There’s only one movie I’ve watched well more than 100 times. When “The Lion King” was released on VHS, it played on a loop in our family room for months. My younger siblings and I couldn’t get enough of the wildebeest stampede, visual gags, catchy songs. Really, we loved everything about this colorful, animated tale of discovery, betrayal, and purpose.
The 1994 film represented an artistic and marketing high point for Walt Disney Studios, ever in search of that elusive four-quadrant movie diverse audiences will enjoy. This week, Disney hopes to repeat the success as Mufasa, Simba, Nala, and Scar replay their familiar story in a photorealistic computer-animated remake.
Many families will see it, parents hoping to recreate the wonder they experienced 25 years ago. Others ardently avoid all things Disney, concerned about consumerism, undertones of a progressive agenda, or conflicting corporate values.
Some of us admire Walt Disney as an American icon, and how his vision for storytelling that appeals to all ages lives on in the world’s largest entertainment company, if at times dimly. Certainly nostalgia can fuel cultural memory across generations even as it can be manipulated for profit (sometimes both at once).
Recently, The Hollywood Reporter cited paint-by-numbers remakes of “Aladdin” and “The Lion King” as it lamented how this summer marks “a landmark low in major studio creativity.” Since 2010, Disney has released ten live-action updates on its classics, which have earned more than $6 billion at the global box office. A dozen more are in development.
Over the past 40 years, the studio has a track record of actually reimagining its beloved franchise characters and stories in compelling ways—or, at least, for a fun ride. Here are ten times Disney filmmakers managed to look forward even as they looked back.
10. ‘Tron: Legacy’ (2010)
Rewind to 1982. In the wake of “Star Wars,” which critics said Disney should have made, the studio was playing catch-up. That led to “Tron” getting the green light. With a twisting plot that takes a Genius Bar-ista to explain, it follows a programmer (Jeff Bridges) zapped into a computer.
Nearly 30 years later, Bridges returned to the role in “Tron: Legacy.” Original “Tron” visionary Steven Lisberger produced the futuristic sci-fi sequel, which furthers the story, ups the stakes, and drives along on a standout score from electronic duo Daft Punk.
9. ‘Christopher Robin’ (2018)
Disney nostalgia trips often come off best as star vehicles, such as Glenn Close in “101 Dalmatians” or Bruce Willis in “The Kid.” The studio made another attempt last year, enlisting Ewan McGregor (“Black Hawk Down,” “Moulin Rouge”) as Winnie the Pooh’s boyhood playmate Christopher Robin—now grown and having lost his childlike wonder.
With its retread of familiar themes, one critic called this film an impersonal version of Steven Spielberg’s “Hook.” Yet seeing the Hundred Acre Wood come to life has its charms, especially with Hayley Atwell (“Agent Carter”), Mark Gatiss (“Sherlock”), and voice actor Jim Cummings making the most of their roles.
8. ‘Enchanted’ (2007)
When a talented actor fully commits to an over-the-top role, it’s hard to resist. Case in point: Golden Globe winner Amy Adams (“The Fighter”) portrays a Disney princess in “Enchanted,” whose magical nemesis transports her from a cartoon world into modern-day New York City.
The fish-out-of-water story gently mocks Disney clichés, as Adams sings to birds and even rodents infesting a downtown apartment. With similar themes as Disney-produced “Kate & Leopold,” “Enchanted” features cynical, materialistic New Yorkers discovering truths about relationships and romance from the naïve aspiring royal who drops in. A sequel is in the works.
7. ‘A Goofy Movie’ (1995)
As chronicled in “Disney War,” Michael Eisner took the reins of The Walt Disney Company in 1984. Immediately he sought to capitalize on legacy Disney characters. From theme parks to home entertainment, intellectual property would be mined as deeply as possible. Who could forget those poor-quality direct-to-video sequels like “Bambi II” and “Mulan II”?
Fans, or kids growing up during this era, didn’t find it all bad. In 1992, not-yet-Disney-owned ABC premiered “Goof Troop” which recast Walt’s pratfalling comic foil as a single suburban dad with a teenage son. It spawned a feature film three years later. In the road trip tale, whose songs have since gained a cult following, their father-son relationship plays out as comedy.
6. ‘Waking Sleeping Beauty’ (2010)
Most of us who grew up during the Disney renaissance—epitomized by musical blockbusters such as 1991’s “Beauty and the Beast”—take for granted how the family entertainment empire almost closed its animation department altogether. It’s a comeback story few people know, and unexpectedly told with honesty in a Disney-produced documentary.
As egos clashed between CEO Eisner, creative exec Jeffrey Katzenberg (who later exited for DreamWorks SKG), and Walt’s nephew Roy Disney, each contributed to the quest for excellence in animation. “Waking Sleeping Beauty” producer Don Hahn recalls it all firsthand, telling also of the forgotten songwriter whose Broadway style remains a hallmark of Disney animation.
5. ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl’ (2003)
In the 1950s, Walt and his theme park imagineers invested heart and soul in a Disneyland ride that oddly celebrated the exploits of cutthroat pirates. (In fact, the attraction recently got an overhaul for the Me Too era.) During the Eisner era, efforts began to adapt it into a franchise.
Following up his Disney/Touchstone hits “Armageddon” and “Pearl Harbor,” producer Jerry Bruckheimer brought together auteur actor Johnny Depp and horror director Gore Verbinski for an adventure film with many callbacks to the strangely cherished ride. The first Disney release to earn a PG-13 rating, “Pirates” spawned sequels that never quite lived up to the original.
4. ‘Cinderella’ (2015)
One can easily paint recent Disney live-action remakes with a broad brush. Designed to be as inoffensive, stylized, and marketable as possible (perhaps reaching the Chinese market plays a role?), most have no reason to exist other than a cash grab.
There has been one exception—or two, if you count 2016’s rugged hipster fairy tale “Pete’s Dragon”—when a director had a clear vision for a fresh take. Known for his love of Shakespearean drama, Kenneth Branagh (“All Is True,” “Henry V”) rejected modernist tropes for a sincere retelling of “Cinderella” grounded in chivalry, charity, and visual spectacle.
3. ‘The Muppets’ (2011)
Of Disney’s major acquisitions under current president Bob Iger—think Pixar, Marvel, Lucasfilm, and now 21st Century Fox—none have been less used than the marionette puppets that creator Jim Henson dubbed The Muppets.
In 2008, fans were skeptical when Disney announced comic actor Jason Segel (“Knocked Up”) would co-write and produce the Muppets’ return to the big screen. Naysayers were proved wrong. Segel, co-star Amy Adams, and a diverse creative team perfectly achieved the unique brand of burlesque, witty one-liners, outrageous musical numbers, and breaking the fourth wall that define Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie, and this madcap ensemble of felt cloth characters.
2. ‘Toy Story 4’ (2019)
As Disney’s animation renaissance petered out in the mid-90s, their tradition of emotionally resonant entertainment resurged from an unlikely source. An eager group of Walt Disney enthusiasts formed a company where love of storytelling merged with revolutionary technology to enable imaginative world-building on a scale never before seen.
In ensuing decades, pundits have mistakenly predicted the downfall of Pixar every few years. Although the pioneers have become a hit factory, their surprisingly earnest approach continues, even when expanding a flawless trilogy into a quadrilogy. Fans debate whether this final “Toy Story” entry merely remixes past elements or truly advances its themes of identity, parenthood, and growing up. But no one left the theater without a laugh or a good cry.
1. ‘Saving Mr. Banks’ (2013)
Over the past 15 years, The Black List has been one of few forces to get Hollywood to produce movies beyond sequels and franchises. It spotlights original ideas by surveying insiders about their favorite unproduced scripts. In 2011, a story about Walt Disney’s thorny relationship with “Mary Poppins” author P.L. Travers landed on the list.
As 2013 marked the 50th anniversary of Walt’s most successful film, some critics consider “Saving Mr. Banks” merely a brand builder; the screenwriter even admits many aspects of it are fictionalized. Still, in the hands of director John Lee Hancock (“The Founder,” “The Highwaymen”), this thoughtful film rich with subtext presents a master class in using nostalgia to explore creative collaboration, childhood trauma, and storytelling as catharsis.
Legacy franchises dominate today’s entertainment landscape and will continue to. If audiences seek out trusted reviews, vote with our dollars, and demand more than cookie-cutter remakes, future stories with beloved characters set in familiar environments could actually surprise us.