Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Will Disney's Remakes Ever Be Serious Oscar Contenders?

Scene from The Jungle Book
In 1939, Walt Disney won an Honorary Oscar for his work on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. With an astounding 22 wins within his lifetime (and 4 within a single evening), it was the perfect sign that Disney Studios was here to stay. Over the years, they have cornered the market on box office and acclaim simultaneously, creating some of the most iconic works in animated film history. Even if it took until 1991 for them to receive a Best Picture nomination with Beauty and the Beast, the studio has maintained an enviable consistency. With today's release of the first trailer for director Jon Favreau's The Jungle Book, it feels like a good time to argue one thing: will their recent adaptations of old classics hold any prestige in the years to follow? 
It does seem like an odd but obvious trend in the Disney camp nowadays. Starting with director Tim Burton's billion dollar grossing Alice in Wonderland in 2010, the studio has done what is known as "brand deposits." This basically means adapting old properties to raise awareness of their existence. You're likely familiar with them from the past few years. There was Maleficent and this year's Cinderella. Burton's been rumored to be working on a creepy Dumbo adaptation, and director Rob Marshall with a Mary Poppins sequel. Even other studios have been hopping on the fairy tale train with films like director Joe Wright's Pan, director Tarsem Singh's Mirror Mirror, and the planned The Little Mermaid adaptation from director Sofia Coppola. These adaptations are ravenous. For the sake of argument, however, I will pose a question regarding Disney.

Can these brand deposits transcend the cash cow nature of the product? I know that entertainment blockbusters almost always get a resounding "No" when considered for Best Picture material. It seemed like a fluke when Inception made an appearance in the 2010 line-up. However, I do think that there's value in having those well crafted blockbusters that enthrall you and take you on adventures to places rarely seen. I have made the argument for years, most recently regarding The Avengers and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Will there be a day again where this isn't a taboo concept? Many have bets saved that Mad Max: Fury Road will break that curse, but I see it as too rambunctious to ever be considered.

What separates Disney's brand deposits for me is that they are already cropped from beloved source material. We have an affinity for them. Therefore, I am sure that one of these adaptations is going to make a new impact. For instance, Maleficent has repopularized the main character's horn-rimmed look. The iconography has already returned to pop culture. Watching The Jungle Book trailer today, I saw a lot of exciting peril on display. If anything, it looks to capture an excitement that will make it tonally different from the original animated movie. While I don't think that there has been a considerable track record regarding these remakes surpassing the originals, I do think they have the ability to reimagine it for a modern era. 

Now before you excuse my argument as not having levity, just consider a few things. The first is that blockbuster entertainment used to be just as often considered for Best Picture as the prestige pictures. This was never more evident than in the period between 1950 and 1970. In 1956, Around the World in 80 Days won Best Picture. With several cameos and a world travelling plot, the film was packed to the brim with excess - even featuring (in its entirety) director George Melies' A Trip to the Moon, and an overly animated closing credits sequence. It was trying to be spectacle crammed into one package that makes it look a little ridiculous, and maybe boring, by today's standards. Later winners would choose style over substance, reflecting a more populous view including The Greatest Show on Earth, Ben-Hur, and Tom Jones. These were "feel good" movies that evolved into Disney's brand deposits over decades. 

Even in the nominations, you can get a strong sense of populous entertainment that is present in the winners that are just as puzzling. In 1963 alone, there were two of arguably the more bloated and baffling epics to ever be nominated with Failed Oscar Campaigns subject Cleopatra and the star studded How the West Was Won, which had four prestigious directors and 24 stars - most of whom were Oscar nominated by that point. Both have their entertainment value, though I think that How the West Was Won feels stilted thanks to its committee-like production. It feels like it wants to be important instead of being just that. Meanwhile, I think that Cleopatra is a misunderstood film that actually surpasses most other major swords and sandals films of the time. 

Either way, this is evidence that blockbusters can be nominated because they have. In a lot of cases, directors have managed to make epics that are more artful than those 1963 films. Directors like Christopher Nolan, Steven Spielberg, and James Cameron have made advancements that are worthy of recognition with films that will be talked about for decades to come. While these are two of the more major ones, I think it is a testament to craft that directors are capable of turning these subjects into accessible art. Likewise, I think that now that the Best Picture is on a sliding 5-10 nomination scale, they deserve more recognition. Even if I appreciate that last year was heavily recognizing of indie films, I do think that there needs to be a balance. Again, I don't want just any film to be nominated, but when really good blockbuster films continue to exist, they should be recognized. It seems unfair that How the West Was Won would even be considered for Oscars just because of its cast.

I also think that the taboo around remakes should be abandoned sooner than later. Yes, reboot culture has left a sour taste, especially as franchises like Spider-Man and Fantastic 4 remain big punchlines. Modern adaptations of old tales have long been ingrained into pop culture and should be represented. While it was a different take, Les Miserables (2012) can be considered a remake of an older Best Picture winner from 1935. Likewise, Moulin Rouge (2001) shares its name with a lesser known film from 1952. Mutiny on the Bounty not only won Best Picture in 1935, but its remake received a nomination in 1962. The Departed remains the only remake to win Best Picture. Considering that we're more accepting of William Shakespeare adaptations, it seems unfair to have a bias of one over the other. While I barely scratched the surface of remakes, I do think that time and context can add value to these films and maybe even make them into their own valuable story.

I don't know if The Jungle Book will be the defining Disney brand deposit worthy of further discussion. However, I do think that to dismiss them entirely is to ignore film history. Yes, older blockbusters look dated by today's comparison, but they serve value to help us understand the time. I know that Disney's mostly doing these as cash cows, but I do think that there may be one one day that has more of an implicit value to the zeitgeist. Much like Maleficent and her iconography. Part of me hopes that Pan will have a chance because director Joe Wright has an impressive track record with period pieces, including Atonement, Pride & Prejudice, and Anna Karenina. That is mostly wishful thinking. 

I do subscribe to the theory that animated Disney will always fare better than live action Disney. However, I want to believe that we're stuck in a taboo phase where franchises are somehow less qualified just because they are resourced from something else. Never forget that trilogies have been nominated before, along with various sequels. Just because we've hit a spell where that hasn't happened doesn't mean that it should be shocking when it will happen again. Maybe the idea of prestige clouds judgment a little too much nowadays, but when films like Avatar and Inception can sneak into the club, I do think that we should maintain optimism. I'm sure that The Jungle Book will get some technical nods. That's to be expected. 

However, I want to know which one of these will stand a chance in the big leagues. One has to. The Oscars is only at its best when diversity is represented. While that is relative to gender and sexuality as well, it should also just be films that connect with audiences in general. There's a reason that Titanic's Best Picture year has one of the highest ceremony viewing ratings in history. It's because there was a representation of popular entertainment as well. I don't know if it will sway laymen to tune in, but I do think it will at least raise heads and make the race far more interesting than the average "which prestige film is the most prestige" debate we're likely to face yet again this Fall. I don't know that I have made a great argument for Disney's Oscar chances, but I do hope that I raised awareness that it isn't that bizarre to imagine this happening, because it has. It just needs to not seem like a novelty concept.

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