Disney fans can learn from Shakespeare fans.
Lately people are upset with the Walt Disney Company pretty frequently. If we limit ourselves to the complaints about films, we can observe that it’s often about movie remakes. Some people are unhappy with casting. There has even been racist backlash over a black Ariel in the new Little Mermaid. Many people don’t want to see live action anything. It’s a frequent enough topic of discussion that there are endless online articles and quite a few web forums devoted to hating Disney remakes.
The intensity of the anger surrounding Disney remakes reveals a few things, including how significant people seem to find the films. Yes, some people are concerned about content and how it will relate to their children, but others are simply unable or unwilling to acknowledge that not everything is just how they liked it in 1989. People seem to be forgetting that there are other sources of content for children and that not everything is going to be just like it was when they were kids. A few people are just way too invested. Why can a remake of a cartoon, which you don’t have to see, ruin your day? Your day should be bigger than that.
At the same time, the passion with which people treat the Disney canon can point them to the future. Consider Shakespeare. How many different ways have his plays been cast and staged? And there is seemingly no limit to how they can be adapted. There was cross-dressing among the original actors and in some plays, like Twelfth Night. Shakespeare people are not only willing to let Shakespeare plays be adapted with different racial casting and different time period settings, but in any kind of way—you can have Hamlet with cartoon lions. People who love Shakespeare consider some adaptations good, some bad, some ok. They don’t get incredibly upset if there’s one they don’t like.
There may not be an Ovid people around, but was anyone complaining when My Fair Lady was written that Eliza was a Cockney flower girl and not a sculpture? What about when it was turned into a movie musical instead of one on the stage? Not everyone was thrilled that Audrey Hepburn got the lead instead of Julie Andrews, but somehow everyone survived. There may have been some feisty op-eds, but I don’t think anyone burned any movie tickets over it.
People who love Disney consider the original works canonical, but actual canons have to be held more lightly. We get to keep having Shakespeare hundreds of years after his death precisely because his works can be adapted. If they were impossible to stage differently, they’d be too dated. They wouldn’t get to be the basis of new movies all the time. Ovid keeps hanging around because he’s infinitely adaptable. Ovid’s stories have even outlasted most of the public’s awareness of him.
For works to be canonical, they cannot be about us—they have to be bigger than us. Shakespeare fans don’t love every staging or every adaptation, but they don’t falsely believe they have ownership over his work enough to prescribe its limits. As long as people keep thinking Disney movies are about their childhood and their experience of the 1990s, they are preventing the stories from becoming big enough to actually carry a little bit of the meaning people want them to have. For something to be a big and significant part of your life or how you view stories, it should ideally be bigger than your third grade experience.
That doesn’t mean we can’t have stories about ourselves and our experiences. But we can’t put all the expectations for the existence of those stories onto profit-seeking companies. We can’t live only as consumers and hope to see all of our narratives presented to us in ways we find exceptionally pleasing. If we want stories about us, we need to play a role in creating them. All of our lives will be richer if we get better at telling our stories to each other, instead of just looking around for a movie that kind of captures something familiar. If we are daring, we can go beyond conversation and write our own songs, or plays, or books, or film our own movies. Disney isn’t stopping you.
If you don’t want the original versions to die out, they don’t have to, either. Yes, some things will stop being streamed. But you can invest in the things you appreciate. Buy an old DVD player and some DVDs. They will not suddenly disappear on you—they will probably not even be stolen if your house is robbed. Need to go more old school? Get on eBay and buy the VHS. Go to a thrift store and get a VCR. While you’re there get a tape player and a tape of Disney songs. Only like the Hans Christian Andersen mermaid? Buy the book. If it’s classic to you, keep it.
We don’t have to love the new things or approve of them all, but if a live action remake of anything causes us to lose our mental equanimity, our lives are too small. If we want Disney movies to be canonical, we have to let them be bigger than our first experience of them. We don’t have to affirm every adaptation, but stories persist across time by being retold.