Thursday, July 10, 2014

Why A "Dumbo" Remake Reveals Everything Wrong With Animation Today

I've been gone for more than a year now, but I'm finally back to bring you more from around the world of cartoons and animation.  First up, the thing that finally got me off of my lazy ass and into writing again.

Earlier this week, the Hollywood Reporter announced that Disney is planning a live-action/CGI version of its 1941 classic, Dumbo. The film is to be written by Transformers franchise writer Ehren Kruger, but no projected release date has been announced.  

I can only hope that this turns out to be a hoax, but given the current direction that Disney is taking regarding its movies, I feel like I am only going to be disappointed. The studio has already cranked out Alice in Wonderland and Maleficent, both of which have been well-received at the box-office. In addition, there are live-action adaptations of Cinderella, Beauty and the BeastThe Jungle Book, and (a rumored) The Little Mermaid in the pipeline.

This crap needs to stop. Remaking these already classic films robs the originals of their legitimacy as honest works of cinematic art. Dumbo is one of the tightest and most emotional entries of the Disney canon, Sleeping Beauty is perhaps the most sophisticated, and The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast were instrumental in kicking off the Animation Renaissance of the '90s. Hell, the latter of those two was the first animated film nominated for a Best Picture Oscar.  

So what is the problem here? Lots of things to be sure. Perhaps the first major issue was the ghettoizing of animation to children's television. With the film industry's deconstruction in the '50s, TV started to become the only marketable home for animation. In order to easily create weekly programming, many TV studios would create half-hour shows out of old theatrical cartoons shorts and play them for kids on Saturday mornings. This is the hurdle that we as a culture have been unable to overcome and it has resulted in the stigmatization that all animations are simply, "kid stuff."

This leads to my next point on why these live-action adaptations exist. I place much of the blame on the shoulders of Generation Y. Ours is a generation that is obsessed with nostalgia. Facebook news feeds and other social media sites are flooded daily with reminders of our childhood, from the foods we used to eat, the clothes we used to wear, and especially the movies we used to watch. As a side effect of the cornucopia of information on the internet, many of these movies, shows, and other material are readily available to watch and relive. In addition to leading many young people to strive and capture their lost youth, it also causes older generations to perceive us as the generation that can't let go of our childhoods, furthering the kiddy stigma of cartoons.

Enter the corporate suits. They know what is trending on Twitter and Facebook. Marketing firms collect data to show that these older animated films are still popular today, so the CEOs ask themselves, "How can I make money off of this without taking a huge financial risk?" The answer: remake an already established brand, but alter it slightly to make it fit with contemporary tastes and to give it the illusion of being a more mature story (just for fun, let's say it's a dark fantasy setting). Next, you find bankable names to write, direct, and star in them. After all, who doesn't love Johnny Depp or Angelina Jolie?  The end result is the cinematic equivalent of a hot dog; manufactured and only slightly reminiscent of the steak of burger that once was. Certainly in Hollywood money needs to be made, but if you're in animation to get rich, you're in it for the wrong reasons. Walt Disney took every dollar he made off of his movies and cranked them back into the company to do even better next time. Recent investigations into the tech and computer animation industries have proven just how far we have fallen.

The bottom line is this: animation does not get the respect that it deserves as an art form. When it was first being pioneered in the early decades of the twentieth century, it was regarded as the top tier of movie magic. When Walt Disney stepped onto the scene, he blew everyone away with his passion, work ethic, and willingness to go beyond what was considered possible and brought the medium to an entirely new level. Mickey Mouse was a bigger star than many of the real-world figures of the silver screen. Critics were astounded that Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was able to engage the emotions of an entire theater audience for a feature-length animated film.  People are still moved today by the honesty and emotion of a movie that was made in 1937. How many other films can truly claim to have that kind of lasting power?

Animation is not simply the dominion of princesses and talking animals with attitude. It is a medium in which the only limitations are the imaginations if the people who create it. It can be so much better than it is if people would stop worrying about only finding something for your kids or making money on an investment. Embrace it. Enjoy it. Let go of any preconceived notions about Pollyanna endings and stupid sing-alongs. Animation is a medium as old as film itself.  Many of our most cherished films are animated. Don't let the cynics and bean counters take those memories away from you and twist them to suit their own desires.  If we allow these films to be lost, we lose a part of who we are.