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Disney's recent live-action remakes have proved to be massive hits with fans and, mostly, critics as well. They've allowed Disney to show off new technologies and create classic stories in a new way. But then again, the remakes are just that: remakes of stories we've seen before, and many of them are a bit too close to the original productions to really feel like they're anything special. At the same time, it's proven at this point that that the stories closest to the original are the ones audiences really want to see, so the films that take some degree of liberty are not as successful. There is a third option, however: the radical reinvention of a story, one that is also very much a Disney creation.
Many Disney animated movies started life as stories very different from the versions we eventually saw. Quite frequently, a lot of work is done with storyboarding that we never end up seeing. Songs are written that we never hear. But a lot of hard work was put into these projects, and the question of "What if?" is always present. While the reasons these stories changed so much over time certainly make sense, maybe that first idea had more promise and just needed a little more work. Let's go over some examples.
Kingdom Of The Sun (The Emperor's New Groove)
One of the most infamous examples of a movie that was changed radically during production is Kingdom of the Sun. The movie would eventually go on to become The Emperor's New Groove, but the original version, while it did include a character transforming into a llama, was not the buddy comedy story that we saw. Kingdom of the Sun took inspiration from Mark Twain's The Prince and the Pauper, and was designed to be a much more epic movie, closer in feel to The Lion King, the previous movie by director Roger Allers.
Kingdom of the Sun suffered from a host of production issues, and many of the top Disney executives of the day didn't like the fact that the movie was so similar to The Prince and the Pauper, a story which had been done countless times before, including by Disney. But these same Disney executives thought Pocahontas would win Oscars and gave it far more support than they did The Lion King, so what do they know? If nothing else, Kingdom of the Sun had an entire soundtrack written and performed by Sting that the world needs to hear.
Chicken Little is not one of the better regarded Disney feature animated films; there's a lot about it that doesn't work. So it makes one wonder, what would have happened if the filmmakers (among them Mark Dindal, the man who would turn Kingdom of the Sun into The Emperor's New Groove) were given the chance to make the movie they had originally planned. As recently chronicled, the original idea for Chicken Little dealt not with an alien invasion, but sheep being abducted by wolves. Chicken Little was also originally a young girl, voiced by Holly Hunter.
The transition of Chicken Little from girl to boy was decided by Michael Eisner, who thought the movie would have more box office appeal that way, even though women have always been the stars of the biggest Disney movies. This one change ended up leading down a path to the movie we got, which wasn't great. So what if we change that one thing back and tried a CGI remake of the movie that was more in line with the original concept? It's an idea worth considering.
Evil Elsa - Frozen
With all of the success that Disney has had remaking animated movies, it only stands to reason that at some point, we're going to get the live-action remake of one of the most successful animated movies of all time: Frozen. The only question is how long is an acceptable amount of time to wait considering that Frozen is a comparatively new movie. However, one change that could be made that might make a live-action version more palatable in the short term is making an earlier version of Frozen that saw Elsa as much more of a traditional Disney villain.
Yes, it might be a bridge too far to see everybody's favorite Disney princess play the bad guy, but isn't that a far more interesting idea than seeing the version of the movie you can watch right now on Disney+?
The Non-Musical Beauty and the Beast
Of the various Disney projects that went through a real evolution during their early production, none may have changed as much as Beauty and the Beast. There's little argument that the movie we got is great. It was nominated for Best Picture, and justifiably so. But I've always been curious about the more dramatic version of Beauty and the Beast that wasn't a musical which we could have seen. It was the first producing job of the great Don Hahn, and after mocking up 20 minutes of the movie, it was decided to throw all the work out and start over. A new team was brought in, including the great Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, and the rest is history.
Would this version have been somehow better than the version of Beauty and the Beast we got? Perhaps not, but at least then the live-action version wouldn't have needed to compete with an unattainable goal of being better than the original. It would still be a Disney movie, but something that felt fresh and new.
I love so many of Disney's animated classics, and seeing fresh takes on them, like Maleficient or Dumbo, is a significantly more interesting exercise than just remaking the movie we saw over again. Even when a live-action remake tries to make a few changes to make the movie feel new, it still feel too beholden to the original. One way Disney could overcome that is by starting with a story that is different enough from the released version that it feels like a brand new movie, even though it actually is not.
Will we ever see any of these movies? Almost certainly not, but I can dream. I will always wonder what these movies could have been, and if Disney wanted to try something radical, it could actually make them a reality.