Mulan: Disney remakes and the power of nostalgia during coronavirus


Ever since she can remember, Emily Talbut’s been a massive Disney fan.

“I got the dresses for Christmas, played dress-up, and I got to go to the parks with my family,” she tells Radio 1 Newsbeat.

“I just grew up in a progressively more intense Disney household, I guess – probably driven by me and my sister, because we just loved the stories and the music as well.”

Emily’s go-to costume was Belle from Beauty and the Beast.

“Belle had brown hair, like I do, and she liked to read – and that was basically me. I could see myself in the character”.

Emily at Disneyland in front af a castleEMILY TALBUT
Emily at Disneyland
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When the Beauty and the Beast remake came out in 2017, starring Emma Watson, Emily was delighted.

“A big reason why that’s still probably my favourite live action remake is the nostalgia playing into it,” she says.

For her. the appeal is “the idea of going back to your childhood again – but in a reimagined way”.

Disney Plus launched in March, granting us on-demand access to all the old classics.

And for the first few months of lockdown, it was all Emily watched.

“It was very comforting in that very scary period to just have old favourites to turn back to and relive,” she says.

She went straight to “the ones that are the most comforting, like the key soundtracks from the 90s that I loved.”

That feeling – of comfort, losing yourself in another world, going back in time – is hard to beat, especially in such turbulent times.

It’s something Disney is particularly good at creating. But does that mean the feeling can be exploited too?

Mulan in live action and as a cartoonImage copyrightALAMY/DISNEY/GETTY IMAGES
Image captionLiu Yifei plays Mulan, who disguises herself as a man to fight in the army

Nostalgia in the time of corona

“Nostalgia is commonly defined as in a sentimental or wistful affection for the past,” says Dr Wijnand van Tilburg, a psychology lecturer and expert in nostalgia at the University of Essex.

“With the remake of some of these movies, it might be that they capitalise on those past feelings of nostalgia and make us fondly remember those past events.”

He adds that it’s “overall experienced by people as a as a somewhat positive, bittersweet emotion.”

It can also be useful during uncertain and difficult times.

“Research shows that nostalgia is quite effective in combating loneliness, boredom, and sadness. And these are all experiences that that not implausibly have arisen during the lockdown.”

Part of the reason nostalgia can be useful, he says, is because it “contains strong social elements.”

It can help us feel more connected with others who have the same shared experiences.

A still from DumboImage copyrightDISNEY
Image captionDumbo is one of seven films to be given the live-action treatment in the past few years

The numbers game

Mulan is Disney’s retelling of its 1998 animated film, which was based on the Chinese legend the Ballad of Mulan.

Its release – a few months delayed and on Disney Plus rather than in the cinema due to coronavirus – comes off the back of three Disney makeovers last year: The Lion King, Aladdin and Dumbo.

Cinderella kicked off the latest batch of “reimagined” works in 2015, followed by The Jungle Book (2016) and Beauty and the Beast (2017).

With the six recent remakes raking in a combined $5.8bn (£4.4bn) at the box office, there’s clearly a huge appetite for our childhoods to be given the live-action treatment.

Pre-coronavirus, Disney clearly backed the film to make money – having spent a reported $200m (£160m) on making it.

But in an industry dominated by sequels and big franchises, should audiences be asking for more original stories?

Box office takes in August 2020: Cinderella $542 million; The Jungle Book $967 million; Beauty and the Beast $1.26 billion; Dumbo $353 million; Aladdin $1.05 billion; The Lion King $1.66 billion.
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‘You’ve got to give us something fresh’

“There’s an inclination to want to reach for the past,” says Samuel Jones, co-creators of the movie review YouTube channel NitPix.

“The majority of films right now are sequels and remakes. They’re ways to stay somewhere that’s separate from our world.”

NitPix’s most recent video is called “How Disney Decimated Lion King”. It’s over an hour long.

One of the many criticisms of the film is that it’s a watered-down version of the original.

“You end up with a film that’s like kind of missing its essential nuts and bolts,” says Samuel.

“[There’s] none of the personality, none of the character, none of the things that like make us excited about what will make us like what the original Lion King did,” adds Max Bardsley, Samuel’s NitPix co-creator.

Max and Samuel from NitpixImage copyrightNITPIX
Image captionSamuel (left) and Max run the YouTube channel Nitpix

Max makes the point that remakes are nothing new.

“Art has always been founded on recycling assets from other pieces of art and reinvigorating those assets as a way to offer them to people in new ways,” he says.

But his opinion is that these remakes are different.

“It’s no longer about taking assets that you feel really excited about as an artist and reinvigorating those in a way that is an expression of yourself.

“It’s more about taking assets that lots of people seem to like, re-offering those assets in a way that’s not too insulting or not too unfamiliar so that we can be assured everyone will like what they’re being provided.”

“I think it’s a shame though, because these films do deserve better,” adds Samuel.

“You can look at any of these Disney films and get a lot of different ideas and themes and filmic concepts and great visual storytelling.

“But the easiest, risk-free option is the one that you usually take. And in these times when it’s harder for businesses and harder for filmmakers, they’re going to want to take even less of a risk.”

Stills from the new and old Lion King filmsImage copyrightDISNEY/ALAMY

The pandemic’s not the only reason we’re so drawn to that feeling of nostalgia right now. Samuel says technology has a lot to do with it too.

He thinks the internet and social media were meant to break down boundaries in society and bring us all closer together.

But instead, “We’ve realised that it hasn’t brought anyone together that much. I think that can feel very disorienting.”

And that leads people to “grasp on to something that they’re familiar with”


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