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The Real Problem With Remakes, Spinoffs, and Franchises

By Daniel Carlson | Think Pieces | November 15, 2013 | Comments ()


maleficent.jpg
Marty had also gotten a Nike speech tattoo, which was pretty brag. It meant that every sentence, he automatically said “Nike.” He paid a lot for it. It was hilarious, because you could hardly understand what he said anymore. It was just, “This fuckin’ shit Nike, fuckin’, you know, Nike,” etc.

Everything was not always going well, because for most people, our hair fell out and we were bald, and we had less and less skin. Then later there was this thing that hit hipsters. People were just stopping in their tracks frozen. At first, people thought it was another virus, and they were looking for groups like the Coalition of Pity, but it turned out that it was something called Nostalgia Feedback. People had been getting nostalgia for fashions that were closer and closer to their own time, until finally people became nostalgic for the moment they were actually living in, and the feedback completely froze them. It happened to Calista and Loga. We were real worried about them for a day or so. We knew they’d be all right, but still, you know. Marty was like, “Holy fuckin’ shit, this is so Nike fucked.”

Feed, M.T. Anderson

Disney recently released a trailer for Maleficent, which exists in the murky area between prequel and remake as it reworks the characters and plot from Disney’s own Sleeping Beauty. The new live-action film will hit theaters 55 years after the animated movie that spawned it, though this is hardly the only time Disney’s recycled its own characters. Between video games, ABC’s Once Upon a Time, and theme park shows, the company is in the business of repacking itself as many times as possible. Merchandising is one thing, though, and it’s understandable. Yet the very existence of Maleficent is proof that it’s easier these days — or at least more popular — to try and resell something old than come up with something new.

The studios like to pretend it’s new, though, because they’ve changed things around or opted for a remake that feels “gritty” or “controversial” or another buzzword that doesn’t mean anything other than “different enough to let us justify selling you another ticket.” The thing is, Maleficent was, at one point, a fresh creation. The myth of Sleeping Beauty is an old one, but Disney found a way to freshen it with their own creations. It became their story. The remake, though, is a sign that ginning up nostalgia came easier than inventing a new film world. Sure, the risks of doing something new are always apparent — what if people just don’t respond? — but the risks of recycling characters and content in endless nostalgia remixes are even more troubling.

To start: remakes, reboots, prequels, sequels, franchise spin-offs, all of that — they dilute the power of the original work. Keith Phipps wrote a couple weeks ago about this overkill, lamenting the glut of sequels and franchises by calling for a temporary moratorium on all recycled content. He said: “Once upon a time, there was no Luke Skywalker. Or Indiana Jones. Or Buzz Lightyear. Or, let’s go back further: No Rick Blaine, Margo Channing, Benjamin Braddock, Michael Corleone, or Annie Hall. Someone had to dream them up.” These neverending knockoffs, sequels, reimaginings, etc., have a way of making the originals feel cheaper. Fans clamor to know more about what happened to this character or that couple, but not every story deserves to be resurrected or reinvented. Often, films are perfectly contained little universes, stopping right where they need to. With too much exposure, what felt special and fresh and powerful starts to feel stale, played out, and past its prime. The 1959 version of Sleeping Beauty is already pretty great (and gorgeous to look at); it’s hard to imagine how a Wicked-inspired reimagining is going to improve things.

That’s another tricky thing about recycled movies: they lower our expectations. A new film — meaning a new story, a fresh world, something somebody sat down and sweated and created — has to do so much to win us over, and that’s the way it should be. It has to be real, and honest, and funny, and exciting, and entertaining, and on and on. It has to do those things we want all great art to do, and if it does, we hold it close and carry it with us as we look for the next great thing. But a movie that remixes or recycles characters and plots we already know doesn’t have to do that, nor does it want to. It only wants to remind us of something we like, and to push us into confusing the memory of that affection with a positive reaction to the new movie. Maleficent and others like it aren’t trying to be entertaining in their own right. They only want to do enough to remind us of the buzz we felt watching the original. Generations of kids grew up watching the older Disney movie. That’s all this new one cares about.

But the real problem is the most insidious: movies like this shrink our imaginations. By sapping the power of the originals and turning them into interchangeable pieces of an unsolvable puzzle, and then by further asking less and less of us as viewers, franchise movies make us think that this is all there is. That there are no stories to tell but jokey, reworked versions of older ones. Evan Daugherty, screenwriter of Divergent, recently released a series of short films called The Four Players, which reimagine the main characters from Super Mario Bros. as junkies and heroes in a magical realist world. They are as weird and inconsequential as you would think. (Daugherty, not coincidentally, also wrote the reimagining Snow White and the Huntsman, while Divergent is just The Hunger Games in slightly different clothing.) The minions from Despicable Me are getting their own movie. There are many more movies on the way that take the same easy path, asking us not to come on a new journey but to pay $10 a head to remember the journey we already made. Eventually, what will be left? How can we create new worlds when we’re trapped forever in old ones?

Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Houston Film Critics Society and the Online Film Critics Society. You can also find him on Twitter.







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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not


  • Ben

    This kind of article always kind of seems dumb to me. I mean complaining that they're running out of ideas because they're doing remakes/reboots of Sleeping Beauty? A movie that they made originally in the 50's, based on a brothers grimm story, based on a french story written in the 1600's.

    It hasn't been an original story for like 500 years. And suddenly another remake heralds some kind of remakpocalypse?

    There have always been tonnes of addaptations and remakes and remixes in culture. That shit has always existed. It's just over time we forget the forgettable shitty ones, or forget that they were actually based on something to begin with.

  • jja

    This is the reason (well, one of many reasons) Pan's Labyrinth was so extraordinary.

  • I'm just here for the MT Anderson quote. God, 'Feed' was a good book. I really need to re-read it and see how much of the predictions are now true, 10 years later.

  • But aren't all but two or three of Shakespeare's plays "remakes"? (I think "Love's Labour's Lost" and "A Midsummer's Night Dream" are without source material; and "The Tempest" might be original, but also might be based on an actual shipwreck.) And "The Merry Wives of Windsor" is a sequel (or, in other words, thisclose to a franchise) of a kind to "Henry V" by bringing Falstaff back to the stage.

    Which is to say: it's not that there are remakes and spinoffs that is the problem. It's the (lack of talent in the) writing.

  • MJ

    A lot of today's original stories are imagined at trilogies or ongoing series. A lot of original ideas are being made from books into films with the "franchise" built in.

  • e jerry powell

    “different enough to let us justify selling you another ticket.”

    Personally, I'd take out the word "justify" and replace it with "rationalize," because there's not really a justification for it at all, is there?

  • Pitry

    Like everything, the problem isn't the genre - it's what you do with it. To take the obvious, obvious comparison. The Dark Knight is the 7th time a movie featuring Batman has made it to the screen. It had its flaws - it is far from perfect - and it had its share of problems - but one thing it definitely did is surpass everyone's expectations. Because it wasn't JUST a reimagining/sequel/franchise. It really did take the story to other places. At the same time, I would say a lot of the criticism towards the movie came from the exact same place - people complain that Batman/Bruce Wayne isn't the hero of the Dark Knight, because they came with the expectation that a Batman movie would be about, well... Batman. Except that TDK wasn't about Batman, it was about the city and the people in it.

    Compare this to other superhero franchises - and yeah, they are plagued with the problems you mentioned. Thor 2, Iron Man 2, etc. They're more of the same. They might be done well (The Avengers or IM3) or they might be done not-as-well, but they're not trying to be anything but a sequel. But that's a storytelling problem that has nothing to do with them being a part of a franchise or based on a comic book or a sequel - and everything to do with the goals of the filmmakers.

    Known characters can be something comfortable to fall back to and an assurance that you have an audience for them. They can also be a tool to take the audience into places they wouldn't have gone without those known characters and stories, because they think they're not particularly interested in it - until you do it, and then they find out they do. All it takes is to be willing to take a risk, and that has nothing to do with the genre you're working with.

  • I don't think it's fair to imply Divergent is a Hunger Games rip off when Veronica Roth had already written the book before HG became a hot property. The publishers may have decided to pick it up because they saw similarities, but that's what publishers (and movie executives) do. The two stories are not the same, save for existing in dystopias, and there are (and already were, pre-HG) a plethora of such novels, especially in the YA genre. If what you are looking for is a completely original, never before even conceived of story, then I doubt you'll find satisfaction in any media. On the other hand, if what matters is the characters and whether or not we find them compelling, then it is a disservice to dismiss all stories that have similar feel to something that, by chance, became popular before them.

    That said, I agree with much of what you said here regarding recycled properties, and I wish that both movie executives and publishers would take more risks. Of course, it comes down to the bottom line, so I won't be holding my breath.

  • pomeroy

    Man, Divergent is sort of terrible. I wish it had been ripping off The Hunger Games...it might have been better.

  • Oh, I didn't mean to imply that it was a better book, just that it was a different story. If you want original, non-dystopian YA, I highly recommend Maggie Stiefvater's Raven Boys series. The writing is quite good.

  • Anne At Large

    I wonder if this issue is partially a case of the market being so huge now. I would be really interested to see the actual number of original properties being made and doing well without counting sequels etc. and see how that number compares to, say, 50 years ago. I think the market is so huge now that some of the good stuff is drowned out by the noise of all the remakes and sequels but that doesn't necessarily mean it's not out there. Or maybe I'm just an optimist.

  • dizzylucy

    I think you might be right. The other day I was griping about NBC and their senseless rebooting of so many old shows, and it's easy to forget that's happened in the era of Breaking Bad, Louie, Mad Men, and many other very original pieces. I think it's the same for films, there are a lot of original, good films out there, we just have to look a little harder to find them.

  • MarTeaNi

    My problem with prequels specifically is the story they tell is so...dull. The explanation is often much less interesting than the mystery suggested. Look at Star Wars for the best example. How much less interesting was what they did than anything that was suggested in the original movies? How mind-numbingly bland they made their mysteries!

    Maleficent was a fun villain for me because she was unrepentantly, marvelously evil. Here was a woman who took plenty of joy in her pettiness, and it was pettiness. The new movie weaves that into a revenge plot of how a "beautiful, pure-hearted young woman" falls from grace and decides to exact revenge years later on a baby. I might like the movie, execution and writing will play a big part in my final opinion. But that story already feels so much smaller to me than that of the mysterious, cruel, ageless fairy Maleficent was before.

  • So, this is Regina's story from Once Upon A Time, only starring Angelina Jolie? That's good to know.

  • Um, this is not really on topic, but Sleeping Beauty is not "gorgeous to look at." Sleeping Beauty is an example of Disney animators not giving two shits. It is very nearly Hanna-Barbera levels of lousy, lackluster animation technique.
    See also: Disney's Alice in Wonderland.

  • Some Guy

    Yeah, sorry, but that opinion is full of shit. Probably one of their more unique and stylized movies.

    Taking issue with the later movies is fine by me, especially when they started to reuse animation from one movie to the other.

    Baloo the Bear and Little John the Bear dancing.

  • Disagree. I think it's strikingly different from the rest of Disney animation, and looks nothing like Hanna-Barbera. That doesn't mean I think you should like it.

  • Anne At Large

    There was a great Sleeping Beauty exhibit at the cartoon museum in SF a while back, apparently the animation took something like 5 years to complete and all the backgrounds were based on medieval French art. So it may not be to your taste, but I'll back up that "gorgeous to look at" assertion here any day.

  • Some Guy

    I saw that exhibit in Tokyo a few years back and I purchased an awesome book showcasing the background artwork, Amazing stuff.

  • Etaoin_Sherdlu

    Yes, absolutely. Disney pushed the limits of traditional animation with this film, incorporating several new techniques that nobody else was doing at the time. And the restored version is gorgeous.

  • Rebecca Hachmyer

    Wait, how so? This is a topic that I know nothing about. More information please!

  • Brady

    I'm usually all for Team Originals, but for Maleficient I might make an exception. If it turns out to be focused around a huge villain and is played earnestly, that will be novel enough itself. It seems that now if you want to create a movie based around a villain (not an antihero, but a larger than life villain) everything has to be all wink wink nudge nudge Villains-are-people-too. The world of big bad fantasy villains is so cynical and satirical that I'm hoping they use someone as grand and Shakespearian as Maleficent to give us something earnest and thrilling.

    Also if you'd like to see the best commentary Disney has ever put out about being trapped in old worlds and recycling old properties, play Kingdom Hearts. It's possibly the best thing to ever come out of the franchising of Disney's soul.

  • Rebecca Hachmyer

    I don't disagree with you, but I think it's interesting to note that, at first, this retelling of old stories from a different perspective *was* a very creative, "mind blown" reconceptualization, one that did offer a fresh take on old narratives. It has become stale and redundant in its overuse.

    I would argue that some worlds are rife with opportunities for further exploration.... even some neighborhoods. Ramona Quimby first appeared as the pesky four-year-old from down the street in a book about a boy and a dog, but went on to become one of the most beloved protagonists in literature.

    Perhaps motive is at the heart of the issue. Could a more apt title for the phenomenon you're identifying be "The Real Problem with Sacrificing Story for the Bottom Line"??

  • Sara_Tonin00

    I think I disagree with just about every part of this. I don't understand why this complaint would be directed toward Disney and not about any of the 20+ Marvel or DC properties that have come out in the past 5 years. Let's not pretend that Cars is inherently a better property than Maleficent because it contains original characters (because, really, how "original" are they?) You say it's difficult to imagine a Wicked like reimagining surpassing the original, but that seems foolish considering how valuable a work some people find Wicked as a book, which did this same thing to the Oz universe? (Which is actually not that great a universe to begin with). And the original Sleeping Beauty movie is lovely. It's my favorite of the old school Disney animated flicks. But it's hardly untouchable, as is any other Grimm story.

    I get the cynicism towards Hollywood, absolutely. But I do think it's possible that there are creative adults who thought of how much they liked Maleficent as a villain (and there are plenty of Pajibans who think that way) who actually DID want to tell her story in an interesting way. If you "can't imagine" it - don't worry. You don't have to. We'll find out if someone else did.

  • Because Disney bought Pixar and Marvel and Lucasfilm. SO whether it's directly through their main Disney label or their subsidiaries, they're one of the biggest pushers.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    I suppose? But comic books are not mentioned at all in the piece, and that is what I am feeling a glut of. It also shouldn't be treated as if this is a new phenomenon in film-making. How many On the Road to... and Thin Man movies were there again?

  • Mrs. Julien

    Thank you, you said everything I was thinking and more eloquently, too.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    And the "Thin Man" wasn't even the lead character!

    It's weird to me that this is considered a problem in movies. Who's complaining that the 18th Miss Marple book (or hey, Harry Potter book) detracts from books as a whole?

  • Zuffle

    I'll give you a slow clap for that, Dan, on the promise that you will get the same slow clap again in ten years' time.

  • lillie

    But will the slow clap be rebooted or revamped?

  • Zuffle

    A shot for shot remake, in 3D, cut from hard-R to PG-13, naturally.

  • This is why I supported the hell out of Pacific Rim. Simple, childish and maybe even a touch moronic, but at least it wasn't a remake, reboot, adaptation or spinoff.

  • Some Guy

    Can you honestly say that with the plethora of giant robots fighting giant monsters in all media forms that already exists in Japan and are hugely popular in the US as it is?

    Pacific Rim was cool in that someone in the west finally remade Robot Jox, only this time with monsters.

    Fun, yes. Original, hardly.

  • ladyhazard

    It really felt like the first BIG MOVIE in a while that wasn't related to another movie.

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