On Remakes and Redoes

If at first you don’t succeed, recast and try again.

Every year Hollywood comes out with a remake of either a classic film or a story that under performed the first time but built a cult following. Usually the filmmakers put a new spin on the story to justify the remake. Animated films become “live action” or an all-male ensemble film is reworked as a female led endeavor. The past couple of years have seen several high profile remakes debut and flame out at the box office. Examples include:

  • Ghostbusters (2016)
  • The Hustle (2019)
  • POSEIDON (2006)
  • Dumbo (2019)
  • Stepford Wives (2004)

Examples of successful remakes:

  • Ocean’s 8 (2018)
  • Cinderella (2015)
  • Beauty & the Beast (2017)
  • The Parent Trap (1998)
  • Freaky Friday (2003)

Why do some remakes work and others crash and burn?

Partly nostalgia and partly the quality of the story. A shot-for-shot remake will always come across as a lesser film due to a lack of originality. No one would want to see a shot-for-shot remake of Avengers: Endgame because it would feel like a parody of the original. Put a different spin on the story or introduce new characters and the remake may work.

Let’s examine Cinderella. The story of a poor peasant girl who meets a dashing prince. Popular films built on this narrative includes:

  • Cinderella (1950)
  • The Slipper and the Rose (1976)
  • Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella (1997)
  • Ever After (1998)
  • Into the Woods (2014)
  • Ella Enchanted (2004)
  • Cinderella (2015)
  • Crazy Rich Asians (2018)

All these films follow a basic plot: young woman is born into a middle class family. Her father remarries (or dies) and the step-mother (or future mother-in-law) treats her poorly. She meets a dashing, rich man. A misunderstanding occurs, they briefly break-up, and, after a short interlude, they beat the odds and rise above their petty disagreements. Each of these films builds upon the Cinderella fairy tale but put a different spin on the story. While all the films are “Cinderella” they approach the story in a manner that feels original. Hence, the remakes feel new. Disney’s 2015 Cinderella differs just enough from the 1950 film that it does not feel like a remake made only for monetary purposes.

Remakes fail when the filmmakers do not add in enough “new” narrative to justify the story. Switching out the gender of the leads, while maybe increasing representation, does not automatically make the remake a better film. The Hustle, the Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson remake of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, fizzled at the box office because the script did not work. Even with two talented leads, if the script adds nothing new to the story line, then it will flop. Remake for the sake of remake leads to the world of poorly produced television films that play in a forever loop at 2 am.

Remakes that did work, like the Lindsay Lohan remake of the 1961 Hayley Mills vehicle The Parent Trap, either update the story for modern times or add a new twist. Technically one could argue that Toy Story 2, 3, & 4 function as remakes of Toy Story. Yet each film works because they do not recycle the original story, they just add onto the original premise of toys coming alive when humans leave the room. A simple premise that opens up a world of storytelling possibilities.

Finally, some film ideas that work as animated stories do not function well in “live action”. Dumbo the animated film, is a rather dark story that works because the elephants do not seem real. Just enough difference exists between the onscreen elephants and real elephants that audiences can enjoy the story without feeling bad. The recent remake failed because the hyper-realism takes you out of the movie and makes it hard to suppress reality. Plus the story worked great in the 1940’s, but not so much in 2019. The culture and the state of entertainment has changed drastically since the 1940’s and the narrative did not address this enough to make the story feel new. I think a Dumbo remake would have worked if the filmmakers had kept it animated.

Like all films, remakes of popular movies does not guarantee success. Audiences are fickle, especially when dealing with nostalgic films from childhood. I am of the opinion that if the director and screenwriter cannot find a unique spin on an existing story, than a remake should never happen.

What do you all think? What remakes have you enjoyed or hated and why?