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A few years ago, I wrote about the summer of 1989 and my surprise (in hindsight) that the huge success of Tim Burton’s Batman didn’t usher in a new wave of superhero movies of the kind that we enjoy today.  It didn’t help matters that the rights to so many of Marvel’s properties were tied up in a choke-hold of legal red tape or worse, owned by Menahem Golan (who went and did this with Captain America).  In reality, the problem was more prosaic.  The special effects required to bring The Hulk, Thor or Ant-Man to the screen convincingly simply didn’t exist in the early 1990s.

Can you even imagine how terrible the 1991 version of Iron Man would have been?  Forget the goose-pimplingly cool tracking shot at the start of Avengers Assemble where Robert Downey Jr is de-Ironed as he struts from the landing pad to his penthouse.  Twenty five years ago, Jason Priestley or Costas Mandylor in a clearly-plastic Iron Man suit filmed against a blue screen would probably still rank among the most embarrassing comic-book movie moments of all time, up there with Nuclear Man.

Superman IV The Quest For Peace
Kill me…

It would simply never have been made, nor would it have ever have been suggested back in the 1990s that a live-action version of Disney’s The Jungle Book was a realistic proposition.  The fact that it is here now in all its anthropomorphic glory is testament to the supersonic leaps in CGI effects that have taken place in the past two decades.  There is practically nothing now that cannot be filmed and indeed no film that cannot be refilmed.  Jon Favreau’s transformation of the 1967 classic from a jazz cartoon into a living, breathing movie has been receiving acclaim from all quarters and is likely to be a huge smash.

However, to paraphrase the star of another pioneering special effects movie, are we so preoccupied with whether or not we could that we haven’t stopped to think if we should?  Favreau has been praised for the skills with which he has expanded the world of Mowgli and his pals, maintaining a balance of tone, creating surprise yet adhering loyally to the original story, but not every remake is fortunate to have such a sympathetic director at its helm.

There are no hard and fast rules that dictate which remakes will work and which won’t, but lessons can be learned from the past; from films that recreated the original too much, or not enough, or completely missed the point of what it was that they were trying to recapture.

And so with The Jungle Book oobie-dooing our way this weekend and a whole slate of live action Disney remakes lined up ahead of us (The Rescuers, Dumbo and this summer’s Pete’s Dragon) here are some examples of films that have benefited from an upgrade, some that haven’t, some that could, and one or two that should have protected status legally conferred upon them.

 

Exhibit A: The Remake Was Better Than The Original

Donald Sutherland

Invasion of The Body Snatchers (1978)

Don Seigel’s original was one of several sci-fi horrors that addressed the fears and concerns of 1950s America; principally nuclear proliferation and communism.  The paranoia surrounding the Red Menace was evident in every frame of his tale of a small town whose residents are slowly being replaced by soulless alien doppelgängers.  Phillip Kaufman’s remake was less about a direct political threat but the effects of individualism and consumerism in the ‘Me Decade.’

Kaufman didn’t use 22 years’ worth of developments in special effects to upstage the original – which made the sudden appearance of a man/dog hybrid all the more jarring.  His technique was to remake the plot of the original but rewrite the story, making respectful nods to the past along the way (including a brilliant cameo by original star Kevin McCarthy).  The result was chilling, intelligent and capped off by one of the most memorably depressing closing seconds of any film.

By way of demonstrating how hard it is to improve a movie by remaking it, two more versions were released in 1993 (Body Snatchers) and 2007 (The Invasion) which went from bad to worse.  The same can be said for another classic ’50s sci-fi allegory, The Day The Earth Stood Still, the 2008 remake of which is the definitive example of ‘how not to do it.’

Dredd

Dredd (2012)

Pete Travis’s movie is not itself a remake of Danny Cannon’s 1995 Judge Dredd (if its a remake of anything it’s The Raid (2011)), more a reboot: a ceremonial slate-cleaning exercise that wipes that misbegotten Stallone version from the history books.  What’s fascinating in terms of its quasi-remake status though, is how such stunning results were achieved by doing exactly the opposite of what is usually expected.

The Stallone Dredd had a budget of $90m (out of which $8.75 was spent on the screenplay) which meant that a broad family audience was needed to make a profit; a bit like buying the Friday The 13th franchise and targeting it towards the My Little Pony demographic.  Travis’s budget was literally half that and instead of a headline star, he had a character actor (Karl Urban) who wanted to play Dredd, not just himself (and crucially knew not to take his helmet off).

The restrictive budget forced the production to use creative means to solve problems rather than buying their way out of them.  The result was a lean, hugely enjoyable, gritty, punk action film that did precisely what its narrow but appreciative audience wanted it to do (and want it do do again if they can coax a sequel out of the producers).

CINDERELLA

Cinderella (2015)

Maleficent, with its $758m worldwide take, was the klaxon that started Disney’s obsession with remaking its own animated back catalogue into all-new live action blockbusters.  ‘Sleeping Beauty #2’ benefited from superb special effects and a visually unforgettable Angelina Jolie, blood-red lips fuller than ever, a vision of cheek-bones set beneath a pair of bull-horns on short-term loan from Tim Curry in Legend.

However, in upending the plot by turning Disney’s most evil villainess into the heroine, the whole thing collapsed into itself under the weight of all the illogical, nonsensical character motivation from the players.  “She will prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel and fall into a sleep-like DEATH!…Right, think I’ll pop into the forest and see how she’s doing.  Maybe form a benign, older sister relationship with her as she grows up.”

Maleficent 14

For their next upgrade, Disney stayed a lot truer to the plot of its own 1950 version of Cinderella, unexpectedly eschewing a revisionist, post-feminist (post-Frozen) vision and playing it straight all the way to the fairy tale wedding ceremony.  Director Kenneth Branagh (with a script by About a Boy director Chris Weitz) took the trouble instead to create three-dimensional characters with legitimate agendas, giving heroes and villains a vulnerability that made them all worthy of an investment of care.

The production was lustrous, charming and genuinely funny (to the surprise of many parents who were dragged kicking and screaming to see this by their daughters).  In practically every way, it was an improvement on the 1950 animated version, which Disney itself had rendered lightweight and vacuous by comparison with their own fairy tale masterpiece, Sleeping Beauty in 1959.

Next up: The remakes which were really, really bad

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If your pub team is short of an encyclopedic Bond or Hammer fan (the horror people, not the early-90s, billow-trousered rap icon) - then he's our man. Given that these are rather popular areas of critical expertise, he is happy to concentrate on the remaining cinematic subjects. He loves everything from Michael Powell to David Lean, via 70s New Hollywood up to David Fincher and Wes Anderson; from Bergman and Kubrick to Roger Corman and Herschell Gordon Lewis. If he could only take one DVD to the island it would be Jaws, but that's as specific as it gets. You have a lovely day now. Follow him at your own risk at https://mobile.twitter.com/CaiRoss21