Everything the light touches is Walt Disney Studios’ kingdom. There are only three months this year during which Disney isn’t putting out a movie — and we’ve already passed two of them.

The company’s slate for the rest of the year includes major expansions of blockbuster franchises, including Disney•Pixar’s Toy Story 4 (June 21), Frozen 2 (Nov. 22), and the end of the Skywalker era with Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (Dec. 20). And, of course, Avengers: Endgame broke records in April with a $1.2 billion global debut, becoming the first film in history to surpass $1 billion in its opening weekend.

Needless to say, Disney is already having a huge entertainment year. While the end of another Star Wars trilogy or the close of the Infinity War saga would have been enough to keep fans happy, Disney is also putting out an unprecedented five live-action movies this year, which are all live adaptations of films or characters that were originally animated. This is more in one year than the past four combined.

Live-action versions of Dumbo and Aladdin already hit theaters, with The Lion King (July 17), Maleficent: Mistress of Evil (Oct. 18), and The Lady and the Tramp (announced to debut alongside Disney’s upcoming streaming service Disney+ on Nov. 12) on the way, making September the only month for the rest of the year without a Disney release.

“It’s a big bet to make that many new ones,” Jonathan Taplin, director emeritus of the Annenberg Innovation Lab at the University of Southern California, says. “In some way, [Disney has] made the calculation that even with all the cost of making a live-action movie, it’s probably cheaper than making an animated film. Secondly, they’re doing what they’ve always done, which is remake things that were successful in one medium in another medium.”

It’s in the Past

The last time there were multiple live-action releases in one year was 2016 with just two films: Alice Through the Looking Glass and The Jungle Book. Disney’s first live-action remake ever was The Jungle Book in 1994, followed by 101 Dalmatians and 102 Dalmatians in 1996 and 2000, respectively. The studio took a decade-long break from rebooting its animated content, with Alice in Wonderland debuting in 2010.

This year’s spike in live-action films doesn’t necessarily dilute the value of these types of movies overall, but the ones that perform better outweigh the cost of films that disappoint at the box office. Simply put: Some franchises will do better than others, and that will always be a risk. And the numbers speak for themselves, fluctuating and lacking consistency when examining Disney’s past four live-action remakes.

“Some are going to be hits. I think Lion King will be a hit, and some are going to be misses, and I think, quite frankly, Dumbo was a miss, Aladdin I suspect is going to be a bit of a miss as well,” says Bruce Nash, founder of Nash Information Services and publisher of The Numbers. “But then The Lion King is going to justify the whole decision and get them looking under the mattress for other films they can recycle as well.”

At the time of publishing, Dumbo was the most recent Disney live-action release, performing $107.8 million domestically, according to Box Office Mojo, an IMDb company. It performed on-par with Disney’s Christopher Robin (2018), raking in $99 million domestically. Comparatively, Beauty and the Beast (2017) brought in $504 million domestically, while The Jungle Book (2016) did $364 million domestically.

There are many reasons why some of these live-action remakes do better than others, but at the end of the day, it has to do with each individual movie. Studios can’t assume that audiences will show up to movie theaters just because a film is associated with a classic name. The story, direction, technology, and other factors all have to come together, according to Taplin. For example, Dumbo originally came out in 1941, so many people today weren’t around for the original release. But when it comes to The Lion King, audiences are more likely to remember seeing the original and will still resonate with the film’s core themes.

Needless to say, The Lion King is the most-anticipated live-action adaptation from the bunch this year, especially since it’s the animated film’s 25th anniversary.

“I think it still makes sense to do these films because for every Dumbo, they’re going to have a Lion King,” Nash says. “Going back a couple of years, Beauty and the Beast was in 2017, which again, was a massive success for doing a movie that was an exact shot-for-shot remake of the original film and Lion King is going to be the same. It’s a shot-for-shot remake. They’ve updated a few jokes, and that’s about it.”

Mufasa and Simba overlook their kingdom in Disney’s live-action adaptation of The Lion King.

Hakua Matata

Although officially dubbed a live-action movie, most would find that classification generous. The upcoming The Lion King comes with some of the most realistic animation we’ve seen so far.

“I think there’s no question in my mind that it’s going to make its mark,” Nash says.

According to the official film description, The Lion King, directed by Jon Favreau (2016’s The Jungle Book), “journeys to the African savanna where a future king is born. Simba idolizes his father, King Mufasa, and takes to heart his own royal destiny. But not everyone in the kingdom celebrates the new cub’s arrival. Scar, Mufasa’s brother — and former heir to the throne — has plans of his own. The battle for Pride Rock is ravaged with betrayal, tragedy, and drama, ultimately resulting in Simba’s exile. With help from a curious pair of newfound friends, Simba will have to figure out how to grow up and take back what is rightfully his.”

Disney promises that this remake will stay true to the classic story, while using pioneering filmmaking techniques to bring the iconic characters to the big screen in a whole new way. The Lion King features the voices of Donald Glover as Simba, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter as Nala, James Earl Jones as Mufasa, Chiwetel Ejiofor as Scar, Seth Rogen as Pumbaa, Billy Eichner as Timon, and John Oliver as Zazu.

“I think that The Lion King is a landmark film in that it really looks like a live-action film, but 90% of it is computer-generated,” Nash says. “I think it’s pointing toward what is to come as far as technology is concerned, and I think it will be really interesting to see how audiences react to that. … I think the top-three grossing movies of the year we already know are going to be Avengers: Endgame, The Lion King, and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. We just don’t know in which order they’re going to end up.”  

Long Live Nostalgia

The main expectation here is that fans who originally saw these animated features when they were growing up will be excited for these live-action reboots and remakes for two main reasons: They themselves were fans of the original content, so naturally they will want to see the new adaptation; and that parents will want to introduce their kids to the stories that they grew up with, sharing those memories with them. Plus, these new technologies help introduce kids to a film that may not have a new concept but is still relevant to them in terms of the other movies they see.

“Tapping into nostalgia can be extremely lucrative at the box office, especially when executed properly with a solid film and solid marketing,” says Gitesh Pandya, editor of boxofficeguru.com. “Family films truly reap the benefits, as adults often want younger generations to discover the stories they loved when they were younger. A big part of the appeal of the new Aladdin and The Lion King films comes from people who remember seeing the originals in theaters in 1992 and 1994, remembering the impact on pop culture, and wanting their kids to now join in on the fun, too.”

The bottom line is that these types of films open up a whole new audience for kids who have never seen the content before. Double the audience, double the draw. And with the new The Lion King film, for example, there will be a true curiosity in the aforementioned animation. In true Disney fashion, each teaser and trailer was very careful in using wide-angle shots and mostly no speaking, so audiences will be in for a real treat (or disappointment) in how it turns out.

“From a technology perspective, the same people that would go and see Star Wars or Avengers for the spectacle are going to see The Lion King for the spectacle, too. When it works, you can get the kids, the parents, and that middle-teen and young-adult audience,” Nash says.

Young Simba brushes up on looking down with his avian royal adviser, Zazu, by his side.

The Future of Original Content

Reboots, remakes, sequels, and prequels — let’s face it: Chances are if you are a fan of literally any franchise, there is some sort of new content on the way. Disney is certainly not the only studio honing in on and taking advantage of this trend.

“Disney has been really good at taking something that was a successful animated film, making it into a Broadway musical, and now making it into a live-action film,” Taplin says. “They’re basically taking the library and saying OK, well, we’ve got The Lion King, we know it worked in these two other mediums, we’ll remake it as a live-action film. We’ve got Lady and the Tramp, we’ll do it; or we’ll remake Aladdin. In one sense, it seems to be a death of new stories, which is a lack of imagination, but they’re replowing the same ground in a different medium.”

In a way, taking advantage of a beloved franchise makes sense — even at the expense of original content. People are attracted to and are comfortable with familiar stories and characters that they know and love, and they want more content from those universes. It’s the reason each Marvel movie shatters the record of the previous one and why a fourth Toy Story works.

“If you go back to 2018, I think that the issue that they faced is that they’ve got such surefire money-makers in the Marvel movies and Pixar and in the Star Wars universe, that they have struggled a little bit with trying to find other things that they can make films about, which is sort of a little bit more in the traditional Disney mold,” Nash says. “I think Mary Poppins Returns was a success and that got over the bar, but then A Wrinkle in Time last year was a financial disappointment, and The Nutcracker and the Four Realms was a disaster financially.”

I’m Surrounded by Streaming Services

Experts also suggest that Disney+ has a lot to do with this sudden spike in the company’s upcoming movies for the year, including the live-action films. Movie theaters are feeling the pressure to keep up with streaming services, as theatrical releases are becoming available to consumers sooner on these platforms. Streaming services also offer exclusive content.

“Disney is a dominant player in the theatrical film business, and that business is changing. On one level, Netflix is challenging the movie theaters to release them online as soon as the movies are released in the theaters. That’s getting a huge amount of resistance from both the theater owners and the filmmakers, such as Steven Spielberg,” Taplin says. “On another hand, Disney now is rolling out this huge streaming platform whose whole intent is to take on Netflix head-on to be the dominant home entertainment streaming platform. And so obviously they’ll need a lot of content for that, and a lot of exclusive content for that. It’s an interesting bet. The question is: Will people still go to the theater when they can get it on their big home screen very quickly by the time it comes out?”

And Disney will deliver with Disney+. At launch, the streaming service will release more than 25 original series and 10 original films across all Disney, Pixar, Marvel, Star Wars, and National Geographic brands. This new, original content is on top of access to recent theatrical releases and every Pixar film available to consumers during the first year of launch.

Fans can “Be Prepared” for a shot-for-shot live-action remake of The Lion King. In this photo, Scar is surrounded by hyenas.

Be Prepared … for More Live-Action Movies

Walt Disney Studios recently revealed its film release schedule for the next few years, including at least nine unnamed live-action movies between 2021 and 2023 with Mulan and Cruella tied to official release dates in 2020: March 27 and December 23, respectively. While many details about most of these films are not available yet, reported upcoming projects include Pinocchio, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Lilo & Stitch, and The Little Mermaid.

Disney’s live-action initiative may fluctuate from now through 2023, but the studio is following a clear path: These films are becoming a major component of its entertainment slate. It’s unlikely that Disney will take a break from live-action movies as it has done in the past. If this trend continues, the studio will put out at least one to two live-action films each year.

“Familiar brands sell at the box office, and Disney happens to own the largest library out there, so it is not too surprising to see many event films all ready for market in the same year,” Pandya says.

If one thing’s for sure, it’s that Simba will reign the box office in July. Hear him roar.


This article was originally published in the Pop Insider’s Winter 2019 Issue No. 2, click here to read more!