Over time, and with a lot of effort, Disney normalized its live-action adaptions of its classic animated movies. And while this has been going on for some time, it only gotten worse and more frequent in the last few years.
And then, well, the news broke that Disney's in talks with Academy Award winner Sarah Polley to helm a live-action Bambi movie. This movie's existence has been reported on since 2020, right before the pandemic shut down life as we know it, and Hollywood productions as well.
One would have hoped that the three-plus years since would have been enough time for Disney to reconsider this idea, but that's clearly not the case. Still, since I find myself on the verge of shouting into the ether that this is a terrible idea, I thought I should explain why.
Disney's hit-to-miss ratio isn't good enough
First of all, I should acknowledge that Disney's choice to make a live-action Bambi is probably a great one for its bottom-line. Even some of the most-maligned live-action remakes made good money, such as the 2019 Aladdin with Will Smith as Genie, which took in over $1 billion USD worldwide. And that film was maligned as "bizarre in a way that's sometimes funny-bad and sometimes just bad-bad."
Plus, there are some wins in Disney's column, ranging from the fun (if flawed) 1996 version of 101 Dalmatians with Glenn Close as Cruella de Vil to the actually-critically-acclaimed 2016 version of The Jungle Book. I still don't trust them with Bambi, though. It's such a slight story that it doesn't really have the capacity to get a full-force new live-action movie.
Sitting down to write this, I wondered if I'm just protective of one of the first movies that truly touched me: I remember being a kindergartener watching it in school, wide-eyed. But then I shook off those thoughts when I thought about Disney's bigger recent remakes. In preparation for writing this article, I actually booted up some of the recent films on Disney Plus.
2022's straight-to-streaming dud Pinocchio, for example, immediately jumps to mind. Director Robert Zemeckis brought the wooden puppet to life with the help of a big cast of A-listers, including Tom Hanks, no less, as Geppetto. And the team got it so wrong that I couldn't keep it on for long.
Don't just take my word for it: Good Morning America's Peter Travers asked "did it have to be this lifeless, this lacking in deviltry, this devoid of soul?" At The Atlantic, David Sims wrote "instead of capturing the old-school charm of the original, the new film looks as dead-eyed as one of Zemeckis’s motion-capture characters, as it recites the familiar fable of the puppet who wanted to be a boy."
Hilariously, Netflix and Guillermo del Toro proved much better protectors of Pinocchio. Admittedly, del Toro's Academy Award-winning 2022 film tackles fascism and included Benito Mussolini, so it might not be best for kids.
Similarly, the 2019 version of The Lion King from The Mandalorian maestro Jon Favreau could not keep me entertained. I just couldn't wait to be ... done with it, and turned it off after a few minutes as well. Sam Adams at Slate declared "You could destroy every print, every Blu-ray, every iTunes download of the original Lion King, and the new one would still feel like a copy."
Polley, though, is an expert in her field, having recently proven herself with the measured rage of Women Talking. So, if anyone might be the right person for this job, it would be her.
I might just be too old for this
Each time I started one of these movies, I felt like I was watching some high budget reenactment of a classic. There's a hollowness of knowing what comes next, and I felt like Leonardo DiCaprio in that often-memed scene from Once Upon A Time in Hollywood.
As I heard "The Circle of Life" blast at the start of The Lion King, and saw the animals of the wild converge upon the summit where Simba is about to be raised, I thought to myself, "isn't this why we have Disney Plus? So that we can watch the classics whenever we want?" Not to see a lifelike tiger recite Scar's frustrations.
Right now, though, I'm still trying to check my own proverbial pulse. I'll probably give 2023's The Little Mermaid a chance once it's on streaming, if only to see and hear Halle Bailey's performance for myself. I would have been a lot more interested, were it not for the creepy CGI animals from the trailer (that crab... shudder) and the fact that the ever-present and overrated (yes, I said it) Lin Manuel Miranda is in this. I mean, this film has Javier Bardem and Melissa McCarthy in it! I should be excited, at least a little.
I don't think anyone, though, needs to see Bambi, a truly timeless classic, be remade in a live-action setting. Why make Bambi photorealistic? To make its pivotal, heart-breaking death (possibly) more emotionally impactful? That's both a tough order and pretty cruel.
Outlook: Where are Disney's original ideas?
In parallel to Disney's push to revamp all of its classics with live-action experiences — Snow White starring Rachel Zegler and Gal Gadot is due in less than a year — its original films have suffered, while in-house sister studio Pixar has tons of original stories incoming (including Elemental and Elio).
For the fails, consider 2022's Strange World, a movie that people claim to not have heard about until it flopped. It made $27.8 million USD worldwide, against a $120 million budget. Part of that may have to do with the crusade against the film for having an openly gay character (a Disney first), which was part of why claims of it being Disney's "wokest" film emerged. Reviews were mixed, though, and the fact that its marketing campaign seemed to be barely-there didn't help.
It's possible that the house of the mouse needs to be divided. Pixar is seen as the house of original IP, while Disney becomes the house of remakes. I just can't believe that anyone outside of Disney needs a new Bambi.
Maybe today's kids don't want a two-dimensional animated movie, the way my generation thought black and white movies were for old people. Bambi, though, is perfect, and I just can't imagine how anyone — Polley included — would improve on it. Bambi's story and adoring characters are ideal for 2D animation, and extrapolating it all to 3D just seems a step too far. To paraphrase Thumper's father: if you can't make somethin' original, don't say nothin' at all.