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The Problem With Disney’s Rehashing of Classic Films Into Live-Action Remakes

Reinstating problematic storylines into modern culture, along with using the diversity card to counteract these controversial mistakes, is a no-win situation.

[Walt Disney Studios / Insider]

Most film enthusiasts are familiar with Tinkerbell from the 1953 Disney animation, Peter Pan. With her porcelain complexion, blonde pixie cut and stark blue eyes, Tinkerbell has been a well-renowned character within the world of Walt Disney for generations. In the next few years, however, viewers will get to witness a new portrayal of the beloved fairy who sprinkles pixie dust and flies to Neverland alongside Peter Pan. Sources announced in late September that actress Yara Shahidi was officially cast as Tinkerbell in the upcoming live-action adaptation, Peter Pan & Wendy. Known for her roles in Anthony Anderson’s Black-ish and Grown-ish, Shahidi will be making history as the first Black Tinkerbell in a Disney movie.

While Hollywood is in desperate need of more representation of people of color in film and television, where is that “Disney magic,” Disney? Once again, we are in the midst of another race war on the Internet. Cue the #notmyfairy trend on Twitter, as well as those feeling attacked that their beloved Tinkerbell will be African American.

“Here come the ‘I’m not racist but why?’ ‘Tinkerbell is clearly white’ ‘now everything has to be black,’” one user tweeted.

In our current culture, viewers are more aware of the problematic depictions in film in comparison to when these Disney animations were originally released. Certain racial and gender stereotypes, as well as whitewashing characters, are not as acceptable as they were decades beforehand. However, by revamping these outmoded stories using racebending characters and culturally-relevant themes in order to appeal to modern viewers, Disney is escalating the controversy even further.

This tactless attempt to play the diversity card with Shahidi is once again another step backwards for Hollywood when it comes to minority representation. It seems as though all these live adaptations have only stirred the incessant conversation of why the entertainment industry is still failing to cast minority actors for their talent, not their race. Disney, instead of rehashing old films into this vicious cycle of performative activism and cash-grabbing ploys, just stop with the live-action films.

Within the last decade, Disney has released at least 10 live-actions based off of the original Disney animations, including The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast and Cinderella. While some films received praise for their visuals and preservation of the original story, other remakes fell short. These films plummeted into the abyss of cancel culture, never able to truly crawl their way out of the controversies and online backlash.

Disney’s live-action Aladdin was set to hit theaters worldwide in May 2019. Even though many fans were intrigued by the CGI’d Arabian Desert and a blue Will Smith, as well as the modern interpretation of the 1992 original animation overall, the live-action film could not avoid the critics pinpointing the racial stereotypes the project manifested while in production. In a statement from the Council on American-Islamic Relations, they expressed their beliefs of how the “Aladdin myth is rooted by racism, Orientalism and Islamophobia.”

Additionally, Aladdin was instantly hit with complaints of another blockbuster whitewashing the characters it is based on. Instead of casting actual Arab or Middle Eastern actors for the film, Disney was accused of “browning up” the majority of their final casting choices for the live-action remake, especially with their decision to have Naomi Scott, an actor of mixed English and Indian descent, portray Princess Jasmine.

Audiences are now more inclined to address the whitewashing involved in certain films and television series. Although casting Linda Larkin, a white woman, as the voice of the animated Jasmine was not considered too problematic to many in 1992, casting Scott to portray Jasmine in physical form frankly defeats the purpose of recreating this Disney classic in the first place. A movie like Aladdin needs to retain the authenticity of the characters, especially since Arab and Middle Eastern characters are severely underrepresented in Hollywood. According to UCLA’s 2020 Hollywood Diversity Report, only 0.7% of Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) actors were depicted in film roles in 2019.

After the whitewashing incident with Aladdin, Disney “coincidentally” announced in early July 2019 — approximately one month after the release of Aladdin — that African American R&B singer Halle Bailey would be portraying Ariel in the forthcoming live adaptation of The Little Mermaid. Although Bailey has the singing voice and potential acting capabilities to portray Ariel, Disney’s timing of announcing her as the lead seems like an ill-conceived attempt to redeem themselves and suppress the criticisms of their previous live adaptations.

And now, with release of the live-action Mulan in September of this year, Disney has decided to once again announce that a POC will be cast as an originally-white character a month after another controversial live-action remake. Even though the live-action Mulan had a predominantly Asian cast and conveyed the actual Chinese folklore to attract international audiences, the remake was still accused of westernizing the legend and botching Mulan’s character arc. The ongoing #boycottMulan movement due to actress Yifei Liu’s support of the Hong Kong Police — as well as filming in China’s Xinjiang Province where over one million Uighur Muslims are being detained in concentration camps — left Disney in an even deeper dilemma in the end.

Yara Shahidi and Halle Bailey are both very successful and respected figures within their fields in the entertainment industry. However, Disney appears to simply use them as pawns in their apology statements to the world, while Shahidi and Bailey endure the repercussions of those upset about women of color playing a white character. Bailey sparked a #notmymermaid trend on Twitter after the announcement of her role in The Little Mermaid, while Black Twitter is already preparing for the “Shahidi as Tinkerbell” outrage.

Also, in Shahidi’s situation, will she speak? The 1953 Tinkerbell was a silent character in the original animation who followed Peter Pan’s bidding. Ariel loses her voice at one point as well, so despite Disney’s notion to diversify these roles, they cast minority actors as characters without voices. This is a repeat of Disney’s critical failure with The Princess and the Frog, the 2009 animated film where Disney’s first Black princess ended up remaining a frog for the majority of the plot.

Rather than rehash old stories that reinstate their outdated stereotypes and taboo depictions into modern society, give minority actors a new narrative to portray instead. According to UCLA’s 2020 Hollywood Diversity Report, only 3 out of 10 lead actors in film are people of color. Illustrate a new POC character for children to resonate with; a new role model for underrepresented groups to look up to. Although the film industry needs more representation, playing the diversity card with these upcoming live-action remakes can simply be perceived as a publicity stunt to compensate for past unpolitically correct mistakes.

Sometimes recycling is not the solution, and in Disney’s case, rehashing their animated classics fits this principle.

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