"We don't look backwards for very long," Walt Disney once said, as quoted in Meet the Robinsons' credits. "We keep moving forward, opening up new doors and doing new things, because we're curious." That desire for originality has always held true for Disney's animation wing – from the first frame of the groundbreaking Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, through to the recent Raya and the Last Dragon. The studio has also committed to diversifying its slate more than ever, producing stories from different cultures and breaking away from the tradition of European fairy tales. And then there's Disney’s live-action output...
Disney's next live-action movie is the upcoming Home Alone sequel, Home Sweet Home Alone, which follows on the heels of Jungle Cruise, the Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt adventure based on the theme park ride. Then there's a Tower of Terror movie in the works (also based on a ride), a remake of Haunted Mansion (you guessed it, that's another ride), and a slew of live-action remakes, sequels, and even a fifth installment in the Indiana Jones franchise. Each and every one of these projects is looking backwards for inspiration, repurposing ideas that already exist into ready-made box office hits. What happened to Disney's "we keep moving forward" ethos?
However, the studio's latest release is a mould breaker. Free Guy – which stars Ryan Reynolds as an NPC (that's Non-Playable Character) who breaks free from the shackles of his digital life – is an original property that tells a story unconnected to anything else. Thanks to strong word of mouth, positive reviews, and the fact that Free Guy hasn't been released simultaneously on streaming, the movie has been an undeniable success at the box office. In fact, Free Guy has been such a hit over two consecutive weekends (despite the Delta Variant) that Disney already wants a sequel. Clearly, there's still an appetite for original, feel-good stories, and not just remakes or follow-ups. (What's slightly ironic, though, is that Free Guy was commissioned by Fox, the studio bought by Disney, making this only an accidental Disney original.)
Could Free Guy lead to Disney taking risks on live-action originals? The studio may still be feeling timid following some previous high-profile missteps: the Jake Gyllenhaal-starring Prince of Persia, the Star Wars wannabe John Carter, the recent Artemis Fowl adaptation, and the box-office bomb The Nutcracker and the Four Realms. Considering how live-action remakes of The Lion King and Aladdin – despite tepid reviews – can take $1 billion at the box office, why rock the boat? Even Disney's arguably most successful live-action franchise, Pirates of the Caribbean, was itself inspired by a theme park ride.
Considering how Disney also owns the Marvel and Star Wars franchises, it's easy to see why the studio would continue on its current course, sticking within franchise frameworks and known winners. But does that live up to the creative spirit that has become synonymous with Disney Animation, or the impressive, innovative output of Pixar?
For an even stronger release slate, Disney needs to look at the success of Free Guy and realise that we're hungry for something new and exciting – especially now, after a pandemic-imposed drought of new releases. Remakes, sequels, franchise films, and spin-offs will continue to be successful, and those remakes do help bring classic Disney magic to a new generation (as well as providing an opportunity to excise seriously problematic or outdated elements). Focusing on only reinventing the old for new audiences – or relying on nostalgia to rake in older viewers – will lead to audience fatigue, and does a disservice to the kind of creativity Disney is capable of achieving.
Disney's box office crown won't be changing heads anytime soon – but the studio may find itself straying too far from the words of its founder. "We don't look backwards for very long," Walt said. It's time to start looking forward again.
Here's a complete guide to all the new Disney movies on the horizon.