Why Are These Disney Remakes So Long?
Diving into what fuels bloated reboot runtimes
We’re just hours away from Disney’s live-action The Little Mermaid adaptation. Very soon, audiences will see a rehashing of the animated film they know and love from the 1980s that — aside from the work of lead actress Halle Bailey and her magnificent voice — seems dreadfully uninspired and, frankly, quite boring.
Like every Disney live-action film before it, and likely every other one to follow, the re-imagining of The Little Mermaid is just another attempt by the studio to capitalize on nostalgia and established intellectual property to expand its empire and solidify strong box office returns.
But does the new film need to be 135 minutes long to accomplish that? The original 1989 Little Mermaid was only 83 minutes long. So what exactly is going on?
Differentiating the remakes
Disney remakes running needlessly long is not new. The original animated films usually clock in around 80 to 90 minutes, likely aiming to appeal to younger audiences’ shorter attention spans. Disney’s two most successful remakes, 2019’s Aladdin and The Lion King, were both around two hours, marking 30 to 40 minutes of additional runtime. But both those films essentially recall the same story as their animated inspirations. There is minimal narrative development – perhaps an extra modernized song or a couple more artistic montages – to make these live-action films unique. And from what we’ve seen so far, it appears that The Little Mermaid won’t be an exception to this rule.
A simple reason explains this trend: identity.
Because these remakes borrow so heavily from their source material, there is nothing to make them stand out as a film, nothing that gives them the feeling of being their own fully formed products. Take the live-action The Lion King, which made more than $1.5 billion in 2019. The film boasts hyper-realistic CGI, features an extensive voice cast led by Beyoncé and Donald Glover, and tells a story with which generations of audiences have been obsessed. Yet, when people think of The Lion King, their minds will likely go to the original 1994 film or the long-running Broadway play, which have more of a cultural impact and reputation. No one seems to care about the live-action film. Without a distinct identity, how can there be longevity?
In the eyes of the studio’s number-crunchers, longevity probably isn’t the problem anyway.
The bottom line
Disney doesn’t need people to prefer, or even like, the live-action films. They just need people to go see them. As such, the films can’t be too distinctive. If they do, audiences will feel robbed of the original story they have come to know and love.
The directors of each live-action film are mostly reputable and well-known. Academy Award-nominated director Rob Marshall directs the new Little Mermaid, for example. Yet they have no freedom or space to make the film theirs. With little to no artistic merit, the films feel even more like corporate products, existing solely to take up multiple theaters in your multiplex for a few weeks of box-office glory.
If the films have no distinct identity, perhaps the longer runtime is each director’s way of trying to manufacture one. All the live-action films rely on additional effects and real-world settings to help audiences dive into the world they’ve created, trying to justify their existence in the process. As such, the film’s identity becomes its perceived sense of realism. The more time audiences spend in settings where The Lion King’s lions look real and The Little Mermaid’s sea creatures look like anything you’d find in the ocean, the more they believe that there’s a noticeable difference.
Yet the over-realistic elements of these films overshadow characters’ emotions, since realistic creatures don’t emote on film in the same dynamic ways as animated characters. Thematic resonance is minimal to nonexistent, since each live-action film’s older animated counterpart already defined and mastered the themes. All that’s left for the director to control is the expansive runtime.
It’s also possible that the studio ordains these longer runtimes. Disney’s marketing for the remakes often relies on the mantra of bigger and better to justify each film’s existence. It’s not just a re-hashing of an animated movie. Instead, it’s an experience — the best of the best actors, producers and crew coming together to engineer pure spectacle – something that isn’t new but will feel new in its sheer modernity.
The only feasible way to keep the story the same yet make the experience feel worth it is by just making the film longer. After all, an 83-minute shot-for-shot remake likely wouldn’t sell at $20 a ticket. Given that the new Little Mermaid is set to pull in about $110 million opening weekend, though, perhaps a 135-minute nearly shot-for-shot remake can.
A sobering reality
Here’s the thing, though. No matter how long they are, the idea of live-action remakes will always be depressing. The fact that a studio as big and wealthy as Disney constantly resorts to its own IP signifies a much larger problem in the industry, where studios often refuse to take chances on original ideas to play it safe financially. It can’t be a good sign when extending the runtime is the riskiest action you’re taking.
And while the result of these remakes now is simple – audiences coming in droves to revisit the same stories – it’s a shame to think that in the future, this generation of blockbusters will likely be defined solely by its needless, overwhelming desire to reclaim the past and its refusal to exhibit creativity in the process. But, hey, at least it gave us two-and-a-half hours at the cinema in the meantime.