The circle of live action

Rachel Lloyd editor, Prospero blog, The Economist

There will be more to see than has ever been seen

The circle of live action

2019 in brief

In July, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam begins a restoration of Rembrandt’s masterpiece, The Night Watch. Museum visitors will be able to see conservators at work, and anyone will be able to watch a live stream of the multi-year project

IN “BEAUTY AND THE BEAST” (1991) Belle, the learned heroine, goes to the village bookshop to pick out something to read. No new titles have come in since her last visit, so she selects a volume bound in blue. “But you’ve read it twice!” the shopkeeper says incredulously. “Well, it’s my favourite,” she replies, citing the appeal of the tale of magic and a prince in disguise.

The line is almost self-referential. The Walt Disney Company has long been enchanting viewers with such stories. Fans are, like Belle, happy to hear them time and again. Hence the astonishing success of live-action remakes in recent years, which have retold the original animated fairy tales using actors and computer-generated imagery. “Beauty and the Beast”, released in 2017 with a cast including Emma Watson, Ewan McGregor and Emma Thompson, took $1.3bn at the global box office and was the second-highest-grossing film that year. “The Jungle Book”, released the year before and based on a production from 1967, took $967m to rank fifth. They also drew critical acclaim: 95% of reviews for “The Jungle Book” were positive, according to Rotten Tomatoes, a review-aggregator site.

Unsurprisingly, Disney is planning more of the same. In 2019 it will release a trio of live-action films: “Dumbo” in March, “Aladdin” in May and “The Lion King” in July. Like their predecessors, they boast stellar creative teams (Tim Burton is directing “Dumbo”, Guy Ritchie is at the helm of “Aladdin”) as well as starry casts (the main characters in “The Lion King” will be voiced by Donald Glover and Beyoncé). Other titles in production include “Mulan”, “Tinker Bell”, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”, “Rose Red” and “Peter Pan”.

These new versions aim to be more than mere rehashes. They bring a modern sensibility and new techniques. Ms Watson asked for changes to the character of Belle to give her more agency and make her “the kind of woman I would want to embody as a role model”. When directing “The Jungle Book”, Jon Favreau pioneered new photorealistic visual effects, which he will bring to bear on the new “Lion King”. The tales may be old, but in the right hands they can feel like a whole new world.