Beyond the occasional TV film, it’s safe to say at this moment that Disney’s age of hand-drawn 2D-animated films has come to a close. Its last true theatrical release being 2009’s The Princess and the Frog. Though that era has come and gone, its impact on pop culture is undeniable. Like many who grew up in the 2000s, I too remember such amazing classics like The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Lion King and Mulan. Films that stuck with me all through the years, long into my 20’s. So beloved were the original 2D classics that Disney even launched an entire live-action adaptation movement in 2015 with Cinderella. The company had hoped to capitalize off their nostalgic value while at the same time, attempting to introduce them to a whole new generation of kids. Personally, I’m not exactly a fan of Disney’s recent live adaptation attempts but the recent trailer for Mulan has renewed my curiosity. It isn’t attempting to be a tired rehash of the original 1998 film. It promises to be a far more grounded and accurate representation of the story of Fa Mulan.
With that in mind, it got us thinking if there were other animated gems that are worth live-action adaptations. Turns out, there are some pretty awesome candidates out there that Disney has yet to bring to life.
1. Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001)
Back when Disney was experimenting with new ways to reinvigorate the 2D animated renaissance of the 1990s, they took a chance with a little film called Atlantis: The Lost Empire. A film that by all metrics of marketability by today’s standards, shouldn’t even have existed and yet here it is. A film that follows a crack team of explorers, scientists, mercenaries and specialists as they travel into the heart of the Earth to uncover one of the greatest mysteries of all time. A journey to find the lost city of Atlantis, buried at the bottom of the ocean after a cataclysmic event. One plucky explorer named Milo will risk life and limb to prove its existence and to save this civilization from forces within and without that seek to destroy it.
The effort that went into Atlantis was nothing short of monumental because the team had essentially created a living, breathing world before our very eyes. One full of beauty and history that borrows from a multitude of cultures and myths to create something truly unique. Powered by a talented crew of voice actors, Atlantis’ script managed to feel both accessible to kids and supremely captivating to adults. Whether you were a child or a grown man, all could understand the majesty of Kida’s ascension into the Crystal in the film. Disney’s CGI technology has evolved leaps and bounds beyond the animation technology of Atlantis’ time and it still looks magnificent. Imagine what a fully realized Atlantis would look like on the big screen. It would be transcendent.
2. Tarzan (1999)
Believe or not, there was a time when Disney animated films were actually marketed towards both male and female children, without using superheroes. What a surprise right! Not unlike Mulan or Frozen, they were films that addressed issues of identity and family except that for the fact that the story was told through a male perspective. One particular film that stuck with me all these years was 1999’s Tarzan. A modern retelling of Edgar Rice Burroughs novel that boasted fast pace animated action setpieces and gorgeous visuals recreating the African jungle. For the uninitiated, Tarzan is about the story of a man raised by apes finally meeting his kind for the first time in the form of English explorers. As he begins to develop feelings for Jane Porter, the beautiful and gutsy daughter of Professor Porter, he finds himself torn between two worlds. Will he stay and lead his adopted ape family or return back to humanity?
The issue I had with films Lion King was the fact that their photorealistic approach to animals didn’t match the more cartoonish tone established in the film. Whereas in a live-action Tarzan film, I believe this approach could be utilized to great effect. Beyond the eccentric personalities of Tarzan’s ape friend Terk and Tantor the elephant, most of the animals are portrayed with accurate idiosyncrasies one may find in nature. Whether it be the way Kala sweetly cradles baby Tarzan or in the ferocity in which the leopard Sabor viciously tears into her prey, everything in Tarzan displays a world in conflict. One that deserves treatment, not unlike that of Matt Reeves’ Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.
3. Hercules (1997)
Growing up with Disney, rarely would I ever describe an animated film from them as “badass” per se. I mean some of them had pretty cool visuals, memorable villains and catchy songs. Nonetheless, my fragile male ego couldn’t help but feel a tad ashamed whenever caught choosing a Disney film over something on Nickelodeon or Cartoon Network. That rare exception, however, was Disney’s Hercules. I would defend that film with my dying breath. This 1997 film was a fantasy epic about gods, demigods, monsters and what it meant to be a hero. A powerful story that explored feelings of inadequacy among struggling teens and how true heroism comes from sacrifice and struggle. And it achieved so much thematic depth without ever feeling like a dull afterschool special.
I think a live-action adaptation of Hercules starring Chris Pratt would be an amazing film for both kids and adults! There are so many great moments in Hercules that would be wonderfully translated through a live-action lens. There’s Hercules’ clash with the many-headed Hydra, the battle between the Olympians against Hades and his Titans, and Hercules heartbreaking plunge into Hades’ River Styx to save his lover’s soul. Not many folks out there are as aware of Hercules as they are of the bigger animated theatrical releases. This allows Disney to play around with reinterpretation for these scenes. They could make it grander, cleaner and even add interesting new layers to these moments. They could really go the distance!
4. Treasure Planet (2002)
In spite of its lacklustre reception at the box office, Disney’s Treasure Planet has managed to garner a fiercely loyal cult following for itself. During this time the company began playing around with the idea of CGI by incorporating “Virtual Sets” into the film. Director and producer Ron Clements knew the possible issues of overreliance on CGI so he prudently opted for a 70/30 ratio of traditional hand-drawn 2D animation to computer-generated backgrounds. The result of Clements and his crew’s rendition of the classic Treasure Island story was a film that was equal parts breathtaking and bone-chilling. One full danger and wonder as we follow Jim Hawkins and his morally ambiguous cyborg, pirate mentor John Silver travel the universe in search of the fabled Treasure Planet.
Disney’s live-action animated films have been stuck in a rut lately. The novelty of merely taking iconic images and characters from previous films and giving them a fresher coat of paint is wearing thin. I know Disney already has a big, fancy space franchise but nothing that has come close to capturing the spectacle of Treasure Planet’s intergalactic adventures or the depth of its characters. This Treasure Planet remake doesn’t necessarily have to follow the same beats of the original film in live-action, rather it could simply use the same characters we’ve come to know and love but with updated visuals and greater details. Think Pirates of the Caribbean but this time, in space!
5. The Rescuers (1977)
Have you ever seen a children’s film that seemed way too mature for its time? One that dealt with issues far too real in spite of all the comedic relief and cartoonish elements the studio threw at it? While flicking through channels while I was much younger, I just so happen to have come across such a film: 1977’s The Rescuers. The story revolves around a pair of mice, Miss Bianca and Bernard from the Rescue Aid Society, an international organization of mice who embark on rescue missions to save abused children. It was the 70s, it was weird. Upon receiving a message in a bottle from a kidnapped orphan girl, Penny, the two mice spring into action to save her from her dastardly abductors who plan on using her to find the world’s largest diamond. No matter how big the case, our little heroes will answer the call!
Although we probably don’t like to think about it, child abduction is a very serious issue that deserves to have a spotlight shown on it. Films like The Rescuers helped kids process the trauma, struggle and hope to overcome such trials without having them actually experience it. A live-action version of The Rescuers could be a great way for Disney to discuss mature and difficult subjects with children while still making bank. Disney doesn’t need any more edge in their films, the world is already a scary enough place as it is. Sometimes, we need a reminder that help can from the most unlikeliest of place.