How much joy is left to be squeezed out of watching photo-realistic animals, or new Hollywood stars, act out old movies we loved, beat for beat?
Hollywood is, self-evidently, in the middle of a nostalgia boom. A time traveller from the mid-1990s who suddenly lands in the mezzanine of any given AMC theatre this year should be forgiven for thinking his experiment failed as he watches audiences pour into theatres for ‘The Addams Family’, ‘The Lion King’ and ‘Men in Black’ — all 2019 rejiggerings of two-decade-old movies.
Why do the hard work of imagining new work, industry heads are asking themselves, when we can just update or serialise the old? Just last summer, a largely boring film with nothing going for it besides its title, ‘Jurassic World’, rode the coattails of its actually good 1993 ancestor to $1.3 billion worldwide. While remakes aren’t a new trend, the nostalgia-bait model has reached a new height, with an incessant slew of movies lined up to cash in on the yearning of ageing millennials to relive fuzzier times.
Studios sitting on the rights to old intellectual property are busier than ever churning out new multiplex-ready versions of stories the public has even a vaguely fond memory of. In addition to sequels, Disney is rolling out live-action versions of its most memorable animated films. Many of them, such as “Toy Story 4,” are already out; a new “Lion King” (1994) comes out this month and the likes of ‘Mulan’ (1998) all the way back to ‘Lady and the Tramp’ (1955) are in the works.
Last year’s big anti-superhero film ‘Venom’ was objectively bad, and described by some critics as a “calculated risk” by Sony. A controlled gamble meant to retain Sony’s shared rights to the Spider-Man universe’s characters, lest Marvel’s parent company make a play to bring the character back to his original corporate home. And it worked. ‘Venom’ got a 29 per cent rating from Rotten Tomatoes, but grossed $855 million globally, more than enough to get a sequel quickly greenlit.
The studios might be lazy, but their armies of market researchers wouldn’t let them make these redux films if we weren’t easy marks. The 2017 computer-generated image remake of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ brought in over $1.2 billion globally. This summer’s live-action version of 1992’s ‘Aladdin’ opened to tepid reviews and still made a healthy $800 million or so at the box office after a month.
For an indeterminate, but clearly not immeasurable, swath of moviegoers, there is no marketing campaign more alluring than one that taps into foggy childhood memories. Paramount, the studio behind the upcoming “Sonic the Hedgehog” movie — a live-action film scheduled for release 29 years after the Sega franchise’s first game — definitely had this playbook in mind: Surely people will pay $20 for something that brings them back to playing on a Sega console in their neighbour’s den; tens of millions of the original ‘Sonic’ game, after all, were sold.
But perhaps precisely because Paramount is not nearly as well practised in nostalgia as Disney, its hop on the gravy train with ‘Sonic’ looks to have been rushed out without a modicum of original energy, as if it had been stored in a vault for two decades, biding its time: Need a goofy villain? Get box office draw Jim Carrey on the line. What song shall we set the trailer to? The 1995 hit ‘Gangsta’s Paradise’, naturally.
But the ‘Sonic’ producers were quickly reminded the internet can scream as loud as money talks. When the cheesy trailers for it debuted on YouTube, judgement came so swiftly, so mercilessly, for the clunky, harried 3D animation of ‘Sonic’ that the director, Jeff Fowler took to Twitter and promised a top-to-bottom redesign of the titular character.
But a facelift for a single character within a broadly ideas-bankrupt picture is beside the point. The plot is still an afterthought. The curse of the “terrible video game film adaptation” will still be there; and Carrey, bless him, will still be the biggest name on the marquee.
The new ‘Sonic’ isn’t alone in its patness and unoriginal design: Tim Burton’s ‘Dumbo’ was a disappointment both financially and critically because, despite whatever internal studio memos reported, an expanded roster of human characters was not what the charming original cartoon from 1941 was missing, nor was its lack of photo-realistic CGI elephants. Stripped of their cartoonish proportions, Dumbo’s piercing “real” blue eyes are unsettling, even revolting, and we find ourselves the villains of the story being told, rejecting this creature who was once the cutest thing to ever fictionally exist, and hating the film for it.
By contrast, creature design is a high point for another recent throwback movie. ‘Detective Pikachu’ — based on a weird but interesting new game in the ‘Pokemon’ franchise — was released late this spring. It takes a decidedly less complicated approach to the design of its little monsters, employing a jovial ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’ aesthetic to complement its quirky plot.
The humans and the cities are simply humans and cities. The Pokemon are faithfully rendered approximations of their simply drawn video game counterparts, with some texture added here and there. While that may seem like less work, the thoughtfulness, reported by The New York Times, that went into using an “as they were” aesthetic made the potentially ruinous 3D designs work smoothly.
And despite all the bad reviews for the new ‘Aladdin’, similar careful thinking about its use of newfangled technology seemed to spare it the ire of audiences. For a film in which the young hero releases a blue-skinned Will Smith from his genie lamp-prison, it seems the producers decided that the talking parrot Iago from the animated original could stay — but that Iago gesticulating with his wings as if they’re actual arms would have strained credibility to an unacceptable degree. And so, the bird is rendered a pleasant mix of magic and realism. Suspending disbelief has a tricky method to its madness and demands respect of the audience.
If only studios respected us enough to make fewer remakes. The great nostalgia-industrial complex will presumably roll on anyway, steamrollering us against our better judgement into multiplexes, hoping for a simulacrum of the first high we felt watching great characters years ago. But how much joy is left to be squeezed out of watching photo-realistic animals, or new Hollywood stars, act out old movies we loved, beat for beat?
We’ll presumably find out when the star-studded CGI update to ‘The Lion King’ comes out this month. A minimeltdown ensued on Twitter among some purist fans when the beloved buddy character Pumbaa was revealed in promo campaigns in his real-world warthog glory.
But those sort of gripes are being understandably outweighed by the excitement of seeing Simba voiced by Donald Glover and hearing a soundtrack led by BeyoncE, who also voices Nala. So expect record-shattering revenue regardless.
‘Detective Pikachu’ is no paragon of filmmaking, but it resisted the trend of simply being a nostalgia ATM for the old Pokemon universe — which began in 1996 with games on then-ubiquitous on Nintendo Game Boys. The end product was better for it. It may be a very modest triumph, but a triumph nonetheless in its willingness to tell a newer, if not fully original story. (And Ryan Reynolds excels as Pikachu: Give the man a Golden Golden Globe.)
Should we hold out similar hope for the new ‘Lion King?’ A good omen lies in the pedigree of the director, Jon Favreau, who oversaw the reanimated ‘The Jungle Book’ (2016) with success and started Marvel’s era of box office dominance with ‘Iron Man’ — a film with a semiobscure superhero (back in 2008) that had no right to be as good as it was.
High expectations for Hollywood are futile. But surely there can be more to the family-friendly blockbuster than the cheap caper of using this anxious time to instill some slapdash yearning for the simpler days. If we are going to be coerced into revisiting our childhoods again, the least these money-soaked studios can do is find slightly more creative solutions to keep putting us in movie seats. They could find out what really moves us now, a little bit like a detective.