Are Live-Action Disney Films a Safe Bet?

By Jonathon Wilson
Published: October 29, 2018 (Last updated: January 5, 2024)
Are Live-Action Disney Films a Safe Bet?

The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is the latest Disney live-action film that attempts to adapt a classic fairytale with cutting-edge CGI aimed at modern audiences. On paper, this release appears to be a safe venture for the House of Mouse. The Christmas-themed movie has the ideal release date at the official start of the holiday movie season. The film boasts high budget CGI spectacle as well as A-list actors in the form of Keira Knightley, Morgan Freeman, and Helen Mirren. Not to mention the film is based upon the legendary classic short story by E.T.A. Hoffmann. However, despite all of these factors, looking back over the past few years, it becomes clear that The Nutcracker is far from a safe bet at the box office.

Ever since the huge box office returns garnered from 2010’s Alice in Wonderland, Disney has expanded their business model to regularly release live-action interpretations of classic animated fairy tales. While most of the subsequent releases have maintained this trend, looking at the past years of releases reveals a startling trend. Films such as CinderellaThe Jungle Book, and Beauty and the Beast, which are practically shot-for-shot retellings of their classic source material, seem to be the most successful entries. By contrast, the tales that took more creative liberties and served more as extensions of the classic story they are rooted in have only been mildly successful, such as Christopher Robin, with some even losing money, namely Alice Through the Looking Glass and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.


The Nutcracker and the Four Realms falls very much into the latter category, which may be concerning for Disney, as clearly they have expectations for the movie to dominate the box office this holiday season. It’s also worrisome that despite being an adaptation of a classic fairytale, the film doesn’t have the built-in nostalgia of being associated with a Disney animated classic. Based upon the last four years of releases, Disney live-action films that are not based on an animated classic have fared terribly, as recent efforts such as Tomorrowland and last year’s A Wrinkle in Time have bombed at the box office. It hasn’t been since 2014’s Into the Woods that Disney has had a successful live-action film that didn’t carefully follow the template of adapting a beloved animated classic.

It’s fascinating that many have criticized Disney for playing it safe with many of their live adaptations of classic fairy tales. Some pundits, such as iconic Beauty and the Beast voice actress Angela Lansbury, have even questioned the very existence of the 2017 live adaptation. Despite many critics expressing exhaustion at the lack of risk or innovation with many of the live adaptations, the numbers don’t lie and the familiarity, nostalgia, and comfort that come from seeing beloved classics retold with modern technology is a huge draw for general audiences.

A Wrinkle in Time

From my perspective, I believe the model works best when there is a balance between placating fans of the original story, while also providing a creative extension as well. Last Summer’s Christopher Robin was an enjoyable experience for the most part by playing off the nostalgia of a classic, and also concocting an original story that added new depth to the series. However, it seems that more people are purists and don’t want their classics touched in any way, opting instead for a carbon copy such as 2017’s Beauty and the Beast, which broke numerous records upon its release.

Although The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is a risky endeavor, the Christmas tale shouldn’t be counted out just yet as the ballet that the story is based on accounts for over 40% of all annual income earned from ballet companies in the United States. One could make a case that the classic story has enough appeal that it will win over families and have long legs at the box office during the holiday season. Either way, The Nutcracker will serve as an experiment for Disney that will likely shape the course of the studio’s future live adaptations. If The Nutcracker underperforms though, don’t be surprised if the studio leans even more heavily on adapting their animated classics with nary a change to the story.

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