This essay was first published on Cloudbanks and Shimbleshanks in November 2014
For the relatively short time that cinema has been in existence as a medium of expression, one of the most prominent genres that has endured is the fairytale. This was largely, and most famously, spearheaded by Disney with Snow White and the Seven Dwarves in 1937 but came to encompass work by Powell and Pressburger, Guillermo del Toro and Terry Gilliam amongst others. The common trend in the past 5 years or so has been an emphasis on the re-interpretation of traditional fairytales, which have included amongst others The Princess and the Frog, Frozen, Mirror Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman. Disney however, the ultimate motion picture fairytale factory, has recently taken this trend to an entirely new level by re-making live-action versions of its own animated films. From the newly released Cinderella to the live-action re-makes of Beauty and The Beast, Mulan, Dumbo, Tink (based on Peter Pan) and The Jungle Book, Disney is ploughing its way through its own archive material to produce new films. As the company effectively consumes itself, there are important questions to be asked about what this means: do these films embody a progressive deconstruction of Disney’s oeuvre or a cynical money-grabbing exercise in one of the most explicit forms of mechanised unoriginality to ever exist?
One of the most important ideas associated with deconstruction, a word adopted by Jacques Derrida in his various tracts on linguistics and metaphysics, is that texts exist beyond their authors: they undermine the possibility for authorial intent and exist in the world as a product of the cultural values in existence. Whilst it is inaccurate to say that Disney has deconstructed its own films because, according to Derrida, it is in the nature of language to deconstruct and not be deconstructed by any sort of force, there has been an attempt to undercut the idea of the author. This manifests in the way in which films are not treated as sacred, untouchable objects made by Walt Disney but produce other meanings to be explored and visually represented.
The best example of this is can be seen in Maleficent, a new story born from the 1959 animated film Sleeping Beauty that focuses on the quintessential villain Maleficent over Briar Rose and her relationship to Prince Phillip. The fourth wave of feminism has helped to encourage the production of fairytales where much more complex stories about women and women’s experiences are presented, and nowhere is this done better than in Maleficent. Where we once saw Snow White, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty sitting pretty waiting for their princes to rescue them, the new films have seen an emphasis on female empowerment; from Kristen Stewart and Charlize Theron as Snow White and Ravenna and Brave’s Merida taking up arms to save themselves, to a greater emphasis on emotional and financial self-sufficiency in Frozen and The Princess and the Frog. Maleficent, I would argue, does this in the most radical way, taking the tired narrative of 1959, producing new meanings about the characters in both films whilst simultaneously creating much more engaging and interesting female characters for men and women to understand.
In an unusual non-heteronormative move for Disney, who loves a good monarchy, Maleficent takes place in the Moors, the magical domain of fairies that explicitly rejects the idea of a king and queen and comes under constant attack by the kingdom next door. The film explores what is effectively date rape when the ambitious servant-boy Stefan tells Maleficent, the fairy with the biggest wings who protects the Moors from bombardment, that he loves her, before drugging her and cutting of her magnificent wings as bounty so that he can become king; thus forming the basis for her revenge. It explores the unexplainable but beautiful relationship that exists between Maleficent and Aurora, whom when she curses, Maleficent feels inextricably bound to; where Maleficent’s capacity for both hate and love, and good and evil become inter-changeable, and where it is actually OK for her to tend to all of these; it explores the madness of a paranoid and guilty King Stefan(‘uneasy lies the head that wears a crown’ if I ever saw it- Henry IV Part 2 III.i.31) and almost completely casts aside the role of Prince Phillip, whose character verges on farcical, attacking the idea that love at first sight exists.
Maleficent, therefore, presents a progressive re-reading of an old text. Like with Maxine Peake’s recent turn in Hamlet, where the famous ‘To be or not to be’ speech was postponed until much later on in the play, the original 1959 film of Sleeping Beauty has not been rendered untouchable and sacred; a thing belonging to Walt Disney that should be unprivileged and left un-open to questioning. Rather, new readings have produced new meanings, which result in new representations that are much more in tune with the active, complex roles that women have in society. One other good example of this kind of attitude that Disney has adopted towards its own animated fairytales is Enchanted in 2007. Despite the presence of talking animals, people unpredictably breaking into song and a romantic ending, the film critiques the sensational way in which Disney has presented its fairytales; in particular the idea of characters wanting to marry as soon as they first meet. It has been possible for Disney to shine a lot on its own material and I think the results have been extremely promising.
With the new announcement only last week that Disney are preparing to make another live-action re-make (this time of Winnie The Pooh) however, the argument that Disney’s producers and accountants want to create new meanings from the texts they already have becomes slightly shaky. Of course this will happen anyway simply because they will be producing new texts; however, these serve to underline Disney’s authority over the production fairy stories, appealing directly to the nostalgia of audiences. Derrida describes in Spectres of Marx that deconstruction and the ideas involved with deconstruction can be seen as a certain radicalization of Marxism. As one of the most capitalistic Western corporations in existence, it would be ridiculous to think that Disney in any way is associated with the left. This can be seen in the way in which the company has become increasingly obsessed with making money at any cost. It began with the costly box office flops The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, John Carter and The Lone Ranger which lost the studio millions of dollars each. As a result, Disney has turned to low-risk, safe, tried and tested franchises and films; films they know already have big followings and will keep the money rolling in. First we heard the news of Star Wars being resurrected and then slowly more and more live-action re-makes of their animated films.
In his 1933 essay on perennial jazz, Theodor Adorno critiques the mechanization of the culture industry and the emphatic lack of originality in cultural production. I would argue that this is being unashamedly realised in Disney’s film schedule with its reduction in the number of original films due for production and release. Helena Bonham Carter, who plays the Fairy Godmother in the re-make of Cinderella and known for more off-beat film choices, expressed her scepticism at the beginning of filming as to whether ‘a straight version would work’; questioning the extent to which a film that effectively just brings animation to life could be interesting. To Kenneth Branagh the twist of the film is that it is ‘classic’ and not a re-imagining or re-reading like Maleficent; however, regardless of how well the script is written, how good the acting is or how they have best made use of special effects the fact remains that this is not an original film idea. Resorting more and more to resurrecting and perpetuating old sagas, including Pirates of the Caribbean alongside Star Wars, in addition to its archive of animated classics, Disney panders more and more to old, previously successful formulas at the expense of imagination: creating new characters, stories and predicaments for audiences to admire and engage with.
All of this is problematic because Disney is setting a dangerous precedent: that films are fluffy, nostalgia fests to transport us away from the troubles of everyday life, instead of tools for critiquing culture. I saw the latest Cinderella and against my better judgment absolutely enjoyed being reminded of the film I saw in childhood: from the song ‘A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes’ to the comic fights between Lucifer the cat and Gus and Jaq the mice, to the awful singing from Anastasia and Drizella and that dress transformation. There were some parts of the film I really liked, for example the extremely sensitive portrayal of the prince’s relationship with his father; however, wouldn’t it be better to explore those relationships in other situations or contexts instead of using an old formula that you know will work? Disney, for better or worse, was a pioneer in animation and the live-action re-makes that are going to litter our cinematic landscape over the next few years don’t seem to be very brave ventures to me.
I would argue that a breaking point will be reached in the future where the cultural regurgitation of re-makes and sequels will no longer be creatively sustainable. There has to be an endpoint: where can Disney go after re-making everything it has already made, when it has rinsed its herd of cash-cows? If the studio wasn’t making so much money of this industrial unoriginality, I’d find some kind of enjoyment in the fact that Disney is consuming itself: it is the embodiment of paranoid capitalist culture doing what it can to preserve itself, by gobbling up everything it has ever produced.