Disney built their empire by consolidating their strength around the intellectual properties they own. Many of the IP laws that exist today began as Disney's push to protect their characters and elbow out competitors from getting a slice of the pie. Essentially, they were able to start with fairy tales and old stories that at first existed in the public domain, and then marked their territory around them.
Over the decades since they enacted that strategy, Disney's ability to profit off their own IP has become self-sustaining. Not only do they continue to turn a profit off the merchandising of films made generations ago, but their most recent efforts have been spent remaking their movies with an eye toward reinvigorating profit. Nowhere is that more evident than with the recent success of The Lion King.
While still in theaters and continuing to earn big box office bucks, The Lion King recently surpassed Frozen as Disney's highest earner at the box office. At the time of Frozen's success, it was hailed as a glimmer of hope that creative and original works were not only possible, but profitable. While the film certainly tapped into much of what made the classic Disney movies so successful in the first place, it brought to the table a unique spin on familiar archetypes.
By contrast, The Lion King has been critically panned and largely agreed upon to represent a move away from originality. With a certified "rotten" score of 52% on Rotten Tomatoes as of writing, the chief criticism of The Lion King is that it presents nothing original beyond its animated predecessor aside from the CGI achievements that make up its foundation. The characters, plot, jokes, musical moments and general aesthetic of the story all follow the same beats in 2019 that they did in 1994.
The release date of the original film is notable because of the insanely short gap between the first Lion King and the reboot. For a film whose chief purpose appears to be cashing in on childhood nostalgia, 25 years leaves an extremely short gap for the nostalgia to even form. Previous live-action remakes refashioned properties far older than '90s Disney cartoons. 1967's The Jungle Book was remade in 2016, which is a gap of almost 50 years, while 1951's Alice in Wonderland took 60 years to remake in 2010.
And yet the numbers at the box office speak for themselves, and given The Lion King's fat profits so far, there is little reason for Disney to pump the brakes on future live-action remake projects. Quite the contrary. Given Disney's long history of cultivating their IP so deftly, there is a powerful incentive for them to make and remake films as quickly as possible. The fact that both The Lion King and Aladdin (first released in 1992) outperformed this year's Dumbo, whose animated source material was released in 1941, may even speak to the profitability of cashing in on nostalgia as quickly as possible.
Of course, remaking older films and newer ones are not mutually exclusive, and Disney shows no discrimination when it comes to the projects they plan on producing next. Live-action remakes of Mulan and Lady and the Tramp both sit on the horizon, and there are further planned projects even beyond that, with The Sword in the Stone, The Little Mermaid, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and even Lilo and Stitch already confirmed. The latter movie came out in 2002, meaning that Disney already plans on breaching the barrier of the 21st century when it comes to the films they will remake.
As long as the remakes are provably profitable, there is little reason to suspect anything will change with Disney's strategy in the foreseeable future. Unless the critical reaction to the films were to sour to such a point that they actually slowed the flow of dollars through the box office, Disney will continue to reinvigorate their properties with regularity. Since it's unrealistic to expect that the remakes just flat out won't happen, the optimistic view may be to hope that they at least get better.
The first trailer for Mulan seems to promise a product refreshingly different from its original, with the comedic aspects downplayed in lieu of a more dramatic, straightforward story. Remakes are, and always should be, after all, opportunities for improvement. The fact that Disney passes on that opportunity so often with films like The Lion King and Aladdin is frustrating, but when it comes to remaking the older properties they seem far more willing to improve on the source material.
Originally, The Jungle Book and Dumbo both suffered from dated and incredibly racist scenes that the remakes could erase. What's more, each of those films seemed to take an active interest in telling their own story, establishing their own themes and ultimately producing a wholly original work of art separate from nostalgic familiarity. The best route at this point may be to hope that future remakes will go the same way, because hoping the remakes just flat out won't happen seems, at this point, to be an exercise in futility.