May 11, 2014 posted by

Disney’s Live Action Cartoons


Disney has recently been increasing the publicity for its Maleficent live-action feature due to be released on May 30, 2014. It is obviously based on Disney’s earlier feature cartoon classic; the 1959 Sleeping Beauty.

This is not something new for Disney. It has previously produced the 1996 101 Dalmatians live-action remake and its 2000 live-action 102 Dalmatians sequel, based on its 1961 One Hundred and One Dalmatians cartoon feature. The 2007 Enchanted, although an original story, was clearly inspired by Disney’s first three “Princess” features; the 1937 Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs; the 1950 Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty. The 2010 The Sorcerer’s Apprentice was an original story “inspired in part” by the Mickey Mouse sequence in the 1940 Fantasia. And from the theme parks – there have been the four (so far) big hit Pirates of the Caribbean movies and one disappointing film based on The Haunted Mansion (2003). Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland is next.

With Maleficent, Disney clearly intends to keep the “live action cartoons” coming. Can we expect eventually live-action features inspired by all of Disney’s animated hits?

This column looks at Disney’s live-action features that are spinoffs of its cartoon classics. Jerry probably won’t like it (because he likes to keep it strictly animated on this blog), but a live-action version of an animated classic has some pertinence here. It is always interesting to imagine what a cartoon would look like if it had been filmed in live-action, especially one containing a lot of fantasy – although with today’s CGI technology, the most fantastic animated stories seem to hold no problems for a live-action movie with lots of VFX shots.

101 Dalmatians (November 27, 1996; 103 minutes) was basically just a remake of the January 25, 1961 cartoon feature. The contemporary setting offered few CGI problems. Roger Radcliffe was updated from a songwriter to Roger Dearly, a video-game designer, and his wife Anita was turned from an old classmate of Cruella de Vil to a fashion designer working for the House of de Vil. Some names were changed; besides Roger Radcliffe/Dearly, Perdita became Perdy. The film was written by John Hughes, the author of the Home Alone movies, and a major criticism of this version of 101 Dalmatians was that the slapstick mishaps that befall the villains are too close an imitation of Home Alone. Also, the live-action puppies do not talk, resulting in a more serious criticism of the movie being that, whereas the 1961 movie felt mostly about the anthropomorphized animals and was a children’s movie, the 1996 movie felt mostly about the human actors with the animals in a supporting role. As such, it felt like a movie for adults with a too-juvenile plot.

102 Dalmatians (November 22, 2000; 100 minutes) was a sequel with an original plot. Glen Close, who everyone agreed was the best thing about 101 Dalmatians, reprised her role as Cruella de Vil. Cruella has spent three years in prison, getting therapy from Dr. Pavlov to cure her of her obsession for fur and her criminality. When she is declared cured, Probation Officer Chloe Simon cannot justify not releasing her although she does not trust her. Cruella buys the Second Chance dog shelter to prove that she is cured. Coincidently, the Second Chance’s former owner, Kevin Shepherd, has bought Dipstick, one of Pongo’s and Perdy’s now-adult Dalmatians, who has three puppies of his own. Dr. Pavlov does not reveal that his cures sometimes break down, and Cruella’s of course does. She enlists a famous but crooked furrier, Jean-Pierre LePelt, to steal the 102 puppies (she has designed a hood for the coat) and frame Kevin for the theft. Kevin escapes from jail with the help of Dipstick and his mate, Dottie, and his talking parrot, Waddlesworth, and they plus Chloe (who has fallen in love with Kevin) pursue Cruella and LePelt to Paris and rescue the puppies just before they are skinned.

Enchanted (November 21, 2007; 107 minutes) was an original romantic comedy-fantasy based upon and poking gentle fun at the Disney “Princess” stereotype. Enchanted was a cartoon/live-action hybrid, the cartoon set in the stereotypical Disney animated fairy-tale kingdom of Andalasia, and the live-action set in New York City. The main characters in Andalasia are Prince Edward and the beautiful peasant maid Giselle, and Giselle’s loyal talking chipmunk friend, Pip; and the wicked Queen Narissa and Nathaniel, her comedy-relief henchman.

enchanted250Narissa is Prince Edward’s step-mother, and she rules the kingdom until he gets married. When she sees with her magic Edward’s first meeting with Giselle and their immediate falling in love, Narissa magically sends Giselle to another world (NYC) before she and Edward can wed.

In NYC (live-action), Giselle comically mistakes real-world things for their fantasy-world counterparts. She is rescued by Robert Philip, a cynical divorced lawyer who lives with his young daughter Morgan, and is engaged to marry again with Nancy. Morgan insists that they help Giselle, and Robert lets her stay in their apartment. It turns out that even though Giselle is not a magician, she can use her Andalasian aura to create simple magic. For instance, she tries to ask any friendly animals to clean Robert’s messy apartment, as Snow White asked the friendly forest animals to clean the Dwarfs’ cottage, and she gets an army of friendly pigeons, rats, and cockroaches.

Meanwhile, Pip has seen what happened and he tells Edward, who uses the same magic to send himself and Pip (now a CGI “real” animal) to NYC to rescue Giselle. Narissa, still watching, sends Nathaniel to NYC to kill Pip and keep Edward from finding Giselle. Edward has humorous misadventures, such as killing a “dragon” that turns out to be a bus. Giselle, who has accidentally split up Robert and Nancy, decides to help reunite them. Narissa, watching the ineffectual Nathaniel (who does not want to really hurt anyone), decides she had better go to NYC personally, turn herself into an ugly peddler with a poisoned apple and then a real dragon (CGI again), and kill Giselle. It all ends up happily ever after, but with a big surprise: Edward returns to Andalasia with Nancy (and Pip), and Giselle stays in NYC to run a successful fashion business after marrying Robert. Nathaniel also stays in NYC and becomes a popular author of children’s fantasies.

Enchanted was a big hit in late 2007-early 2008, but has been largely forgotten today. An announced sequel has so far not materialized.

Alice in Wonderland (March 5, 2010; 108 minutes) actually has so little to do with Disney’s 1951 movie that it feels wrong to include it here; but if I don’t, someone is sure to complain that I’ve missed it. It is a Tim Burton – Johnny Depp psychedelic CGI extravaganza that seems to owe more itself and to other cinematic versions of Lewis Carroll’s 1865 fantasy – the Paramount 1933 feature with an all-star live-action cast; the French-British 1949 production with most of the supporting cast portrayed in stop-motion animation by Lou Bunin’s puppets; the Czech 1988 feature produced by Jan Švankmajer in live-action and stop-motion puppetry; and many others – than to Disney’s feature. But it was released as “Disney A Film by Tim Burton Alice in Wonderland”.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (July 14, 2010; 109 minutes) also has so little to do with either the folk-tale, Paul Dukas’ 1896-‘97 symphonic poem, or the Mickey Mouse sequence in Fantasia that it feels wrong to include it here. It was distributed by Disney, but it was produced by Jerry Bruckheimer Films, directed by John Turtletaub, and starred Nicholas Cage, all of whom were associated with the two National Treasure films and the expected third. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice feels more like a generic fantasy-action feature with lots of VFX-heavy magical battles than anything connected with Disney.

Dave Stutler, a physics student in contemporary Manhattan, meets Balthasar Blake (Cage), a mysterious young man who claims to be a 1,300-year-old wizard and former apprentice of Merlin. Merlin was killed in a magical battle with dark forces led by Maxim Horvath, another trusted apprentice who betrayed Merlin. Blake is the leader of the “Merlineans”, who want to protect and help normal mortals, and Horvath is the leader of the “Morganians” (after Morgan le Fay) who want to destroy current civilization to create a new world ruled by all-powerful wizards. A magical battle resulted in both sides being subjected to suspended animation. Now they are freed to resume their battle. Blake has recognized the unbelieving Stutler as the heir of Merlin’s power, and talks him into becoming Blake’s apprentice to learn enough real magic to protect himself when Horvath turns up. Of course Stutler finally decides to accept Merlin’s role, and helps Blake to kill Horvath and his Morganian evil wizards.

Despite the lack of major connections to the Mickey Mouse scene in Fantasia, Stutler animates mops and brooms to clean their magic workshop, with Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice used as background music. Also, a wizard’s peaked hat just like Mickey’s is seen in in the background of their magic workshop as a mysterious hand picks up Horvath’s hat in a post-credits epilogue – presumably a come-on for a sequel if the movie was popular. It was (Wikipedia: “It occupies the fourth place on the all-time chart of Sword and Sorcery movies in the U.S. and Canada, and the third place on the same chart worldwide.”), but no sequel has been announced yet.

And now, Maleficent (scheduled release May 30, 2014; 135 minutes), a live-action retelling of the Sleeping Beauty legend, and particularly of Disney’s 1959 cartoon feature version of it, from Maleficent’s viewpoint. The 2013 Disney press release specifies so: “Maleficent is the untold story of Disney’s most iconic villain from the 1959 classic Sleeping Beauty. A beautiful, pure-hearted young woman, Maleficent has an idyllic life growing up in a peaceable forest kingdom, until one day when an invading army threatens the harmony of the land. Maleficent rises to be the land’s fiercest protector, but she ultimately suffers a ruthless betrayal – an act that begins to turn her pure heart to stone. Bent on revenge, Maleficent faces an epic battle with the invading king’s successor and, as a result, places a curse upon his newborn infant Aurora. As the child grows, Maleficent realizes that Aurora holds the key to peace in the kingdom – and perhaps to Maleficent’s true happiness as well.”

As such, Maleficent is more in the tradition of Wicked – the 1995 Gregory Maguire novel focusing on The Wizard of Oz’s Wicked Witch of the West and her sisters, the still-running 2003 Broadway stage musical hit, and the forthcoming film – than about Disney’s Sleeping Beauty cartoon feature in particular. Here are two trailers for it.

And after Maleficent? The 2010 Alice in Wonderland and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, and the 2013 Disney Oz the Great and Powerful have confused the public as to what is a Disney live-action feature based upon a Disney animation classic and what is not. 2012 saw both Mirror Mirror and Snow White & The Huntsman, “obviously” (but erroneously) based on Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, but not actually Disney films. (The former is by Relativity Media, the latter by Universal Pictures.) On July 9, 2013, The Hollywood Reporter announced that Disney was preparing a live-action The Jungle Book, and had already finished a script for a live-action Cinderella feature. Beauty and the Beast seems a natural since there have already been live-action features of it, notably Jean Cocteau’s 1946 version. Next?


  • Don’t forget Disney already did a live action version of The Jungle Book back in 1994. And as far as the rides go, The Country Bears got their live action movie in 2002.

    Actually, no one should mind if you forget either. Blech.

  • I’m not sure this Maleficent film will work despite having some animation people involved with this. If it works, I’m a chimp’s uncle.

  • THE FOX AND THE HOUND was an OK average animated feature, but the book it was based on was vastly superior… and very different in tone. Being written in the sixties, it had a environmental tone to it (i.e. we see the forest gradually get smaller as time progresses)… and made an attempt to get into the animals’ minds without giving them cute voices and songs for an owl to sing. Thus, it would have made a much more satisfactory live-action feature of the PERRI and INCREDIBLE JOURNEY school. Unfortunately, the market for critter pictures died out in the eighties after MILO & OTIS and THE BEAR, the last major money-makers of this genre. I guess we can scratch off a close-to-the-book version of this story, along with a German forest filmed BAMBI with European red deer, although that Americanized animated feature (with white-tails imported from Maine to the Burbank studio) is still a masterpiece regardless of the liberties it made with Felix Salten. I also think LADY AND THE TRAMP would do well in live-action, but… again… I don’t think there’s the market for it today.

    There have already been more than one PETER PAN in live-action, along with the Cocteau version of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST that any newer updating will be unfairly compared to, so are there any guesses as to what the money men have their eyes on next?. Some animated features probably shouldn’t have been animated in the first place. Although MULAN did boast nice visuals, it would have worked equally well with actors.

    • Funny coincidence! Only yesterday I came across “The Belstone Fox” while doing some research on Brian Bysouth, whose phenomenal art graced many Disney posters (live-action features like “Treasure of Matecumbe” mostly).

      “Belstone” WAS made into a live-action film, very highly regarded in the reviews I’ve read (highly enough that the reviews generally contain that annoying sort of fanboy nit-nit-nitpicking of the “if only they’d changed this ONE detail I wouldn’t scream and rend my shirt every time I watch it” variety) but largely forgotten today despite a DVD release that loudly touts itself as “The Tale That Inspired ‘The Fox and the Hound'” without hinting at the film’s darker edge. I was intrigued enough to buy a copy. Even on the cover, the fox looks…scary.

      China itself made a big live-action spectacle of Mulan in 2009 with mixed response. I’m going to have to watch it sometime, but I already know I’ll miss Jerry Goldsmith’s score and “I’ll Make a Man Out of You.”

    • Hey! James Hill directed both THE BELSTONE FOX and BORN FREE. Disney should have grabbed him. I always considered BORN FREE one of the best Disney critter pics not made by Disney.

      I guess one reason the fox had to be animated was because they already made a live-action featurette of THE FOOTLOOSE FOX in the seventies, a bit too recently for the studio to do it again… and released while the animated feature was in production anyway. Although THE FOX AND THE HOUND has some good things in it, animation-wise, it would have been MOST interesting had they decided to adapt the book “as is” rather than Disneyfy it with songs and a cute “we’ll always be friends” motto. Walt himself had no problem adapting OLD YELLER with its difficult ending. In a way, such an adaptation might have steered them into a new style. They could have combined the natural realism of BAMBI with the slightly UPA-ish POCAHONTAS (which was accused of being derivative in the ’90s of the ’50s SLEEPING BEAUTY and company), and taken a few nods at the recent WATERSHIP DOWN as well. This is why I was disappointed with the resulting feature in 1981, despite being well aware it would be nothing like its original source. It just felt too like they were playing it too safe… not that my opinion would mean much since the film still made a lot of money by the studio “playing safe”.

  • Also, the live-action puppies do not talk, resulting in a more serious criticism of the movie being that, whereas the 1961 movie felt mostly about the anthropomorphized animals and was a children’s movie, the 1996 movie felt mostly about the human actors with the animals in a supporting role. As such, it felt like a movie for adults with a too-juvenile plot.

    Sure did. Not having the talking animals, while perhaps a blessing for some, made for some awkward confusion I felt in the narrative such as thedeal with the Twilight Bark. One moment that annoyed me they had to go there was when Pongo and Perdy do the thing to get their ‘pets’ to notice each other, only to have Roger getting confuse and had to look underneath to see which dog was his. Obviously this was a gag they would not have dared use back in ’61, but then, at least those dogs were easier to tell apart the way they were designed (especially Pongo having solid black ears).

  • There was the TV musical “Geppetto”, a riff on the book “Pinocchio” if not the specific Disney version. Also a TV movie based on the “Tower of Terror” ride (without any Twilight Zone connections).

    Off in the world of video rarities is the Radio City Music Hall stage version of “Snow White,” shown on cable a few times eons ago.

    And somewhere you have to mention the Carl Barks-inspired opening of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”

  • Not a motion picture: But ABC TV’s (owned by Disney) live action series, Once Upon A Time is clearly riffing on the Disney animated versions of it’s famous fairy tale characters. In fact the show has made some great gags over it too.

  • I always wondered if Horvath was named after the Disney concept artist who designed the hat in “Sorceror’s Apprentice,” Ferdinand Horvath…

    Yeah, it’s interesting – some stories really don’t work so well in live action… but even a second-rate “Wicked” ripoff is better than first-rate many other things, so I’ll probably see Maleficent. I’ve always wondered, incidentally, how cool the movie would have felt with Marc Davis’ original color choices… I may recolor some screenshots to see how it looks, with Aurora’s dull blue forest dress and Maleficent’s jarring vermilion lining, gray skin and green-black horns. Perhaps I’ll alter the backgrounds a bit, I’ve always been curious how this film would have looked with Eyvind Earle’s early story sketches, where instead of the tapestry of detail against flat characters, there were fields of color in both characters and background raked through with a streak of textured light…

  • “Maleficent” has just been released and it’s doing very well. According to “Box Office Mojo”, Disney is preparing more of these live-action cartoons:

    “Maleficent’s success can be attributed in part to the enduring popularity of Disney’s animated fare: Sleeping Beauty has tons of fans who were clearly excited to see a new take on the story. Maleficent isn’t the last time that Disney is mining its animated library for live-action stories: they have Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella and Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book on the 2015 calendar.”

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