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Disney In Depth: Does Intense Branding Signal Lack of Originality?
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Brett Nachman   |  @   |  
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Take a glance at the Disney film and television pipeline. What do these projects have in common? Big scale, yes. But more than the high estimated costs of these ventures, the element of branding runs continuously through many of them. I explored how in recent weeks we have heard of some major announcements of upcoming movies and TV shows.

Let us look at this in even more depth as we ponder if intense branding merely represents capitalizing on well-known entities, or if this serves as a warning of a serious deficiency of ideas in Hollywood.

Nostalgia embodies legitimacy. Thinking of what we adored in our younger years can bring us peace and fulfillment. More outlets exist to showcase our fandom for childhood favorites, from YouTube series to personal blogs. Having a column like this, in fact, accomplishes that same purpose. Embracing the past has a point, indeed. However, in Tinsel Town, each year brings another load of not “new” products, but rather manufactured, even recycled materials. How far are we into the Fast and Furious franchise? Its legions of fans say the series has hit its stride. We feed into this trend by spending admission on this form of comfort food. We know exactly what we will receive — sometimes with a twist, but we essentially consume the same ingredients. Disney knows this well and generally succeeds in this regard. I usually enjoy these products as well, but I question if we have reached a tipping point. Have we become so accustomed to seeing a lack of originality in our film and television fare that we begin to hold back before trying anything truly novel? Perhaps.

In 2016 we will see a live-action version of The Jungle Book. Did anyone plead for it? Maybe some fans, and I’m sure Jon Favreau’s film will lure audiences, much like recent blockbusters Maleficent, Cinderella, and Alice in Wonderland. Next year also brings new installments in the Captain America, Star Wars, Wonderland, and Finding Nemo franchises. We will even see a new Lion King-themed television series geared for the youngsters on Disney Junior.

2017 begets more of the same, whether in the form of sequels to Toy Story, Thor, Pirates of the Caribbean, Guardians of the Galaxy, or a live-action re-telling of Beauty and the Beast and a new version of DuckTales. Last week brought announcements of live-action spins of Mulan and Winnie the Pooh.

What’s next? Have we gone so far into relying on branding to await the day that side characters from retired TV shows will serve as the stars of new movies? Though I doubt The New Adventures of Dr. Drakken, based on Kim Possible, will ever hit theaters, I might want to bite my tongue. After all, it was not long ago that some laughed at the idea of Robert Redford appearing in an update of Pete’s Dragon, and now August 2016 will be the time to see this on the big screen. Anything is truly possible, as long as brand recognition appears.

Branding is a safe bet and it pays back in dividends, both figuratively and (literally) financially. It’s simple logic, really. We see something that rings a bell. Therefore we feel more comfortable with the idea of spending our money toward that product. As long as it does not disappoint nor radically defy our previous recollections, we reinforce these behaviors and then extend our interest toward purchasing subsequent offerings in that brand. Home video. Toys. T-shirts. The list goes on.

This makes fiscal sense. Does this mean, though, that the visionaries behind the original offerings, sometimes involved in the newer versions, have lost their way? Not exactly. Viewers of Disney Channel’s hit Girl Meets World may contend that while it may not push the ground that Boy Meets World accomplished two decades earlier, its sensibility and nods to the ’90s classic work toward its favor. Part of that reason: Michael Jacobs, creator of both shows. Beauty and the Beast fans will delight to know that musician Alan Menken will also work toward the tunes in the new 2017 version. This faith is reassuring. The dissenters, though, can easily argue that these guys are resting on their laurels. Would we rather not see something original?

Branding does not stay limited to the screen, though. Disney knows how to utilize its theme parks for this very point. Frozen and Toy Story are perfect examples, for the constant presence of these characters at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, among other locations, ensures the guests (the ones dishing out the money) also use their dollars toward any new films. Guess what? Additional attractions featuring everyone from Elsa to Woody are on their way over the coming years. Big surprise.

Originality is not dead, but part of the problem is that we are choosing to reinforce the products we see in endless supply. Imagine if John Carter even made double its earnings the likelihood of having seen Dejah Thoris in the parks. Had Big Hero 6 not garnered as much at the box office, the chances of catching more experimental projects like that — from the standpoint of integrating Marvel in Disney animation — may have been limited from this point forward. Though these two examples attained various levels of critical and audience acclaim, they prove how the Mouse House can dish out seemingly novel products — even if based on books/comics that few may have read prior to their theatrical releases. Yet everything reduces to if we support those efforts. We did not do that with John Carter. We have shown that toward Big Hero 6. Now we know what future products will appear in theaters as a result: less sci-fi (unless under familiar brands, i.e. Marvel and Star Wars) and more comic book adaptations. Go figure.

As a Disney fan, what concerns me is not the types of projects are in the works. I actually experienced some excitement upon hearing a live-action Mulan is in development. In fact, I am troubled by the sheer number of films (and a handful of TV shows) that are based on brands. Would I have ever thought that I would be alive when a Tim Burton version of Dumbo and a live-action version of Winnie the Pooh would be in concurrent early stages of development? Absolutely not. This is the film world we occupy today, one in which formulating original movies are more risky than altering the faces of beloved animated brands.

I will support quality remakes and re-imaginings, but if I see exactly what I expect, I may not be so forgiving. We can hope that 2017’s Beast, for instance, takes some cues from the Broadway show, yet also incorporates some fresh elements. Maleficent, despite its flaws, epitomizes how radical changes from the classic can work toward the newer one’s favor, even if alienating a certain devoted population along the way.

The branding machine simply becomes more dangerous and scary when filmmakers rely too much on the remake to serve as the start of a new franchise. The notion of “less is more” is feeling less true in an environment saturated with thoughts of “Oh, a live-action Chip ‘n Dale Rescue Rangers is in the works? I’m surprised that hasn’t already happened.” That is the point we have reached, and we may not soon return to the days of questioning what CGI Monterey Jack would look like.

This is Brett Nachman, signing off. Follow me on Twitter for alerts of new editions of Disney In Depth, Thursdays on Geeks of Doom.

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