far from unanimous: the 2017 Beast has a 71% favorable rating on Rotten Tomatoes compared to 94% “certified fresh” for the original.

“The Lion King looks like it’s going to be a shot-for-shot remake,” Ellis added, noting that James Earl Jones, who voiced Mufasa in the 1994 original is reprising the exact same role in the remake.

While he wouldn’t share concrete predictions, Garris expects Lion King to be “one of the biggest films of the year.” Along with the nostalgic draw, Lion King has proven box office value: the original was the second-highest grossing film of 1994. It also features an all-star voice cast including Beyoncé, whose fans of all ages are expected to turn up in droves.

Aladdin is also a likely hit: early tracking surveys show the movie will probably make at least $80 million domestically over its opening weekend, according to Variety.

Garris additionally expects Aladdin, with a diverse cast and Middle Eastern setting, to break out globally. After The Jungle Book remake became the highest-ever grossing Hollywood film in India in 2016, Disney seems to be aiming for similar success in the lucrative movie market.

“Regardless of how Aladdin does domestically, it’ll be huge internationally,” Garris says.

Disney still has a huge back catalog of animated features to mine for live-action films: there’s both a Mulan remake and a sequel to the Jungle Book remake set for 2020. But the company, still thought of as an animation powerhouse, is releasing fewer original animated movies.

Walt Disney Animation Studio’s last non-sequel film was Moana in 2016. Pixar’s most recent original film was Coco in 2017. In a schedule of upcoming releases, Disney listed four untitled live-action films slated for release in both 2021 and 2022, along with just one animated feature for each of those years.

If the studio keeps making more remakes than original animated features, it could eventually run out of nostalgia-heavy intellectual property to remake.

But it may not need it.

“I think Disney’s thinking ‘well, maybe we don’t need new IP? Maybe we just need to repackage the IP we have every 10 years or so,” Ellis says. Disney has relied on that in the past, re-releasing classic films like Snow White in theaters decades after the original release.

Garris says that could go a step further: with original sequels to the remakes and reimaginings.

“Some of these films could get sequels,” he says. “That would be original, technically.”

Though Alice Through the Looking Glass, the 2016 sequel to Burton’s billion-dollar-grossing 2010 Alice in Wonderland remake, underperformed, Disney is trying the sequel-to-remake strategy again with this fall’s Maleficent: Mistress of Evil. Angelina Jolie will reprise the title role after 2014’s Maleficent—based on 1959’s Sleeping Beauty—grossed $758 million worldwide. If that does well, Garris says we can expect even more sequels.

Disney could also find a different home for remakes of older movies with a smaller built-in fan base—like Dumbo—on its new streaming service. For instance, a Lady and the Tramp remake starring Tessa Thompson and Justin Theroux will premiere when Disney+ launches in November.

The company knows how to make money on beloved familiar characters, both in and out of movie theaters. And it’s done it before: in the middle of the Renaissance era, Disney began to produce a glut of direct-to-video sequels. The sequels to films like Aladdin, Lion King, and Hercules were largely produced by a separate studio or Disney’s television animation studio and had significantly lower animation costs, which showed in the final production.

The direct-to-video movies made a healthy profit, but they came at a price, according to Ellis: they cheapened the sacred Disney brand. The same could happen if the studio pursues a strategy of remakes at all costs.

“What does the remakes in won’t be oversaturation or if they stop making money,” she says. “It’ll be when it starts feeling cheap and starts degrading the brand.”

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