The Politics of Disney Rebooting Its Classics

By  · Published on March 19th, 2015

Walt Disney

Sick of Cinderella talk yet? Maybe a little? In that case, let’s shift the discussion a few Disney reboots down the line, to the Dumbo update that’s been left in the care of Tim Burton. PETA recently penned a letter to Burton, outlining the moral failings of Dumbo and how Burton should end his film. In short:

“We’re hopeful that in your adaptation of Dumbo, the young elephant and his mother can have a truly happy ending by living out their lives at a sanctuary instead of continuing to be imprisoned and abused in the entertainment industry.”

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey just put an end to the use of all circus elephants, so the letter’s certainly timely (although “imprisoned and abused in the entertainment industry” sounds more like something out of a Dumbo/Entourage hybrid that I’m now really hoping gets made) And whether you think Burton should follow PETA’s script notes or not, it raises an interesting point: there’s definitely precedent for the politically correct plot-swap. That’s the issue with remaking films from 50, 60, 70 years ago. Political climates have changed. So too must certain elements of classic Disney. I don’t think anyone will be surprised when Burton’s Dumbo contains not a single trace of jive-talking, cigar-smoking black stereotype crows named Jim Crow.

The opposite argument: every film that has (or will) get the Disney reboot treatment – Alice in Wonderland, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, The Jungle Book, Dumbo and 101 Dalmations (maybe? That one’s been quiet for more than a year) – could easily qualify for “masterpiece” status. And taking pruning shears to a masterpiece seems like an ill-advised move (obviously, exceptions can be made for Jim Crow).

If the answer could be found solely in Tomatometer scores, Cinderella would be a landslide victory for the “get your filthy hands off my Disney classic” side. Of the three live-action updates Disney’s put out, Cinderella is the most faithful of the three, and Cinderella also bested both Alice in Wonderland and Maleficent by more than 30 points. Hooray for numbers!

Cinderella is also full of material that a 21st century audience would frown on. The movie’s climax is just Cinderella, sitting in a dreary attic and hoping a hot, rich dude will show up and marry her, thus solving all of life’s problems. You’ve got to credit the massive stones on Cinderella for daring to make that ending even less empowering. At least in the animated version, Cinderella ran downstairs while her stepmother tried to hide her away. In live action Cinderella just sits there incapable of walking or even opening an unlocked window without a band of CGI mice doing it for her.

I just spent an entire paragraph jabbing Cinderella for its woefully out-of-date ways. But if the film didn’t end with that piece of fairy tale iconography – handsome prince returns woman’s shoe, life is perfect forever – would it still resonate as Cinderella? Today, we’re quick to decry the “prince rescues princess” aspect of fairy tales as outdated, but the ending of Cinderella, the most iconic part of Cinderella by a tremendous margin, is a prince rescuing a princess. Kinda hard to cut that part out.

So Cinderella updated its politics, just like all other Disney reboots. But it does so around the edges, to soften the blow and make a standard princess rescue into something that rescue-averse 2015 audiences can handle. Cinderella spent a solid chunk of time growing the relationship between Cinderella and Prince Charming (or Kit, or whatever his actual birth name is). It’s surprisingly down to earth puppy love, and it dulls the “a man we barely know fixes everything” overtones of the original. Little tidbits of empowerment are tucked under every corner. The parallel between Cinderella and her wicked stepmother’s ways of coping with loss; “Will you take me as I am?;” that line about glass slippers actually being super comfy.

If you’re going to keep the fairy tale intact while updating the politics within, Cinderella’s the way to go. Or you could swing for the exact opposite direction and smash the inner fable with a sledgehammer to make something overtly political. I’m looking at you, Maleficent. Last year, Angelina Jolie came out and said it, that Maleficent waking up to find her wings hacked off is indeed “a metaphor for rape.” Although she didn’t need to, really, because it’s as “ripped from the headlines!” unsubtle as an episode of Law & Order: SVU.

Maleficent could not be more different from Cinderella. The latter used the female empowerment of today to preserve the old-fashioned romanticism of yesterday. Maleficent sees that old-timey stuff as toxic and wants every trace of it yanked from Sleeping Beauty. With its rape metaphor it turns Maleficent into the film’s hero (she’s not evil, you see, just lashing out after suffering a major trauma). Which is why the prince is kinda bumbling and ultimately useless to the plot, Maleficent’s comment on the outdatedness of the “prince rescues princess” trope.

Maleficent scores big marks in political relevance, but it dips low in Disney Magic. Is it a fairy tale at all? “Dark and Gritty Origin Story” would probably be a better descriptor. Which is what happens when you transform a character who’s the personification of all evil (“Don’t invite me to your baby shower, huh? I guess I’ll murder your baby!” *chuckles heartily*) into a sympathetic hero, and use rape imagery to fill the now-vacant darkness quota.

Then there’s Alice in Wonderland, which is kind of an odd duck. Alice was chopped and screwed as thoroughly as Maleficent, but the changes seem less politically motivated and more about Tim Burton cranking his Hot Topic-ometer so high the dial snapped off (if only because the punishing levels of Burton goth pop are all anyone seems to remember about Alice in Wonderland, five years later). But Burton’s Alice was also a fairly modern empowerment story. Literary Alice is roughly seven; Burton Alice is 19 and faced with the prospect of a suffocating marriage, which explains why she’d run off with white rabbits and Johnny Depp. And why Alice becomes a badass, sword-toting, Jabberwocky-beheading knight in shining armor. Major changes locked Alice into a present-day POV, but when Burton and Disney made them, what were they really thinking? “Finally, a feminist Alice for today’s audiences?” Or, “fantasy violence is so in right now, could we give Alice a broadsword?”

Alice in Wonderland was never really a film to suffer under out-of-date female protagonists in the first place. Alice calls the Red Queen a “fat, pompous, bad-tempered old tyrant,” after all. Hardly becoming of your typical damsel in distress.

If Tomatometer scores were accepted as objective fact, we could definitively say that yes, Disney movies are better when you chase the old-timey fable aesthetic. Which happens to be my preference. I like my Disney fairy tales loaded with the same happy nostalgia you get when stepping into Disneyland; last weekend I left Cinderella an extremely happy customer. But Disney doesn’t seem wedded to one particular style. Cinderella’s success will probably spurn on more traditional adaptations (Beauty and the Beast seems like the likeliest candidate). Tim Burton’s name attached to Dumbo guarantees that one will be the opposite. The future’s full of heated hot-button issues – circus elephants, jive talking crows, Belle’s Stockholm syndrome, King Louie – issues Disney will preserve like a timeless antique, or maybe obliterate with C4. Depends on the approach.

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