The Lion King: Disney remakes and the power of nostalgia

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Do you ever get that feeling, when you’re a bit worse for wear, or just a bit down, that the only thing that will make you feel better is a really good kids’ film?

How often do you then turn to Disney to help pick you up?

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

And it seems to be something Disney is particularly good at creating.

But does that mean that the feeling can be exploited too?

A powerful emotion

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“People tend to enjoy being nostalgic,” says Dr Wijnand van Tilburg, a psychology lecturer and expert in nostalgia at King’s College London.

He defines nostalgia as “a wistful affection or longing for the past”.

“That sense of connection from the past self to the present self – that is something that people see as very meaningful in life.”

It can be a powerful emotion – which Wijnand says people turn to in difficult times.

“These nostalgic memories give some sort of rose-tinted picture of the past that makes people feel better.”

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Dumbo underwhelmed at the box office

The Lion King is Disney’s third remake to be released this year, after Dumbo and Aladdin.

It comes after Cinderella (2015), The Jungle Book (2016) and Beauty and the Beast (2017).

And Disney has also announced Mulan and The Little Mermaid remakes – with many others rumoured and in development.

‘You’ve got to give us something fresh’

“There’s an inclination to want to reach for the past,” says Samuel Jones, 22, one of the 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.”

Samuel says technology is partly why we’re so drawn to that feeling of nostalgia right now.

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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Toy Story 4 has made more than $650m (£519m) at the box office

One of NitPix’s most popular videos is titled: “Is Pixar dead?”

The video has more than a million views (and a very divided comments section).

It argues that Pixar’s sequels are released years after the originals and are just ghosts of their predecessors.

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Pixar Animation Studios is part of Disney

“They’re basically asking you: ‘Do you remember this?’” says Max Bardsley, who’s 21 and the co-creator of NitPix with Samuel.

“The main thing that made them memorable or interesting was when they recycled aspects from the past.”

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Samuel (left) and Max run the YouTube channel Nitpix

Samuel and Max expanded on their criticism of Pixar with another video they called: “Why Incredibles 2 is a BAD Sequel”.

Max’s problem is that “it’s diluted – you need to push narrative forward, and you need to reframe.

“If you’re going to do a sequel, you’ve got to give us something fresh.”

Sequels are making up more and more of Pixar’s releases.

The studio, which is part of Disney, released only one sequel among its first ten films – Toy Story 2.

Of the eleven movies after that, seven have been sequels.

The safety of childhood

It’s not just at the box office where we see people reaching out for nostalgic experiences.

Emily Talbut is 22 and worked at Walt Disney World in Florida for two summers while she was at university.

She describes her job there as “making people smile all day” and helping create a welcoming and friendly atmosphere.

While there were a lot of young families there, Emily says there were also a lot of adults who would go without children – on romantic getaways or stag and hen dos.

“You get people coming to visit and they’ve left their kids at home – because the kids aren’t as interested as they are,” she tells Radio 1 Newsbeat.

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Emily Talbut

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Emily Talbut worked at Disney World Florida for two summers in a row

Emily thinks escapism is one of the main reasons people love immersing themselves in Disney World.

“It’s just the idea of going back to your childhood,” she says.

“We’ve all seen the movies, countless times – so getting to experience it in a different way I think is really appealing.

“It’s also a very safe place – when you go into the parks you can’t see the outside world.”

Too much, too fast

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But as a huge Disney fan, Emily’s worried the remakes might start to lose their appeal.

“It might get a bit intense and lose the novelty value of seeing the story again,” she says.

“I don’t know if each one can be as powerful.”

Disney boss Bob Iger has said similar things about the Star Wars franchise, which is owned by Disney.

After the Han Solo spin-off film underwhelmed audiences last year he admitted they brought out Star Wars films “too much, too fast”.

But that hasn’t stopped Disney announcing a new trilogy, due for release in 2022, 2024 and 2026.

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Liu Yifei (left) has been cast as Mulan, while Halle Bailey will play Ariel in The Little Mermaid

Dumbo’s mediocre reception in March may suggest a similar fatigue with Disney remakes – although Aladdin performed well at the box office in May.

Mulan is the next film getting the “live-action” treatment – it’s coming out in early 2020.

After that, Disney’s announced nine “untitled Disney live-action” movies to come out between 2021 and 2023.

We know that one of those will be a remake of The Little Mermaid.

And it’s very likely there will be more remakes of old animations – reports suggest they’re working on the Hunchback of Notre Dame, Lilo & Stitch, Peter Pan and Pinocchio, among others.

Plus, there’s a Jungle Book 2 reported to be in the works too.

Feeling better

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“Nostalgia has a strong social component and helps people to feel meaningful,” says nostalgia expert Wijnand van Tilburg.

“Research suggests that people use these nostalgic memories in order to feel better.”

Wijnand adds that nostalgia comes easier to “people who lack in the moment a sense of belonging, or feel a bit meaningless”.

And with evidence to say that young people are feeling more distant from family and friends than ever before, nostalgia might just be our way of dealing with it.

“We’ve all grown up and we have to live proper adult lives,” says Emily Talbut.

“But it’s fun to go back in time I guess.”

A version of this article appeared on 23 May 2019.

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