I was lucky enough to grow up during the Disney Renaissance. During that decade of childlike wonder and unbridled creativity, Walt Disney Feature Animation released the following (mostly) classics: The Little Mermaid (1989), The Rescuers Down Under (1990), Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992), The Lion King (1994), Pocahontas (1995), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996), Hercules (1997), Mulan (1998) and Tarzan (1999). Being a child of the 1990s also meant having immediate access to Disney’s archive — I owned or rented every pre-Renaissance title on VHS, from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to Oliver & Company, and loved them all. With one exception: Pete’s Dragon.
I hated Pete’s Dragon.
The 1977 misstep is a nap-inducing bore, and when it wasn’t sentimental to a fault, it was unsettlingly dark. One of the lyrics to “The Happiest Home in These Hills” — the first song in the movie! — goes, “Beat him, heat him, eat him for dessert/Roast him gently so the flames won’t hurt.” These mountain-bred child abusers are talking about killing and eating Pete! “Belle,” it ain’t.
And yet not only did Pete’s Dragon get the live-action animated treatment, but the remake is also really good! As our own Mike Ryan wrote in his fairly glowing review, “It feels like a movie from a talented director who decided to make the best Pete’s Dragon remake possible, and he did.” That makes Disney two-for-two this year when it comes to animated-to-live action remakes (Pete’s and The Jungle Book), or two-for-three if you count Alice Through the Looking Glass (you shouldn’t), with plenty more to come, including Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, Mary Poppins Returns, and reportedly Dumbo, Mulan, The Sword In the Stone, Pinocchio, and Peter Pan (don’t forget Tink).
Disney is cleaning out the infamous vault, and slapping a big name star on every property they own the rights to. But even the House of Mouse has limits (probably). There are some titles that will never get a live-animation remake, for reasons varying from impracticality to racism. Here are five such films, ranked from least to most implausible (I’m working off the official Walt Disney Animation Studios list, which doesn’t include anything that’s purely live-action, as well as the “associated” Walt Disney Productions movies).
5. The Rescuers Down Under (1990)
Unless you count Fantasia 2000 (you shouldn’t), the only Walt Disney Animation Studios film to receive a proper sequel is… wait, really, The Rescuers? Based on Margery Sharp’s books of the same name, the movie follows two mice, janitor Bernard (Bob Newhart) and proper Miss Bianca (Eva Gabor), as they rescue a young girl from evil treasure hunters. The Rescuers was a massive critical and financial success in 1977 (it was, at that point, the highest grossing Disney movie ever), which would signal an immediate sequel these days. Instead, it took 13 years for The Rescuers Down Under to be released, and much of the magic was lost. The animation is mostly stunning — especially some of the soaring golden eagle shots — but the story is a tepid rehash of the original. The Rescuers Down Under has become the forgotten film of the Renaissance.
It should stay that way.
4. Pocahontas (1995)
Pocahontas is — to use the internet’s favorite word — “problematic” thanks to its candy-coated take on real historical events. In the Disney movie, Pocahontas (Irene Bedard), a Native American, meets John Smith (Mel Gibson), an English gentleman exploring the New World, and they fall in love. In real life, they first encountered each other when she was 10 years old, and there were no romantic entanglements. Even their “meet cute,” in which Pocahontas allegedly saves John from being executed by her father, is probably false. Pocahontas, the movie, ends with Smith returning to England. Pocahontas, the actual human being, was kidnapped in 1613 by the English, converted to Christianity, married a tobacco magnate, and changed her name to Rebecca. Like I said, “problematic.” Not the stuff of happily ever after.
3. The Package Films: Saludos Amigos (1942), The Three Caballeros (1944), Make Mine Music (1946), Fun and Fancy Free (1947), Melody Time (1948), and The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949)
To save money during World War II, Disney released a number of “package” films that were less full-length features than compilations of stories. For instance, in The Three Caballeros, Donald Duck opens presents from his Latin America friends, and he learns about birds, hits a piñata, and meets Aurora Miranda. Created to facilitate goodwill between the U.S. and South America in the midst of World War II, the whole thing plays like the work of a tour guide. It’s barely a movie. The same could be said of its predecessor, the equally propagandistic Saludos Amigos, developed in conjunction with the U.S. government in an attempt to steer South American countries away from Hitler.
The other package entries have far less interesting backstories, and they’re not much better, either. Some of the animation is delightful (Fun and Fancy Free‘s “Mickey and the Beanstalk,” for instance), Benny Goodman provides a swinging score to a segment in Make Mine Music, and The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad‘s “The Wind in the Willows” is just plain weird. But there’s nothing here that matches the transcendent musical highs of Fantasia.
These five movies simply aren’t worth revisiting decades later.
2. Bambi (1942)
We know what happens to Bambi’s mom. No need to see that again.
1. Song of the South (1946)
Quick, when you think of Song of the South, what are the first three things that come to mind? And… time’s up. Your answers were probably “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah,” the peppy 1947 Academy Award winner for Best Song; the Splash Mountain ride at Disneyland and Disney World; and racism. So much uncomfortable racism. Disney has never released Song of the South on VHS, DVD or Blu-ray, and probably never will thanks to the controversy around it. But I had a friend growing up who owned a bootleg copy. I didn’t ask how he acquired it, or why he wanted it (especially why he wanted it), but I remember the first time I saw the movie. It felt like I was doing something wrong (legally speaking, I suppose I was), like I wasn’t supposed to watch this. Disney pretending Song of the South never happened, outside of “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah,” only added to the thrill. Actually, it was the only thrill, because stripped of context, Song of the South isn’t very good.
A stifling beginning (little boy visits a plantation in Georgia with his parents; little boy learns his parents will no longer live together; little boy tries to run away) makes way for an uncomfortable (magical negro Uncle Remus entertains the little boy with stories about Br’er Rabbit; a “Tar Baby” is introduced) and boring (little kid hijinks) middle. The movie ends with Uncle Remus skipping into the sunlight surrounded by children and critters.
Song of the South takes place after the Civil War, during the Reconstruction Era when slavery was abolished, which makes the white-black dynamic even more comfortable. Uncle Remus (played by the wonderful James Baskett, who was awarded an honorary Oscar “for his able and heartwarming characterization”) is delighted to be subservient to his masters, er, bosses, despite earning pitiful wages. There’s no problem he can’t fix with a cheerful tune. (“I have often been utterly astonished, since I came to the north, to find persons who could speak of the singing, among slaves, as evidence of their contentment and happiness,” Frederick Douglass once said. “It is impossible to conceive of a greater mistake. Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy.”) It’s a myth-making depiction of a fraught time in American history; politics are sanitized and hostilities are non-existent. Or in the words of the NAACP at the time, “In an effort neither to offend audiences in the north or south, the production helps to perpetuate a dangerously glorified picture of slavery.”
But even if you subtract the factual context, Song of the South is pretty of boring. The transition from live-action to animation still looks great, and Baskett is a charming presence throughout, but there’s barely a story, the child actors are annoying, and Br’er Rabbit, Br’er Fox, and Br’er Bear lack the inventiveness of other famed Disney animals, like Baloo or the Cheshire Cat.
Song of the South has historical value, but considering it’s still not available on DVD, it’s the last movie Disney would ever think about remaking. Besides, after Disney cycles through all the titles it wants to remake, it will probably be time for another Jungle Book reboot anyway.