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Disney makes comeback with live-action fantasy films

Jungle Book Mowgli and Wolf film still DisneyOver the next decade, Disney is set to roll out a ream of live-action fantasy reworkings of its animated classics. The Jungle Book, Pete’s Dragon and Beauty and the Beast are just one small part of the studio’s extensive strategy of live-action remakes. But as the Mouse House doubles down on reboots of its nostalgic animated successes, many wonder whether the current slate will stand up to their animated forebears.

The question goes beyond commercial success. All its early forays into the new genre offered up box office hits: Tim Burton’s 2010 remake of Alice in Wonderland (pictured below) pulled in USD $1bn, Branagh’s Cinderella (pictured middle) comfortably passed USD $500m early last year and Stromberg’s Maleficent scored a whopping USD $758m worldwide.

With figures like these, it’s hardly surprising that Disney is waking up to the commercial potential of its live-action formula. And, consequently, aims at perfecting it.

The studio has at least nine live-action projects reportedly in the pipeline. This summer will see the release of a live-action remake of Pete’s Dragon, followed by The Beauty and the Beast early next year, with Emma Watson attached as Belle.

Dating no fewer than four untitled films through 2020 in addition to several movies already set for release and fast-tracking projects like Cruella, allegedly starring Emma Stone, Disney is cementing its live-action fairy-tale empire. In the works are live-action remakes of Dumbo - with Burton set to direct - Pinocchio, Mulan, The Sword and the Stone, Peter Pan, as well as Twink - the ‘untold story’ of Tinker Bell.

The commercial success of these movies is a given. Pairing well-known directors, writers and actors with classic storylines that have proved popular for countless generations, Disney is ahead of the game in this field. Add to that a smattering of action and the promise of 3D visuals and Disney suddenly attracts a much wider audience.

But, as Disney invests more and more in live-action remakes it is moving further and further away from the visuals that made it iconic: hand-drawn characters and original songs. It isn’t making new films with new live-action technology but pillaging from its animated vault.

And this strategy has its challenges: “When it comes to adaptations, you most likely have an established character and an audience with their interpretation and subjective perception of version A of the story and character,” said Christian Kaestner, VFX supervisor at Framestore, a visual effects studio in charge of bringing the likes of Paddington bear to life. “You can't really set the bar any higher than trying to bring something into the photo realistic realm from what used to be a stop-motion or hand drawn character,” he told KFTV.

Cinderella Disney film Kenneth Branagh Lily James

Expectations are high for generations and generations that grew up on the animated fare, but trailblazers are quick to point out that new generations want new genres. Adam Valdez, VFX supervisor at Moving Picture Company (MPC), the company behind the visual effects of The Jungle Book said: “When moving from animation to live-action, it's a way of bringing in certain audiences that may not relate to animation as much.

“We all accept that classic story forms have far back origins, especially the animated Disney films rooted so much in folk-tale. So offering points of view which are more relatable for modern audiences is really just continuing a tradition,” he said.  

In fact, the studio’s earliest animated successes were variations of childhood stories, passed down through oral traditions. Disney took these stories and gave them a new form: on-screen hand-drawn animation. Many argue that Disney’s new strategy is simply the natural next step for a new era of new audiences, which have grown up on new technologies.

The most recent Disney box-office hit, Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book (pictured below) does precisely this: hyperreal digital animation meets traditional storytelling to faithfully revive a classic. And revive is perhaps the keyword here, not replace.

Baloo, Shere Khan and King Louie, voiced by Bill Murray, Idris Elba and Christopher Walken respectively, evoke the spirit of the original film, while hyperreal CGI technology render them more ‘real’, spectacularly so.

Drawing from real animals, Adam Valdez explains that the intention of the film can be reduced to a simple magic trick: that one believes that Mowgli (played by newcomer Neel Sethi) is in a real jungle with real animals. “It’s the wish fulfilment of many people, even past childhood,” he told KFTV.

And the artistry of the technology is undeniable. The infamous ‘Bear Necessities’ scene of Mowgli floating down the river, lying on Baloo’s belly was shot in an outside pool under sunlight. All the elements are then lined up and combined as layers -  a process called "compositing" explains Adam Valdez - and the final image emerges: jungle background, CGI river extension, CG bear, CG Mowgli legs, and the actual Mowgli (played by actor Neel Sethi) on top so that it looks like he's really riding along.

Ditto for the jungle. It is the biggest creation in the movie, contributing to an estimated 80% of the frame 100% of the time. “We figured the size of the jungle we created is about one-third the size of Paris,” Valdez said. “We made the jungle out of CGI models of plants and trees and rocks and vines and all the little details too: mosses and creeping vines and broken twigs and dead leaves on the ground. Then the wind and animal interaction cause it all to move.

“Shot indoors, we never built sets bigger than say 30 by 30 feet, so you get a sense of how much has to be created from scratch.”

When the process is outlined in such a way, adding element upon element, it starts to appear not that far removed from the original hand-drawn animations of yesteryears. The tools change but much remains, updated for the times and tastes we live in.

It is a sentiment that rings true for Kaestner from Framestore. “We certainly don't remember Charlie Chaplin on the big screen like our parents or grandparents, yet I think every generation will acknowledge the brilliance of those short films,” he said.  

“At the end of the day, every interpretation, photo real or not, will have its place in art history. A good movie will be a good movie - drawn on paper or generated on the computer.”