Why Hollywood Remakes Are a Good Thing
It would be terribly unoriginal to begin a piece on Hollywood’s spate of remakes—including today’s particularly hot topics, The Little Mermaid and Mulan—by invoking Jim Jarmusch’s 2004 interview with MovieMaker Magazine in which the director declares “Nothing is original.” And yet, here we are.
Those unfamiliar with the quote, however, might’ve instead read something similar in Austin Kleon’s 2012 book, Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You about Being Creative. Inside, Kleon writes, “What a good artist understands is that nothing comes from nowhere. All creative work builds on what came before. Nothing is completely original.”
Or, perhaps, they might’ve watched Kirby Ferguson’s 2012 “Everything is a Remix” TED Talk, which presents the same general idea that Jarmusch expressed, only using different words, and with multimedia elements mixed in.
Regardless of which mouthpiece the message comes from, its point stands: Everything is born from something else. True creativity comes from how one adapts the myriad stimuli around himself into a singular form; past inspirations are always distilled into something novel.
But one might argue that this doesn’t apply to remakes, that “reimaginings” supposedly bear less creative value than remixes. After all, what’s the point of taking something as beloved as The Lion King and rendering it in photorealistic CG, beyond cashing in on nostalgia? Isn’t the original timeless enough? Why do we need Donald Glover?
These are, admittedly, valid criticisms. Capitalism does, after all, lead to the unnecessary re-release of box-office record-breakers. And sometimes, it does lead to suspicions of laziness, or at the very least a shortage of creative effort. The case of Let the Right One In’s regrettable 2010 American remake comes to mind.
It should be noted that despite examples to the contrary, there are remakes that are truly inspired. For every Oldboy (2013), there’s a stellar film like 1986’s The Fly. Little Shop of Horrors (1986) brought the Broadway musical remake of Roger Corman’s 1960 B-movie to the silver
From these films, we can see two things that separate good remakes from the chaff: intent and execution. Both these aspects need to be excellent to justify a remake; failing one or the other gives viewers
Take, for instance, the woefully dreadful Maleficent, which turned the story of one of Disney’s finest villains into an allegory for rape. It was clear that the intent was to transform the fallen fairy into a sympathetic
In contrast, Disney’s finest live-action remake thus far might be Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book (2016). In a 2016 interview with the LA Times, Favreau mentioned that one of his intents for making the film was to change the original story’s perspective of nature. "This was an opportunity to tell a story for now," he said. "Things have shifted. In Kipling's time, nature was something to be overcome. Now nature is something to be protected."
The director made sure that while he changed the story’s intent, its execution would blend the new movie’s now-ness with the same joyous spirit that made the 1967 animated film so beloved. It was as much as
In the case of The Little Mermaid, not much can be surmised yet regarding its intent and execution. Despite what speculations critics may make of Disney’s “politically correct agenda,” Halle Bailey was chosen to be Ariel as a result of colorblind casting rather than a conscious decision to go with a black actress. All this tells us that Disney was intent on having its princess portrayed by the best available talent, regardless of skin color.
As for Mulan, the intent quite clearly justifies the remake. Disney’s 1998 animated version of the tale tells a vastly different story from the legend that inspired it; one of the remake’s actors even recalled his Chinese grandmother being “aghast” at what the Americans did to the story she loved. Mushu the dragon is noticeably absent from the recently released trailer, and probably for good reason: Not only was his name a form of casual racism (imagine a Filipino character being named “Adobo” for laughs), but his small stature and annoying personality was an affront to a culture that holds dragons in reverence. Disney saw a chance to make things right with a more respectful live-action movie, and it took it.
This, perhaps, is the noblest reason for a remake: Building upon the past allows us to correct our present. Every film is an artifact of its
We can continue to be fascinated by the adventure and romance of the original Little Mermaid, but all those emotions exist in a world without people of color. But there’s also a chance we could find that exact same magic in a live-action reimagining more representative of the people in our world. We could continue with our disrespectful interpretation of the Mulan legend, or we could learn to appreciate the story that inspired countless Chinese men and women. That’s certainly worth the risk of making movies not everyone might agree with.
If nothing is original—as Jarmusch and Kleon and Austin and probably
They just have to be done right.