aladdin clips

(Welcome to The Soapbox, the space where we get loud, feisty, political, and opinionated about anything and everything. In this edition: the live-action Disney remakes feel ashamed to be musicals and that’s a problem.)

Indulge me in a bit of a thought experiment. Think, for just a second, of the films of the Disney Renaissance. Films like Aladdin, The Lion King, and Hercules. Leave aside what you think of these movies — maybe your favorite is The Lion King, or maybe it’s Beauty and the Beast. Think about these movies, and specifically conjure up one thing that these movies share, a common element that binds them. While the Renaissance-era films are quite beautifully animated (primarily by hand), what really unites them is their music. These films all feature memorable, show-stopping, Broadway-style songs. You may not love them all, but you know them.

Now think about the recent wave of live-action remakes. And think about the new Aladdin.

Being Afraid of Making a Musical

Songs like “Friend Like Me”, “Be Our Guest”, “Be Prepared” and more are part of the soundtrack to the 1990s, at least for people of the right age. So it stands to reason that if a company like Disney wanted to remake these animated musicals as live-action/CG stories, they would either need to incorporate the songs or diverge so wildly from the source material as to tell a totally different story. Thus, it’s kind of frustrating and baffling to watch remakes of Aladdin, The Jungle Book, Dumbo, and Beauty and the Beast, and get the distinct sense that either the studio or the filmmakers working for that studio desperately do not want to make musicals.

Aladdin is the most recent example of this problem, but not the only example. In the remake directed by Guy Ritchie, the broad strokes are largely the same. There’s still a street rat who becomes the owner of a lamp and a wish-granting genie. And there’s still a romance, and still songs like “Friend Like Me”, “Arabian Nights” and “A Whole New World” to tap your toes to. But the way most of these songs are staged and performed suggests a production that felt embarrassed about having to include songs at all.

Take, for example, “A Whole New World”. The basics of this romantic ballad remain intact in the live-action/CG remake. Aladdin (Mena Massoud) and Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott) are riding atop a flying carpet throughout the world, as they sing together about being able to experience life anew now that they’re in love. But the way Ritchie stages this number proves a) how computer-generated effects can’t solve everything, and b) that some directors just don’t know how to direct musical sequences. Placing two live people on a CG carpet that’s soaring through the sky seems pretty challenging, and that’s proved through how heavily green-screened this supposedly tender sequence looks.

Ritchie’s camera can’t stay still, either, as the sequence is largely filmed and edited together the way that many of his action sequences look. Instead of allowing us to see what it looks like when two people in love sing together, we’re presented with a visually muddled, incoherent scene that downplays an Oscar-winning song and its charms. The same is true of an early song, “One Jump Ahead”, in which we see Aladdin jump and run his way through Agrabah to escape the clutches of the palace guard. As in the original, Aladdin’s abilities to move fast seem nearly superhuman (snark all you like, but Aladdin knew parkour in the animated film). But to showcase him running and singing seems next to impossible, or just something Ritchie has no interest in presenting.

Flying Away From Songs

To criticize Aladdin and director Guy Ritchie, though, does not mean that this film is the sole problem. Earlier this year, Disney released the equally bad remake of Dumbo directed by Tim Burton. Dumbo, granted, is not styled as a Broadway musical in the 1941 version, but the animated film does feature plenty of songs, many of which are hugely connected to the title character’s emotional arc. When Dumbo is cruelly separated from his mother, the latter of whom is caged up, his heartbreak is punctuated by “Baby Mine”. In the new film, yes, “Baby Mine” does appear during a moment of sadness for Dumbo and his mother, but it’s presented in a tossed-off way. The song is now performed by one of the circus freaks, as a circumstance of coincidence; she happens to be singing as a CG, extremely-not-adorable Dumbo sees his mom behind bars.

That film also has a handful of other songs that are either briefly referenced or quoted, in ways that suggest the filmmakers just didn’t know how to bring them to life in some other way. Fair is fair: no one expected the song “When I See an Elephant Fly” to appear in the remake the way it does in the animated film. In the original, a group of crows sings jeeringly to Dumbo after he winds up at the top of a tree, having flown there in the midst of a drunken stupor. It’s no surprise that the new film doesn’t get Dumbo drunk, let alone encounter crows who are racially coded to be black.

What’s surprising about how the new Dumbo incorporates this song is…well, how it incorporates the song. Did you think the lyrics of “When I See an Elephant Fly” would be quoted solemnly by a circus emcee played by boxing announcer Michael Buffer before he says, “Let’s get ready for Dumbo”? And yet, that’s what happens. (Buffer says that parody of his catchphrase twice in the film. Twice.)

Of course, for a number of reasons, Dumbo was not successful, either qualitatively or at the box office. Two of the biggest remake hits Disney has made, The Jungle Book and Beauty and the Beast, also struggle with their songs. With regards to the latter film, director Bill Condon is no stranger to musicals, having mounted the charming adaptation of Dreamgirls. But Beauty and the Beast, due to a combination of CGI and casting a lot of actors who cannot sing that well, never feels comfortable in its own skin.

That last point is worth noting, because it crops up in Aladdin, too. Will Smith’s rapping aside, his singing in “Arabian Nights” and “Friend Like Me” especially is just not great. Massoud acquits himself just a bit better musically, perhaps explaining why the songs are so heavily Auto-Tuned. In Beauty and the Beast, the one musical sequence in the new film that stands out is “Gaston”, featuring two actors — Luke Evans and Josh Gad — with extensive experience in stage musicals. Considering how Auto-Tuned songs like “Belle” and “Be Our Guest” sound, that’s not exactly a coincidence.

Sacrificing Music for Photorealism

Jon Favreau’s largely computer-animated take on The Jungle Book has a similar problem, though it is a mostly more enjoyable film than the 2017 Beauty and the Beast. The 2016 film won many plaudits for its striking, photorealistic computer animation in bringing just about every part of the jungle, down to the trees, to life. Of course, that also meant that all of the animals who the young man-cub Mowgli encounters look mostly like they would in the wild. The 1967 animated film is not only not photo-realistic (both because the technology didn’t exist, and because most Disney animated films don’t lean on photorealism for its characters), but it’s got a handful of memorable songs that are inextricably associated with the film. As realistic as the film looks, it may be partly why the songs don’t work – it would look odd, to say the least, to see real-looking jungle animals bursting into song.

The cast for The Jungle Book is also mostly not known for its collective singing prowess. On the surface, you might think that Bill Murray seems like an apt choice to voice the laid-back bear Baloo. Until, that is, you hear him speak-sing his way through “The Bare Necessities”. The same could be true of Christopher Walken as a giant-sized version of King Louie. He’s got the gravitas to pull off playing a bad guy, and Walken is also well known for his tap-dancing skills. But when you hear him shuffle his way through “I Wan’na Be Like You”, it’s just painful.

Favreau is unquestionably adept at bringing a photorealistic world to life, but the musical elements within the new film are shunted off to the side. It’s notable that, in the run-up to his next film, Disney’s fully computer-animated remake of The Lion King, there were rumors that only some of the songs from the 1994 film would appear in the new one. Though the new cast includes some very musical performers, such as Donald Glover, Beyoncé, and Billy Eichner, it still inspires caution that this new film might bring to life many of the original story beats…just not with the songs. (And frankly, it’s weird to imagine what “Hakuna Matata” will look like with photoreal animals.)

aladdin clip

Putting the Music Behind the Ads

What is it, then, about the specter of a musical that so seems to scare Disney, either its filmmakers or its marketers? Walt Disney Animation Studios is essentially the company’s most consistent original cash cow — live-action remakes only exist, and only make money, because people love the animated films — and one of their hallmarks is memorable music. Yet even some of Disney’s own animated fare has advertising that goes out of its way to hide the songs; the first ads and posters for Frozen a) foregrounded the talking snowman Olaf and b) didn’t begin to hint at any singing. (The ads for Frozen II notably focus entirely on Anna and Elsa.)

For the live-action films, at least, the backgrounding or straight-up botching of musical sequences may never stop being frustrating. If the animated films from Disney are serving as a gold mine for remakes (at least some of the time), and if those films are largely going to echo their predecessors, it’d be nice to see a live-action take on musical sequences that made audiences go crazy to begin with. Decades ago, Disney was smart enough to sell its animated films on its music. Now, as they cannibalize their own filmography, they’ve lost the rhythm.

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