The real problem with Disney's live-action remakes

December 5, 2020

This weekend, my family will watch Disney’s live-action Mulan remake. I’m uninterested in reading reviews or forming a preconception beyond what I remember from the trailer and the original animated movie because there was never any question we would watch it, so there’s no real point in pre-viewing discernment.

Despite my disappointment with most of Disney’s live-action remakes, I’m optimistic it will be a solid movie for the simple reason Mulan is not a musical. I haven’t been able to make it through the Will Smith Aladdin remake, the Emma Watson Beauty and the Beast, or The Lion King, even though the actors are plenty charismatic and there’s solid production value in all of them. Meanwhile, I enjoyed The Jungle Book straight through.

The main problem with those musicals is that generally the songs are slow and drawn out, dragging down everything around them. (For all the songs I’m about to mention, here’s a Spotify playlist putting them in order.)

There are the songs that are subtly slower, like “One Jump Ahead,” from Aladdin, which is 124 beats per minute in the animated version and 119 bpm in live action, or “Belle” from Beauty and the Beast, which is 129 bpm in animation and 124 bpm in live action. But the beats per minute doesn’t really capture the languor in the songs’ production.

The original “Be Our Guest” is a big, flashy production on screen, yet the music isn’t particularly big until after Mrs. Potts sings her verse, whereas the remake version amps up the orchestration from the start, and even the early verses have lush strings backing the vocals. Your mileage may vary on whether that works, but what’s most striking when comparing the songs side by side is that Jerry Orbach’s vocals are propulsive and have a confident swing, while Ewan McGregor sounds like he’s going for a slightly inebriated French sleazebag vibe. It is not propulsive. He does not have swing. The new version is more than a minute longer than the original.

“A Whole New World” falls into a similar trap. Though it doesn’t end up running that much longer than the original, the new version starts with a vocal over soft acoustic guitar, which intuitively makes sense as a setup to the big sound to come. However, the thing about the original version is that it’s a brisk song that’s full of mini hooks ahead of the big hook in the vocal. There’s minimal buildup, and because the song is actually a pretty fast ballad there’s no reason for the arrangement to get in the way, so it doesn’t. It’s a lot like the Beatles’ original version of "Yesterday" in that I feel most people remember it as a slow-dance type of song, but it’s actually kind of fast for that and works way better when there’s an urgency to the rhythm. The new version of “A Whole New World” kicks into gear a little after the 0:30 mark when the bass enters, and from that point it’s a great song, which makes me wish they’d started at that energy level.

But even when the newer version nails the song from the start, as with “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King,” something slows it down. In this case, it seems producers couldn’t help themselves and added an extra breakdown before the final verse, adding another 30-plus seconds to the song compared to the original.

Slowing down the songs may feel like the right move in live action because it has an inherently different feel than animation. The animated characters tend to move faster than their live action counterparts and watching sequences, you can also see filmmakers added extra musical fills so that they could insert extra bits of footage to fill in the spatial blanks.

However, those are crutches and imaginative filmmakers with dedicated performers can match animated movies’ energy levels with the right staging. One great example is “The Other Side” from The Greatest Showman. That movie’s storytelling falls short in many ways, but several of the musical numbers are inspired, including this one, which dramatizes the struggle of a business negotiation with some canny choreography, set to a high-energy song.

You don’t even need to do anything fancy if you’ve got performers willing to go over the top. It’s easy to notice how the “Summer Loving” sequence in Grease keeps switching back and forth between the boys and girls, but did you notice that the “action” is really just increasing levels of excitement that the teenagers can’t physically contain? In the “reality” of the scene, Danny is talking with some guys on the bleachers, and Sandy is talking with some girls at a lunch table. That’s it. There’s a ton of energy from the start — look at Travolta and Conaway strutting down the bleachers! — and yet somehow the buddies around Danny and Sandy fill the screen with a frenzy by the song’s climax. The song keeps driving forward and there’s no slack in the drama.

Of course, there are exceptions in the new Disney movies. The new Lion King’s “Be Prepared” cuts a bunch of filler from the original, for example, and that’s a good thing.

The new Mulan forgoes musical numbers, so it doesn’t have that obstacle to overcome, and therefore I hope the filmmakers felt freer to make a movie that’s the best version of itself and not a vague facsimile of the beloved animated film that came before.

(Photo: "The Origin of Disney's MULAN Story" by Prayitno. Used under CC BY 2.0 license.)