Reduce Re-use Recycle: Reinventing classic stories

Last week I went to see the Disney Live Action remake, Beauty and the Beast. Following on from the success of Maleficent and the subsequent live action remakes of Cinderella and The Jungle Book, it seems Disney is intent on working through their animated back-catalogue, with similar treatments of Mulan and The Lion King already planned and many more rumoured. I must admit up front that I have thus far had little interest in the Disney live action remake movies. I accidentally ended up watching Maleficent and enjoyed it very much, but despite superb feedback, I’ve thus far given the others a wide berth. Until now.

Beauty and the Beast is a very special Disney movie for me. I’m a child of the 80’s and as a result the Disney movies of my childhood were, in the main, all the flops that barely rippled on the periphery of my attention. I didn’t see The Little Mermaid, widely regarded as the movie that began Disney’s second heyday, until much later. It was Beauty and the Beast that was my first experience of Disney Magic. And when the opening music of Beauty and the Beast plays, I still get chills.

The point is that this is a high-stakes game.

So by now I’m sure you’re wondering what I thought about it? Beauty and the Beast is a magnificently crated movie. It’s spectacular and magical. Emma Watson was almost perfect in the lead role and the rest of the cast was utterly flawless. My only wish was that Emma Watson was a better singer, or had been dubbed for the songs. She was very good, but as an amateur singer myself I could tell she’d been auto tuned and the resulting performance just wasn’t quite good enough. The story had been expanded to add greater depth to Belle (and also greater length to the movie!) and additional songs had been added that were very enjoyable. But… I’m not sure what this movie added to my experience. While I enjoyed the movie it doesn’t hold that same place in my heart, and perhaps it never could. It is, however, superb and I can see this being the equivalent magical experience for a younger generation.

This got me thinking. Looking around at cinema releases of the past few years you can hardly spit without hitting a remake or a reboot or a reimagining or a sequel to something. Some have been very good. Some not some much and many have been downright awful. There is a formula that works. It’s not easy to capture but it’s evident in all of the best remakes.

I am exceptionally fond of some recycled movies. The JJ Abrams reboot of Star Trek worked very hard to reinvigorate the spirit of the original series, respecting it while doing something different. It worked because it wasn’t a straight up remake. It used the same characters and settings but was set up was as an alternative reality. It gave Abrams the freedom to make changes he wanted to without angering fans. The success of it hinges on the films ability to enchant a new audience while not driving away the audience that has followed it for up to five decades.

Gone in Sixty Seconds is a year 2000 remake that is one of my all time favourite movies. The original was released before I was born. While it’s hailed as the classic car chase movie it has dated badly and is unlikely to impress a modern audience. This was a logical choice for an update. Once again, however, it’s not a straight remake. The characters and plot have been modified to suit a modern audience and also to make sense in the modern world. The result is a car chase movie that is every bit as thrilling as the original and better suited to a current audience. When were all driving flying cars or have auto-pilot driving systems it will probably be updated again.

Miracle on 34th Street, Star Wars Rogue One, War of the Worlds, Ocean’s Eleven, The Fly, and The Departed are all remade or sequels or prequels that have enjoyed a special success with audiences. But look around at all the truly terrible attempts to do the same thing, or even just the attempts that were OK but not great. Who hasn’t rolled their eyes at yet another Godzilla movie, or another remake of an epic fantasy like Clash of the Titans, or a reboot of some classic sci-fi like Total Recall?

Prometheus was the movie that returned to the classic Alien(s) franchise. It promised so much, had so much to offer, particularly as a movie connected to but different from its predecessors. However, it was contrived, confusing and not even very enjoyable. In 2009 the original 1980 drama school movie, Fame, was remade and was a considerable disappointment. Far from adding to or updating the original story, which still stands up to a modern audience, the 2009 version watered down the impact of the plot, and reduced the characters to cardboard cutouts. There are many more and I’m sure you have a couple in mind that you find particularly heinous.

When I consider these recycled stories I note two obvious conclusions. First a foremost a recycled story must bring something new to the table. Maleficent worked because it told the Sleeping Beauty story from the point of view of the villain. Star Wars Rogue One is successful because it contributes something new to the existing long running plot. If a recycled story isn’t going to show the audience a new angle or expand on the existing franchise then it has to add something new that makes it relevant to a modern audience. That might simply be an updated story or it might be that an updated production design is what’s necessary to endear a franchise to a modern audience. Either way, it can’t just be a rehash of an existing story for its own sake.

Secondly, the new movie has to stand up on its own. It has to be good in its own right. The remake of Total Recall is good but it’s a fairly average action movie on its own and ends up being enjoyable but not a stand-out. Similarly Tsar Wars episodes one to three add to the existing story but they aren’t great movies in their own right and therefore fall very firmly into the category of the mediocre. When a recycled story doesn’t achieve these two aims it fails completely. Both Prometheus and Fame mentioned above are bad movies and do nothing for the existing franchise. As a result they were complete stinkers.

There’s nothing wrong with recycling a story. Sometimes it can be necessary to bring a great story to a new generation. However, it’s a practice that is fraught with pitfalls. It can be tempting to think of recycling as lazy storytelling, to take something that already exists and either expand it or remake it, but in many ways that’s much more difficult to get right than just starting with something original. There’s a lot of it about because it’s low risk for producers. And in the next few months we’ve Ghost in the Shell and Blade Runner, Jumanji and It to ‘look forward to’. Hopefully they won’t all join the ranks of the rotten remakes. Beauty and the Beast may not have quite hit the perfect note with me but, thankfully, it is far from being a bad remake.

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