Disney hits jackpot with fairy tales in the flesh

AFP , Wednesday 20 Apr 2016

Alice Through the Looking Glass
This image released by Disney shows Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter, left, and Mia Wasikowska as Alice in a scene from "Alice Through the Looking Glass," premiering in US theaters on May 27. (Photo: AP)

Disney's production line for the coming years will see the company doubling down on a strategy of dusting off animated classics for live-action remakes or reboots that has so far netted more than $2 billion.

The latest offering, "The Jungle Book," debuted on Friday and has extended Disney's winning streak, grossing more than $300 million worldwide over the weekend and trouncing the competition in North America.

Over the coming months, "Alice Through the Looking Glass " and "Beauty and the Beast" will fill theaters and the wallets of shrewd studio executives, with several more adaptations reportedly in the pipeline.

Even casual moviegoers will have spotted that Disney's back catalogue of fairy tales has been raided in recent years for moneyspinners like "Alice in Wonderland, "Cinderella" and "Maleficent," which made a combined $2.5 billion.

Shawn Robbins, a senior analyst at BoxOffice.com, said it was "not a stretch of the imagination" to envisage the company revisiting most of its classic animations.

The Hollywood trade press have been buzzing with rumors and half-confirmed stories about "Dumbo," "Pinocchio," "Cruella," "Genies" -- a riff on "Aladdin" -- and many other fairy tales which could make it once again to the big screen.

Disney declined to comment on its long-term strategy, but analysts say the writing is on the wall for the future.

"In Disney's case, the appeal of remakes to moviegoers is still in its prime. Twenty years from now, that may not be the case. Twenty years after that, who knows?" Robbins told AFP.

Producing a successful remake, according to Robbins, is a delicate balancing act between coming up with new and interesting ways to tell familiar stories, and honoring "the heart and spirit" of the original characters.

"The general assumption is that Hollywood remakes things because it's an easy way to make money, but it's far from easy to be successful on both the artistic and commercial fronts," he said.

Starring newcomer Neel Sethi as Mowgli, "The Jungle Book" employed the talents of Hollywood heavyweights Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley and Idris Elba for the voices of Baloo the bear, Bagheera the panther and Shere Khan the tiger.

The film's director Jon Favreau, who was also at the helm for two of the "Iron Man" movies, told AFP that modern-day Disney was merely following what the likes of its co-founder Walt Disney and "Star Wars" director George Lucas had always done.

"Take old myths, old stories, old archetypes, old characters and do it using cutting-edge technology," said Favreau, 49, who has producing credits for numerous blockbusters, including both "Avengers" films.

"Star Wars," he says, repackaged elements of Arthurian legend, westerns and the films of Japanese master Akira Kurosawa -- "the princess being rescued and the loveable rogue, the father who's the king, the dark prince and the struggle between good and evil."

"Walt Disney would do the same thing. He would find the old fairy tales like Snow White -- these are old stories," he told AFP.

Hollywood producer Suzanne Todd -- who was behind 2010's "Alice in Wonderland" and has been producing its sequel -- said there was "something lovely" about fairy tale adaptations, and particularly last year's "Cinderella."

"There's a charm to the original movie and there's an inspirational quality that comes out of it," she told AFP at a recent event to publicize Disney's "Alice Through The Looking Glass," which comes out next month.

"I just thought Kenneth Branagh made it lush and romantic and accessible."

Early sequences from the new "Beauty and the Beast" -- due out in March 2017 -- also looked "amazing and incredible," she said.

Advances in technology have allowed age-old and beloved stories to reach new audiences who might have been turned off by the dated originals, says Todd, whose body of more than 20 films includes the "Austin Powers" spy spoof trilogy.

"I don't know that my three children would be as entertained sitting and watching the old animated versions because they've grown up as a Pixar generation," she said.

"Looking Glass" director James Bobin made two hit "Muppets" live-action movies for Disney and is the co-creator of spoof characters Ali G, Borat and Bruno with British comic Sacha Baron Cohen, who stars in the new "Alice" movie.

The film isn't strictly a remake as Disney never produced a standalone animated version of the second of Lewis Carroll's "Wonderland" books, "Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There."

But the studio will be hoping to benefit both from the success of 2010's "Alice in Wonderland" and the cultural cachet of the source material.

"Lewis Carroll for me is a guy that was sort of a surrealist satirist in many ways. The books he wrote were often commentaries about people he knew and Victorian society as a whole," said Bobin.

"I felt that you could almost trace a brand of English comedy -- starting with him, going through Edward Lear and the goon show in the 50s and Monty Python in the 70s -- which has never really gone away."

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