Disney Remakes: What is “copying” and what is “inspired by”?

When I was growing up, the most common complaint of why Disney was over the hill was that the studio was making too many sequels — whether it was direct-to-DVD sequels like Brother Bear 2 or wildly popular theatrical releases like Toy Story 3. People wanted new content and hated that enough viewers were spending their money to find out what happens to Kenai or Woodie in the next installment to keep Disney’s eyes set on second, third, and fourth sequels.

The new complaints center around the Disney live-action remakes. The remakes started off slow, with Tim Burton’s 2010 Alice in Wonderland remake or 2014’s Maleficent. But now they’re coming out much more frequently — Beauty and the BeastAladdin, Dumbo, and The Lion King all came out within the last two years. This leaves a lot of people complaining, and even more people asking: is this a drop in creativity?

In most cases, probably not.

What is “unoriginal”?

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I know that question makes it seem like I’m going to overanalyze things way too much and dive into metaphysical philosophy, but it’s a legitimate question. What makes Star Wars “inspired by” the stories in The Hero with a Thousand Faces while The Secret Life of Pets is “a ripoff” of Toy Story? We debate this question all the time, so it seems fair to ask it again and establish a baseline before continuing.

I firmly believe that people criticize behaviors in order to change them — either out of a genuine desire to make others behave better or out of an insecure desire to control them. We criticize artists when they produce something we don’t like, because we want them to start making things we do like. When writers come out with something we do like, we praise them. Calling an artist “unoriginal” is no different.

“Unoriginal” obviously had a bad connotation. So what behavior is it trying to discourage? What bad things happen when someone is unoriginal? There are a few answers:

  1. The work shows that the artist/writer is not as talented as the artist/writer who came up with the original. We do not praise the artist because they have shown no skills worth praising.
  2. The work is so cliche that it is no longer entertaining.
  3. The work somehow saps money or popularity away from its inspiration/original.
    1. Note that this normally only happens in zero-sum fields — like winning Nobel Prizes or stealing Olympic skating routines — and not normally with movies, TV, or books. Creative projects don’t tend to steal audience members. Media build momentum off of each other — getting Netflix recommendations for other similar projects, interesting people in the genre, etc.
  4. Selfish intent from the project’s management probably doesn’t count. “Let’s go with the current trends to make money” has the same selfish intent as “let’s start a new trend to make money.” CEOs run businesses. That’s what they do. The selfish intent will almost always be there, and will cause both originality and unoriginality at different times.

These are the things I believe we truly mean to criticize when we say the word “unoriginal.” Either it’s unentertaining, or it harms what came before it, or it shows that the writer/artist is not skilled.

For example, while Star Wars “borrowed” many elements from The Hero with a Thousand Faces, it did the exact opposite of draining its income. The movie most certainly did not drain income from all of the public-domain heroic myths and folktales The Hero with a Thousand Faces was critiquing. George Lucas, meanwhile, was incredibly innovative in his special effects and still had to work hard to come up with a good story, even if it did follow a formula. Thus, many people hesitate to call Star Wars “unoriginal.” The formula that George Lucas was copying was something that (according to the book) a majority of storytellers had been using for thousands of years in cultures all over the world. “The Hero’s Journey,” while helpful, was not what made Star Wars stand out to audiences.

The Secret Life of Pets, on the other hand, is controversial as to whether or not it “rips off” Toy Story. That likely depends on how entertained audiences felt with the “new toy/dog comes in to replace old toy/dog” plotline. Honestly, Toy Story did not invent this, but it was still fresh in audiences minds by the time The Secret Life of Pets came out. The plotline likely felt worn out — so with no amazing new 3D animation to bring to the table, The Secret Life of Pets was likely in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The same thing happened with Coco and The Book of Life. Both are based off of Dia de Muertos, which is a public domain holiday. The creators of Coco still had to write their own songs, use an entirely different animation style, and tell a completely different story. Just because “they’re both Day of the Dead” doesn’t mean that Coco is a “ripoff” of The Book of Life. Dia de Muertos is not the primary reason why people liked either movie.

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Take Kimba the White Lion and the original Lion King as a third and final example. Yes, Disney himself did collaborate with the creators of Kimba the White Lion, so it’s fair to say that they shared a lot of ideas. But the only similarities between the projects — “Simba” sounds like “Kimba,” they’re both lions, hyenas are the bad guys, there’s an evil lion named either “Claw” or “Scar,” and there’s a giant fucking rock the lions stand on — are not the things that made either entertaining. If Simba was instead named “Mat,” Pride Rock was instead a big tree like in Black Panther, Scar was named “Taka,” and the bad guys were elephants, you probably still would have enjoyed the movie. The talents and efforts that made the movie popular were not the things it “took” from Kimba the White Lion. That wasn’t what made the anime popular, nor was it what made the movie popular. The “copied” elements are trivial, compared with all of the originality that The Lion King brought to the table.

What about the Disney remakes?

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This is where things will vary from project to project. The 2016 remake of The Jungle Book told an almost completely different story from the 1967 movie, whereas 2017 Beauty and the Beast was almost exactly identical to the 1991 filmMaleficent and 2010 Alice in Wonderland are even farther away from their originals. So let’s look at a couple of different aspects:

Songs — in cases where the songs are identical, I think it’s fair to say that the new songs are copies. “A Whole New World” and “Friend Like Me” were some of the things that made 1992 Aladdin so entertaining. The remake should be praised for its songs if it contributes new hits, but otherwise not so much.

Characterization — characters also make or break a movie. Some of the new remakes rewrite characters, such as Maleficent, whereas others are carbon copies, such as Lumiere. Apply the same logic above as to here. Different Shere Khan that people like? Points to the writers. Exact same Bagheera? No need to give them a pat on the back.

Plot and world-building get even more finicky. Those two things will almost always be the same in these remakes, and world-building is one of the main reasons why people are complaining about these remakes. But I would like to remind you all…Disney bases many of its worlds and plots off of books and fairytales. I don’t think it’s justified to complain about the new The Jungle Book not creating a new world or premise when the first movie didn’t create a new world or premise, either. Why would you complain about a Cinderella remake having the exact same plot you’ve heard a thousand times from the first movie when you had already heard the bedtime story a thousand times before?

In places where Disney modifies the fantasy world/society drastically from the original source material, such as in The Little Mermaid, I think it’s fair to say that the remakes are “just copying.” But if you’re complaining that Beauty and the Beast remake is a “ripoff” of the same world as 1991 Beauty and the Beast, then you’re kidding yourself. Exactly how many identical Medieval European settings with princesses can you see before counting them as “not creative”? Or did you think having the characters occasionally say “bonjour” made it so different from Snow WhiteSleeping BeautyTangledThe Black CauldronThe Sword in the StoneBrave, and Frozen?

Same with the plot — the One Thousand and One Arabian Nights version of “Aladdin’s Lamp” is very different from the Disney version, so the 1992 writers get creativity points, whereas the 2019 writers do not.

If the remake severely modifies the world (Maleficent), uses a world already written by someone else before the first movie came out (The Jungle Book), follows a severely modified plot (Dumbo), follows a plot that already existed before the first movie (also The Jungle Book), drastically changes the characters (Maleficent again), uses characters that were already written before the first movie (Alice in Wonderland), or still entertains, how can you call it “completely unoriginal”?

The Final Answer?

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So yes, some of these really lack in the talent department (though the animators and actors are, of course top notch). But others do not. To say that Disney remakes are unoriginal when the original Disney movies themselves were unoriginal, or to call them unoriginal when they do bring different talents to the table, is frankly bullshit.

That goes for sequels, too. I meet a lot of people who complain that making a second Frozen movie will deprive audiences of a new, original world for another year — as if the original Frozen was so appealing for having yet another Medieval European princess in a castle. That wasn’t the reason you liked the original, and you know it. You want new characters? Now, that’s a legitimate reason to complain. But that would also put all of the Toy Story and How to Train Your Dragon (yes I know that’s Dreamworks) sequels on the chopping block.

All of these things are relative. Always take a moment to think about what effort (or lack thereof) people had to go through to bring you this movie. Think about what made you like the original movie so much, if that was something the writers came up with or “stole” from a book or fairy-tale, and if the remake doesn’t redo or add anything to that which requires talent and elbow grease.

I haven’t seen the new Lion King yet. If it has all the same characters, plot, songs, and world-building, then of course I’ll say it was unoriginal. But if it has new character traits, plot points, songs, or world aspects that genuinely took a lot of creativity and hard work, then I’m to call it what it is (“original”) and complement the creators.


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