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A Look Inside Disney’s Massively Lucrative Remake Factory

Mar 21, 2017

Photo-Illustration: Maya Robinson

Back in 2007, Tim Burton made a splashy homecoming. The director had spent the early part of his career working on short films for Disney and animating on now-forgotten projects like The Fox and the Hound; now he was returning to the studio to develop a pair of ambitious remakes, one of his short film Frankenweenie and the other a live-action remake of the animated Alice in Wonderland. The reason that Disney had been so keen to lure the director back had mostly to do with product. In the years since Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas was released in 1993, the demand for its merchandise had only increased; a movie that was initially seen as a commercial disappointment was generating millions of dollars a year. If the same logic held, Burton would be able to turn these older properties into something fresh, fun, and highly sellable.

It worked. Alice in Wonderland, eventually released in spring 2010, wound up making more than $1 billion worldwide. Its success proved to Disney that remaking its animated classics wasn’t just potentially lucrative, but could be a core element of the company’s strategy. Now the company is through the looking glass: The years since Alice have brought Maleficent, based on Sleeping Beauty, but told from the point of view of the self-described “Mistress of Evil”; Kenneth Branagh’s gorgeous Cinderella; and Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book, which just won an Oscar for Best Visual Effects. (Favreau is currently mounting a new, hyperreal version of The Lion King, with Donald Glover as Simba and James Earl Jones returning as Mufasa.) Alongside these four hits have been two disappointments: the Alice sequel and the remake of Pete’s Dragon (which may not exactly count, since the original was an animation–live-action hybrid).

Which brings us to this weekend’s Beauty and the Beast, a remake of one of the most beloved animated films ever. With massive prerelease buzz and advance ticket sales, it seems primed become Disney’s biggest remake yet. And there’s nobody who has been more firmly entrenched in this new world of animated to live-action remakes than Sean Bailey, the president of Motion Picture Production at Walt Disney Studios. Think of him as the king of the princesses.