Why Disney can’t stop making live-action versions of its cartoons

The slipper still fits.
The slipper still fits.
Image: Joel Ryan/Invision/AP
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Updated at 1:50pm EST on April 2 with news that Disney will be making a live-action version of Winnie the Pooh.

It’s good to be Disney. The US media behemoth’s stock is up 200% over the last five years amid hit after hit, and it is showing no signs of stopping. Now that it owns both Marvel and Lucasfilm, it will release what are likely to be the two biggest films of 2015: Avengers: Age of Ultron and Star Wars: Episode VII. And that’s to say nothing of the continuing global juggernaut that is Frozen.

Disney’s newest foolproof method of success is to re-imagine its classic animated films (as well as other books and musicals) with real actors. Yesterday, the Hollywood Reporter revealed that the company is developing a live-action Mulan. That’s another Disney princess crossed off the shrinking list that live only in animated form. Update: Disney will also make a Winnie the Pooh live-action movie, according to Deadline.

Here are the live-action films Disney will make over the next few years:

  •  2015:

Yes, Disney is making a live-action film of Dumbo the elephant. It’s only a matter of time before Jessica Chastain, Emma Stone, Anna Kendrick, or—God forbid—Ariana Grande is cast as Ariel in The Little MermaidAladdin and Pocahontas movies are likely to follow. And don’t be too surprised to see a live-action Frozen one of these years.

Disney has realized that remaking its valuable franchises with actual human beings is essentially a no-risk investment. Audiences like familiar stories, especially those starring famous actors. That’s not to say the company has abandoned original animated films; but hits like Frozen that become mythic are few and far between. (Does anyone remember The Princess and the Frog?)

Familiar stories, re-imagined in live action, have proved a surefire way of making lots and lots of money with relatively small initial investments. Alice in Wonderland, not based on a Disney cartoon but on the well-loved Lewis Carroll story, made over $1 billion internationally on a budget of about $150 million. Maleficent (a retelling of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty from the villain’s point of view) made over $750 million on a similar budget. Cinderella, which brings the Disney animated princess to life, was released only two weeks ago in the US and has already made $335 million—more than three times its budget. Not only do the live-action versions seem to offer better returns on their investments, but in making them, Disney brass avoids having to take a risk on a new idea.

Meryl Streep in "Into the Woods"
Meryl Streep in “Into the Woods”
Image: Disney

Of course, the star power of an Angelina Jolie or Meryl Streep adds credibility. While Into the Woods (based on the Steven Sondheim musical and starring Streep) didn’t make an inordinate amount of money, it was a critical success, picking up three Oscar nominations. Cinderella, starring a slew of British acting mainstays, was also a hit with critics, with a score of 85% on the review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes.

Moviegoers—especially American ones—love films that they’re familiar with. In that way, these movies work in much the same way as superhero films (which Disney also makes now that it owns Marvel). Even if they’re not so cheap to make, it’s very difficult for them to fail.

To be sure, Disney has had some moderate success with its recent original animated movies, including Wreck-It RalphTangled, Brave, and The Princess and the Frog. But none of them have morphed into the multibillion-dollar worldwide phenomenon that Frozen has become (paywall).

And while many of these movies have still been profitable (this is Disney, after all), their results are not so dazzling as those of recent live-action films. Tangled had a $260 million budget—the fourth most of all time and more than any Disney live-action film—but grossed only about $600 million.

Disney has apparently decided that if live-action remakes aren’t going to replace animated movies entirely, they will at least complement them and provide another easy stream of revenue. For one thing, live-action films can appeal to a wider demographic than animated films: It’s unlikely that many adults saw Tangled without a child in tow, but you can bet they’ll come out in droves to see Emma Watson play Belle in Beauty and the Beast.

To its credit, Disney does still invest in original live-action films, although they are becoming increasingly rare. The upcoming sci-fi adventure Tomorrowland, though inspired by a Disney ride, boasts an entirely original story.