This week’s release The Karate Kid, starring Will Smith’s adorable male spawn Jaden Smith and Jackie Chan, is a remake of the much-loved 1984 classic starring Ralph Macchio and Pat Morita. The new Karate Kid looks like it could be a fun, spirited reboot of the franchise that brought us “wax on, wax off” and brought martial arts to the American moviegoing public. On the other hand, it could be a total flop. Remakes have a bad rap in Hollywood and abroad (often for good reason–there is generally no good reason for a redo, and another version only tends to dumb the original down).
In hopes that The Karate Kid won’t be so bad, with this week’s Listicle, William Bibbiani and I (Julia Rhodes!) bring you our favorite remakes.
Dawn of the Dead, 2004 (original 1978)
Some zombie fanatics panicked when they heard Zack Snyder’s 2004 remake of George Romero’s classic Dawn of the Dead would feature not the walking dead, but the running dead. Romero’s 1978 original was actually a sequel to what many consider the American zombie movie, Night of the Living Dead (1968). The original Dawn was a scathing indictment of consumerism, pointing its finger at the sudden popularity of brand new indoor shopping malls. When the zombie apocalypse breaks out, a group of survivors lock themselves in a mall, fortified by a huge pantry, gun shop, ice rink, and Penney’s. The zombie hoards follow soon after, though, and Peter (cult icon Ken Foree) assures the others, “They’re after the place. They don’t know why, they just remember. Remember that they want to be in here.” Zombies, in almost every incarnation, simply want to consume—and Romero’s shambling, blue-faced messes wanted not only to consume brains, but also had an innate memory of their lives as consumers of things, clothing and knickknacks and ice creams. Of course they’d remember the mall.
Snyder, whose film version of graphic novels Watchmen and 300 made him a big name, created a truly fantastic homage and reinvention of Romero’s slow-moving, slightly ridiculous zombies. Snyder’s zombies hide in dark corners; they have strength and agility comparable to our own; they even show a semblance of intelligence. Those of us who weren’t huffily offended at the idea of running zombies found a stunner of a horror flick in Snyder’s Dawn. The movie brought the concept to a whole new generation of fans, and brought the idea completely up to date. It’s stylish, relying heavily on saturated film, slow motion, and close-ups. It’s action-packed, with characters wielding machine guns, chainsaws, and eventually armored cars against some of the scariest creatures you’ll see in a horror flick.
What makes both Dawn movies good horror is their survivors. In Romero’s film, the cast is made up of four characters, two of whom are a couple, two of whom are military. They have vastly different personalities and manage to become friends as the world crumbles around them—and as they each react differently to the apocalypse. In Snyder’s film, the survivors are a much larger group which includes nurse Ana (Splice’s Sarah Polley), policeman Michael (Ving Rhames), a trio of power-hungry mall cops, and a teenager. Both movies feature montages that show us just how fascinating a shopping mall is when you’re trapped there for months on end. (Hint: you’d go nuts, too.)
Snyder took a classic and turned it into an utterly terrifying modern parable. The soundtrack, cinematography, action, and cast form one of the best horror movies of the 2000s, and with cameos from multiple of the original Romero cast, you know the original zombie guru himself was on the sidelines, happily watching as his masterpiece was ushered to a new generation.
A Little Princess, 1995 (original The Little Princess, 1939)
Frances Hodgson Burnett’s children’s novel A Little Princess told a heartbreaking tale of a little girl whose father is called away to Africa during the Boer War, leaving her in Miss Minchin’s Seminary for Girls. At first, little Sarah Crewe lives a life of luxury and popularity in the seminary, but when her father goes missing in action, she has to start working for her keep, and soon finds herself scrubbing chimneys, washing floors, and waiting at Miss Minchin’s every beck and call. Only when luck intervenes and her father returns does she get her life back. Curly-haired cutie Shirley Temple starred in the original film in 1939.
In 1995, Alfonso Cuarón remade A Little Princess. Cuaron’s films, which fall all across the spectrum, include the sexy Spanish-language drama Y tu mamá también, the Ethan Hawke-Gwyneth Paltrow Great Expectations, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and the apocalyptic sci-fi drama Children of Men. His films, though vastly different in subject matter, share similarly saturated hues, beautiful camerawork (often with frequent collaborator DP Emmanuel Lubezki), and an unreal, dreamlike sensibility.
Cuarón’s A Little Princess stars real-life Hyatt hotel heiress Liesel Pritzker (billed as Liesel Matthews due to a divorce battle) as Sarah Crewe, who was raised in India by her father during colonization. Sarah refuses to let go of her dreams and her belief that all little girls are princesses. Miss Minchin, played as an evil yet funny terror of a woman by Eleanor Bron, wants one thing, and one thing only: money. When she forces Sarah to live in the dark, cobwebbed attic with black servant girl Becky, she thinks she’s going to tamp down the girls’ feisty spirits. Not so: Sarah’s tales of India during the colonization fascinate the whole seminary, and captivate viewers in the process. Gorgeous scenery, a strange, dreamlike loveliness, and seamless transitions between the dank, dreary reality of Sarah’s life and the inner world that keeps her spirit alive are enough to keep viewers rapt.
In Cuarón’s world, it isn’t money that makes the world go round; it’s imagination. Much like Hook’s lost boys, Sarah makes a feast appear before her when she’s hungry; she fascinates her friends with lovingly told stories of her childhood in India; her imagination renders her a force to be reckoned with and her hope and sweetness opens doors for everyone around her. A Little Princess was one of my favorite movies as a little girl, and it remains so today.
The Ring, 2002 (based on Ringu, 1998)
When I went to see The Ring with my good friend Keith, he jumped out of his seat multiple times (this happens to me fairly often—a guy will take me to a horror movie, hoping to be cringed upon, and end up grabbing me during the scary parts). Keith wasn’t the only jumpy one—the audience was really, genuinely freaked out. Not since The Blair Witch Project (and never since, definitely not at Paranormal Activity), did I see another audience so subdued, so terrified, so utterly engrossed in a horror film. Gore Verbinski, whose Pirates of the Caribbean franchise made him (and Disney) massively rich, remade a Japanese horror flick called Ringu, in which a young girl’s spirit seeks revenge for her grotesque murder. A mother and her son are drawn into the intrigue when they accidentally view a videotape (what are those again?) created by the energy of the murdered girl’s hatred. They have to solve the mystery of her death before seven days are up—or they die.
Ringu was a smart, snappy thriller with a terrifying twist. The Ring, Verbinski’s American version, ushered in the era of American J-horror remakes (most of which turned out terribly—think The Grudge, Dark Water, or One Missed Call). The Ring is a deeply saturated exercise in dread. Even if you don’t buy the idea the movie’s selling—that a little girl’s spirit remains so furious that she refuses to move on, instead murdering those who try to help her—it’s difficult not to be taken in by the cold, dark, Seattle skies, the dank and lifeless island setting, or the bizarre, nightmarish imagery of the videotape. Viewers came out of the film wondering if they were going to be the next to die; such was the power of The Ring. If you’ve seen one and not the other, I recommend checking out the counterpart. Both are worthy of a watch, especially for those who love supernatural horror.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers, 1978 (original 1956)
Jack Finney’s original story Invasion of the Body Snatchers is one of horror’s most common tales: a small town ripped apart from inside by an unseen, unheralded force of evil. What made Finney’s work interesting was the concept of Pod People. Something terrible attacks the fictional town of Santa Mira, California, replacing its citizens with duplicates—people who may at first act like themselves but are really something awful, something extraterrestrial. The novel was a communist allegory: you never know who might be one of those terrifying Reds. The film released in 1956 to critical acclaim and audience adoration.
In 1978, director Philip Kaufman redid Invasion of the Body Snatchers, set in San Francisco, with a recognizable and well-loved cast including Donald Sutherland, Jeff Goldblum, and Leonard Nimoy. With the Production Code lifted, the audience was exposed to the sheer violence of the alien takeovers, and the addition of shrieking aliens added another dimension of terror. The 1978 version allows for an updated sensibility. It came at the end of the “Me Decade,” an era of self-absorption and what many saw as the backlash to the crazy peace-love-harmony trend of the 1960s. Nimoy plays a self-help guru who’s unable to help anyone as the world continues to go awry around him, as humans continue to graphically change into monsters.
Others have tried to make Invasion into movies since (there was one notably terrible version in the mid-1990s titled Body Snatchers), but none were quite so well-received as Kaufman’s most terrifying masterpiece.
Dangerous Liaisons, 1988, and Cruel Intentions, 1999 (original and follow-ups: many)
The novel Les Liaisons dangereuses, by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, has seen so many incarnations in stage plays, film, and television in America and elsewhere, it’s probably difficult for some to pick a favorite. For me, it’s a toss-up between Stephen Frears’s sexy, sultry 1988 Dangerous Liaisons, starring Glenn Close, John Malkovich, and Michelle Pfeiffer; and Cruel Intentions, the made-for-teenagers remake from 1999 with Sarah Michelle Gellar, Reese Witherspoon, and Ryan Phillippe. Don’t get me wrong, Frears’s version is infinitely more beautiful, better acted, and better made. Nonetheless I harbor an affection for Cruel Intentions, which is a kind of precursor to “Gossip Girl”’s haute couture and bored, debauched New York City rich kids.
Frears’s films are often about the seedy underbelly of sex, the petty evil people do, and the ways carnal knowledge and intrigue become inexplicably entwined. Dangerous Liaisons follows former lovers Vicomte Sébastien de Valmont (John Malkovich) and Marquise Isabelle de Merteuil (Glenn Close) as they toy with others’ bodies and emotions for their own sick pleasures. Isabelle, upset that the man who scorned her is now betrothed to the purest woman in the land, Cecile de Volanges (Uma Thurman), asks Valmont to seduce Cecile for Isabelle’s own pleasure. Since Valmont already has his eyes on the virtuous, God-fearing Madame de Tourvel (Michelle Pfeiffer), he and Isabelle make a bet that, quite frankly, ends terribly.
Close, Malkovich, Thurman, Pfeiffer, and Keanu Reeves are each remarkable in their roles. The costuming and set design of Dangerous Liaisons is enough to draw anyone in. The powdered, corseted, be-wigged lives of French aristocrats may seem utterly fantastic to those of us who can roll out of bed in the morning, jump in the shower, throw on some jeans, and head to work. Nonetheless, it sure is fascinating to watch the complex processes of their day-to-day lives, the constraints under which they lived, and the ways in which they strove to change their circumstances. Frears created a beautifully rendered world that looks like a watercolor painting come to life, with a cast of characters you love to hate to love.
Alternately, place Ryan Phillippe in Malkovich’s role (as Sebastian Valmont), Sarah Michelle Gellar in Close’s role (as Katherine “I’m the Marsha f*@!ing Brady of the Upper East Side, and sometimes I want to kill myself” Marteuil, a bored high school senior with a coke problem), Reese Witherspoon in Pfeiffer’s (as Annette Hargrove, the virginal do-gooder), and Selma Blair as innocent, slightly idiotic Cecile, and place the cast in the Upper East Side of NYC in the late ‘90s and you’ve got Cruel Intentions. Though not a fantastic film, the sets feature homage to the French aristocracy; the sheer decadence and boredom of these rich kids’ lives is baffling; and for one who grew up on those actors, it is a sheer pleasure to watch them be so bad.
Anyone who enjoys the melodramatic, decadent, ultimately ridiculous “Gossip Girl” is missing out if they haven’t seen Cruel Intentions. On the other hand, anyone who’s into sexual intrigue, wonderful performances, and gorgeous sets and costumes is missing out if they haven’t seen Dangerous Liaisons.
The Thing (dir. John Carpenter, 1982)
Blind Fury (dir. Phillip Noyce, 1989)
Phillip Noyce may have a big budget action extravaganza coming out in a few weeks – Salt, starring Angelina Jolie – but there was a time when his resources were decidedly more limited. That time was 1989, when he took Japan’s famed, acclaimed and awesome-(aimed) Zatoichi series and remade it as a modestly budgeted star vehicle for Rutger Hauer. Though not actually superior to any of the Zatoichi films, Blind Fury is a thoroughly enjoyable action-packed romp that takes itself just seriously enough to offset the movie’s occasionally broad sense of humor.
My guy-crush, if not outright bromance, with Rutger Hauer has been well-documented, and this film is a big part of the reason why. Hauer plays Vietnam veteran Nick Parker, who was declared Missing In Action after a firefight robbed him of his sight. He’d spent the following years living in Vietnam with a community that taught him how to overcome his disability and, naturally, become a master swordsman. Like Zatoichi, Nick hides his blade in his cane. Unlike Zatoichi, he doesn’t moonlight as a masseur, but that’s okay. He’s going to be too busy fighting redneck drug dealers anyhow.
Nick returns to the United States after many years to confront his former best friend Frank Devereaux (Terry O’Quinn of ‘Lost’), who was responsible for Nick losing his sight in the first place. But Frank has been kidnapped by a Las Vegas drug kingpin and blackmailed into making designer drugs for them (Frank is a chemist now, apparently). Before long, Nick’s on the lam with Frank’s bratty son after promising his murdered mother to take care of the kid. Unlike many of the mismatched-kid action movies out there, Blind Fury doesn’t end with Nick’s icy heart melted by the innocence of this annoying child. Instead, it ends with the kid changed for the better by Frank after finally shedding his topically youthful cynicism.
Oh, and it also ends in an awesome swordfight with the great Sho Kosugi, who may or may not be playing Bruce Lee’s brother (a sentence which would be really funny if you’d already seen the film). A little wackier than it needed to be, but always entertaining, Blind Fury is no way superior to Zatoichi Challenged, the 17th (!) film in the original franchise from which Blind Fury adapted most of its material. But it’s still a hoot and a half.
Father of the Bride I & II (dir. Charles Shyer, 1991 & 1995)
Remakes of comedies seldom work, if only because it’s hard to make a joke funny twice. Steve Martin has proved this statement true on a number of occasions (Cheaper by the Dozen, The Pink Panther) but has also disproved it more than most comedians, having starred in the raucous Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (Frank Oz’s remake of Ralph Levy’s Bedtime Story) and two of the most charming, albeit harmless movies of his career: Father of the Bride, I & II.
Vincente Minnelli’s 1950 comedy Father of the Bride starred Spencer Tracy as – you guessed it – the father of the bride. A young Elizabeth Taylor starred as his daughter, whose upcoming matrimony sent the lovable lead into a tailspin as he’s forced to acknowledge that his daughter has grown up, he himself is growing old, and that planning a wedding is really, really hard. Charles Shyer, who had previously helmed the smash hit Baby Boom, brought together a perfect cast for his generally faithful remake, including Steve Martin, Diane Keaton and Martin Short as the wacky wedding planner, back before they only offered such jobs to Jennifer Lopez.
It’s Steve Martin, however, who anchors both films. Martin deftly portrays a sincere but genuinely funny man who can’t quite get a handle on the sudden and bizarre set of responsibilities forced upon him by his daughter’s life decisions. His life only gets more complicated in the sequel, based on Minnelli’s more mathematically-titled Father’s Little Dividend, in which he finds himself not only becoming a grandfather, but also simultaneously a father again. The natural and sympathetic plotting of the first film gives way to contrivance – Really, what are the odds that both women would go into labor at the same time? – but once again Shyer and his sterling cast make you forget your troubles and just appreciate lovable people acting lovably. They may not be timeless classics, but it’s hard to deny the charm of any Father of the Bride movie, new or old.
The Thomas Crown Affair (dir. John McTiernan, 1999)
John McTiernan, whose proverbial new one I ripped as recently as last week, used to make really great movies. The last one of those was back in 1999, when he remade Norman Jewison’s heist romance The Thomas Crown Affair and improved it in every way. The original film starred Steve McQueen as the millionaire Thomas Crown, who was so bored with his life of luxury that he took to planning elaborate bank heists just for the fun of it. Faye Dunaway co-starred as the insurance investigator who was determined to get her man, even if it meant falling in love with him.
The original Thomas Crown Affair is a well-regarded, and some might even say classic heist film featuring two of the biggest stars of the 1960’s at the height of their powers. The original Thomas Crown Affair is also, shall we say, ‘a product of its time.’ From the fashions to the cinematography to the soundtrack, it would be impossible to watch Jewison’s film without being distracted by how antiquated it now feels. But that was never the problem with the original film, it’s just something that prevents younger audiences from appreciating its charms. No, the real problem was Thomas Crown himself, a rich man who makes himself feel better by stealing money. The original Thomas Crown was kind of a jerk.
Enter Pierce Brosnan’s Thomas Crown, a billionaire with an uncontrollable lust for life who becomes the world’s most ambitious art thief. Already, McTiernan (working from a screenplay adapted by Leslie Dixon & Kurt Wimmer) has made Jewison’s romance even more romantic. Helping matters immensely is Rene Russo, taking over from Faye Dunaway, as a shockingly age-appropriate love interest for Brosnan’s Crown. Much ado was made over Russo’s commitment to her nude scenes, but it’s her chemistry with Brosnan that really makes The Thomas Crown Affair one of the sexiest mainstream films of the 1990’s.
McTiernan masterfully stages the action and crafts two of the most memorable heists in recent memory, including a clever (to the point of being impish) finale that’s about as memorable as a finale gets. McTiernan’s remake of the dated original felt old-fashioned even upon its release – the humor, soundtrack and plotline all feel more like a film from the 1980’s than any other modern heist picture – but in this case it intentionally added to the film’s classic charms. Sorry about what I said before, Mr. McTiernan. You know I still love you, right?
Peter Pan (dir. P.J. Hogan, 2003)
P.J. Hogan, the director of Muriel’s Wedding and My Best Friend’s Wedding, may not have seemed like an obvious choice to direct a straightforward retelling of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. I mean, it’s not like Pan can have a wedding, right? So it was a little surprising when his 2003 remake turned out to be a sumptuous visual feast filled with excellent performances from an underage cast, thrilling set pieces, a score that is now more famous than the film itself and a remarkable attention to the complex thematic subtexts in Barrie’s original work. Audiences stayed away in droves.
Hogan’s Peter Pan starred a young Jeremy Sumpter of TV’s ‘Friday Night Lights’ as Peter Pan, a boy who intentionally stunted his own growth so as not to face the difficulties, responsibilities and hardship that stems from growing up. The power of his imagination has created a fantastic realm called ‘Never Land,’ which to me always seemed to imply that the place was never meant to exist. Pan becomes fixated on an imaginative young girl named Wendy Darling (Rachel Hurd-Wood, of Perfume: The Story of a Murderer), who finds herself on the verge of puberty and terrified of learning to live in the real world, and especially falling in love. When Pan literally flies through her window, he invites her to stay in his own imaginary universe forever, and begrudgingly takes her little brothers along too.
Hogan’s film is a visual masterpiece if ever there was one, full of impossibly vibrant colors and distinctive locales, but it’s also infinitely more mature than any other adaptation of the material. For once, Peter Pan is played by a boy on the verge of adolescence, rather than an effeminate cartoon or a real-life female. The result is that Pan’s relationship with Wendy takes on a new dimension. Hogan depicts Wendy and Pan as each other’s first love, but in Never Land they could never progress beyond that. Ironically, Pan’s attempt to make Wendy abandon her adulthood only makes her long for the maturity age brings, which Pan’s crippling fear of responsibility will never allow him to enjoy. It’s a tribute to Hogan’s and Michael Goldenberg’s scripting that these themes are guaranteed to go over the heads of little kids, subconsciously connect to adolescents and just plain impress anyone older than that.
Best of all, perhaps, is Jason Isaacs’ should-be iconic take on Captain Hook. Isaacs emphasizes the horror of the character in a way few actors have, making him as much a genuine boogeyman as Pan’s storybook foil. (Late in the film, when he steals some fairy dust in order to fly, we find out that his happy thoughts include ‘puppy’s blood.’) As usual in Peter Pan stories, the actor portraying Hook also portray’s Wendy’s father, and it’s a credit to Isaacs’ abilities that the famous portrayal of villains does ‘befuddled’ so well that it’s genuinely startling to see him with a gnarled stump of an arm, growling malevolently in confident hatred for his seemingly immortal foe, and arguably his very creator.
The film ends with a spectacular mid-air swordfight, and admittedly they didn’t come up with a very good substitute for the bit in the play where the audience claps to bring Tinkerbell back to life, but Hogan’s Peter Pan will always remain a personal favorite for a scene in which Captain Hook spies Peter Pan and Wendy together in the woods, and cries a single tear because he realizes he’s being left behind. Hogan presents an imaginary character in existential crisis because he fears that his creator’s maturity will be the death of him. It is but one of many original moments in this beautiful remake.
As always, feel free to list your own favorite remakes in the comments!