I have to admit, I’ve been pretty ambivalent about the slew of live-action Disney remakes that the company has been producing over the past few years. It’s not that I hate them, I just don’t find them worth my money. Every once and awhile, one of them would pop up on Netflix, or one of my friends would be playing them in the background, and I’d sit down and give them a watch. They’re… okay. Not terrible, not amazing, just okay. It just seems to me to be a way for Disney to make some easy money. 

One aspect of these live action remakes that some have commented on is their newfound “wokeness.” Whether this is making Le Fou from Beauty and the Beast an open homosexual, giving an animal-rights slant to Dumbo, or even giving a subplot to the new Aladdin where Jasmine wants to be the next Sultan, apparently Disney feels like its old properties are in need of some good old self-criticism. 

On the conservative side of the aisle, these creative decisions have been met with reactions ranging from derision to even anger.” What is the point of doing this?” many conservatives ask. Not only does it distract from the story, but it involves creating bizarre changes in the name of progressivism that, when you break it down, actually aren’t all that progressive. “Quick, we need a gay character! Let’s pick the pathetic, weasley henchman who was already a walking stereotype!” “Uh-oh, we need female empowerment! Er… let’s make Jasmine the sultan!” Because, y’know, when I think progressive career choices, I think the sultan!

But interestingly enough, the criticisms of Disney’s progressive-lite attitudes have been just as strong on the Left as on the Right. A recent example of this is a video essay by the YouTuber Lindsay Ellis, a film critic who often writes from a leftist perspective. In her latest video, simply entitled “Woke Disney,” Ellis criticises Disney’s recent progressive undertones in their films as cynical. Disney’s company executives aren’t “true believers” in progressivism at all. Rather, their progressive choices are a way to pander to modern day sensibilities, while also shielding themselves from criticisms that their films encourage girls to just wait around and look pretty until a man can come and save them. In the end, “Woke Disney” is not about examining Disney’s “past and the films that [it] is based on, as much as [Disney] is using metacommentary to justify [its] own existence.” It’s all just a slick way of making money.

She brings up the recent remake of Dumbo as a clear example of this. The remake changes the story to focus on human characters instead of entirely on animals. One of the characters is a young girl. Throughout the movie, much is made of the girl’s scientific capability and how inventive she is. But Ellis argues that this addition is completely pointless from a progressive point of view. Why use Dumbo to correct old-fashioned notions surrounding gender, when the original movie didn’t even have this problem?

Instead of using this film to focus on gender, Ellis argues, Disney may have been better served by bringing up racial issues. After all, the original animated Dumbo suffers from some pretty embarrassing and racially insensitive moments, particularly the now cringe-y visual pun of having the talking crows act like they just came out of a minstrel show (get it! Jim Crow!!! Because they’re supposed to be black!). So, Ellis poses the question: Why not focus more on correcting Disney’s racial blunders instead of some of their more old-fashioned portrayals of gender?

The answer, she claims, is because that would be too hard. If Disney tackled the racial issues of Dumbo in their remake instead of just ignoring them (there is no mention of the crows in the new film) Disney would have to actually address its own flawed past as well as America’s own troubled racial history, and that’s no fun! Better to just throw all the eight year old girls a bone by having Belle be a scientist or Jasmine becoming the sultan!

What’s really interesting here is how Ellis thinks Disney should push its progressivism further. Why just stop with Jasmine becoming the Sultan? She asks. Why not have Jasmine wish to overthrow the monarchy altogether? Her desire to become sultan still affirms the oppressive status quo. In some ways, it’s worse, because the same old oppressive system masks itself in a shiny new progressive face.

This argument echoes the argument a lot of Marxists make about social democrats who favor gradual reform of capitalism rather than its wholesale overthrow. The Marxists would argue that gradual reformism of the social democrats only aids the upper class in prolonging their oppression, because they give off the illusion that the system is getting better, while preserving its core injustices. Similarly, Ellis argues, the Disney company whitewashes its cutthroat business practices and shoddy history of portraying racial minorities by displaying a faux progressivism in their live action remakes. It looks progressive on the surface, but upon closer examination, it doesn’t really say anything that revolutionary.

So, what does Ellis think is a good alternative to the fake progressivism of current Disney? According to her, if Disney is going to make films that are more progressive, they should make them more like 2014’s Maleficent, a film that deconstructed Disney’s original 1959 Sleeping Beauty to its core and turned its theme about traditional masculine chivalry on its head. While Ellis admits that Maleficent is not objectively a “good” film, she admires its “transgressive” nature and what it was attempting to do by subverting traditional archetypes of the “heroic king” and the “evil witch.” In Maleficent, the good King Stefan is portrayed as a genocidal imperialist, while the heroic Prince Philip is reduced to a bumbling idiot. Meanwhile, Maleficent is portrayed as a misunderstood fairy who is only standing up for the oppressed creatures of the land. 

I remember hating this movie for the way it spit on the ideals of chivalry and the struggle against evil, two things that I think the original Sleeping Beauty displays in wonderful simplicity. As a progressive, Ellis is, of course, much more favorable to the deconstruction of these ideals, and this is a direction she’d like to see the Disney live action remakes go in if they’re going to be progressive at all.  And with the sequel coming out this week, it does honestly look like more of the same. Aurora and Philip are going to get married, but we can’t have that since romantic love is just all a load of crock, so instead Maleficent is going to fight against the oppressive system and save her demon fairy friends!….or…something.

Which leads me to my main point. If Disney thinks that throwing in a few “woke” plot points in their live action remakes will be enough to bring them into the 21st century, they’re sorely mistaken. Those on the progressive left are rarely satisfied with half-measures, and will only be truly pleased when their progressive ideals completely steamroll over traditional notions of good and evil, or male and female. By attempting to wade into a blurry middle ground, they only anger conservative viewers, baffle and confuse moderate viewers, and make leftists think that they can now entice Disney to push the progressive themes in their remakes even further. If Disney were to take my advice, they should have simply avoided the “Wokeness” in the first place and stuck to making entertaining movies. Because once you open this door, there’s no going back.

Oh well… Live by the woke, die by the woke…