The Man Reimagining Disney Classics for Today’s World

For more than a decade, Sean Bailey has run Disney’s animated film “reimagining” factory with quiet efficiency and superhero-sized results. His live-action “Aladdin” collected $1.1 billion at the box office, while a photorealistic “The Lion King” took in $1.7 billion. A live-action “Beauty and the Beast” delivered $1.3 billion.

Disney likes the cash. The company also views Mr. Bailey’s remake operation as crucial to remaining relevant. Disney’s animated classics are treasured by fans, but most showcase ideas from another era, especially when it comes to gender roles: Be pretty, girls, and things might work out.

The reimaginings, as Mr. Bailey refers to his remakes, find ways to make Disney stories less retrograde. His heroines are empowered, and his casting emphasizes diversity. A live-action “Snow White,” set for release next year, stars the Latina actress Rachel Zegler as the princess known as “the fairest of them all.” Yara Shahidi played Tinker Bell in the recent “Peter Pan and Wendy,” making her the first Black woman to portray the character onscreen.

“We want to reflect the world as it exists,” Mr. Bailey said.

But that worldview — and business strategy — has increasingly put Disney and Mr. Bailey, a low-profile and self-effacing executive, in the middle of a very loud, very unpolite cultural fight. For every person who applauds Disney, there seems to be a counterpart who complains about being force-fed “wokeness.”

Many companies are finding themselves in this vise — Target, Anheuser-Busch, Nike — but Disney, which has a powerful impact on children as they are forming life beliefs, has been uniquely challenged. In this hyperpartisan moment, both sides of the political divide have been pounding on Disney to stand with them, with movies that come from Mr. Bailey’s corner of the Magic Kingdom as prime examples.

Consider his remake of “The Little Mermaid,” which arrived in theaters two weeks ago and cost an estimated $375 million to make and market. The new version scuttles problematic lyrics from the 1989 original. (“It’s she who holds her tongue who gets a man.”) In the biggest change, Halley Bailey, who is Black, plays Ariel, the mermaid. Disney has long depicted the character as white, including at its theme parks.

Support for Ms. Bailey, notably from people of color and film critics, has been offset by a torrent of racist commentary on social media and movie fan sites. Others have blasted “The Little Mermaid” for failing to acknowledge the horrors of slavery in the Caribbean. A few L.G.B.T.Q. people have criticized Disney for hiring a straight male makeup artist for the villainous Ursula, whose look in the animated film was inspired by a drag queen.

Disney has long regarded these kinds of social media storms as tempests in teapots: trending today, replaced by a new complaint tomorrow. In 2017, for instance, a theater in Alabama refused to play the live-action “Beauty and the Beast” because it contained a three-second glimpse of two men dancing in each other’s arms. It became a global news story. Ultimately, the fracas seemed to have no impact on ticket sales.

The upshot? Disney hoped “The Little Mermaid” would generate as much as $1 billion worldwide, with the furor evaporating once the film arrived in theaters. Feedback scores from test screenings were strong, as were early reviews. “Alan Menken just told me that he thinks this one is better than the animated film,” Robert A. Iger, Disney’s chief executive, said at the film’s premiere last month, referring to the Oscar-winning composer.

Instead, “The Little Mermaid” will top out closer to $600 million, box office analysts said on Sunday, largely because the film faltered overseas, where it was “review bombed,” with online trolls flooding movie sites with racist one-star reviews. The film has done well in North America, outperforming “Aladdin” and receiving an A grade from ticket buyers in CinemaScore exit polls, although attendance by white moviegoers has been soft in some parts of the United States, according to analysts. Support from Black and Latino audiences have made up the slack.

Mr. Bailey declined to comment on the racist responses to the film. “While the international opening was softer than we would have liked, the film is playing exceptionally well which we believe sets us up for a very long run,” he said on Saturday.

Mr. Bailey, 53, has survived box office shoals that were far worse. His misfires include “The Lone Ranger” and “Jungle Cruise.” The less said about his live-action “Mulan,” the better. But Disney has always supported him. “I’ve taken some big swings and had some big misses,” Mr. Bailey said. “I’m grateful that the leadership of the company understands that is part of any creative business.”

Mr. Bailey has been president of Walt Disney Studios Motion Picture Production for 13 years — an eternity in Hollywood, where film chiefs are often jettisoned every few years. Over that time, Disney has been roiled by executive firings, multiple restructuring efforts and shifting strategies for film distribution. The steady-handed Mr. Bailey, who is popular with stars and their agents, has helped provide stability.

“He’s a nice, decent, respectful, fair guy who does his job quietly, without fanfare,” said Kevin Huvane, a Creative Artists Agency co-chairman. “But that doesn’t mean that he is passive. Quite the opposite. He gets his hands dirty. If a deal isn’t working, he gets in there and he finds a way to make it happen.”

In 2014, for instance, Mr. Bailey flew to Budapest from Los Angeles at a moment’s notice to have dinner with Angelina Jolie. She had agreed to star in “Maleficent” but seemed to be getting cold feet after reading a revised script. Whatever he told her worked; “Maleficent” and a sequel took in a combined $1.3 billion.

“Sean is what we don’t see often these days, and certainly not in film,” Ms. Jolie said by email. “He’s consistent, stable and decent. When we have challenges, as all films do, he is even and fair. It may not be exciting for a story, but it is what we need more of.”

Disney’s live-action films did not often showcase women before Mr. Bailey arrived, and diversity was almost nonexistent. Mr. Bailey has almost exclusively focused on female-led stories. He has also championed young actresses of color — Storm Reid, Nico Parker, Naomi Scott — and female directors, including Ava DuVernay (“A Wrinkle in Time”), Julia Hart (“Stargirl”) and Mira Nair (“Queen of Katwe”).

“I think what he is doing is vastly important,” said Geena Davis, an actress and gender equity activist. “It’s not just about inspiring little girls. It’s about normalizing for men and boys, making it perfectly normal to see a girl doing interesting and important things and taking up space.”

The next film from Mr. Bailey’s division, “Haunted Mansion,” arrives in theaters on July 28 and stars LaKeith Stanfield (an Oscar nominee for “Judas and the Black Messiah”), Rosario Dawson, Owen Wilson and Tiffany Haddish. “Haunted Mansion” was directed by Justin Simien, the creator of “Dear White People,” and inspired by a Disney theme park ride.

“I felt that we had an opportunity to try and create a really cool, Disney-appropriate PG-13 movie that does have some real scares but also charms and delights,” Mr. Bailey said.

Mr. Bailey, who watched “The Little Mermaid” 18 times as it worked its way through Disney’s pipeline, has more than 50 movies in various stages of development and production, including live-action versions of “Moana,” “Hercules” and “Lilo and Stitch.” Yes, “Hocus Pocus 3” is happening. (His division makes two or three big-budget films annually for release in theaters and three modestly budgeted movies for Disney+.)

“Mufasa: The Lion King,” a photorealistic prequel directed by Barry Jenkins, the Oscar-winning “Moonlight” screenwriter, is scheduled for release in 2024. Mr. Bailey said “The Lion King” could expand into “a big, epic saga” like the “Star Wars” franchise. “There’s a lot of room to run if we can find the stories,” he said.

Restarting the five-film “Pirates of the Caribbean” series is another priority, although nothing official has been announced. “We think we have a really good, exciting story that honors the films that have come before but also has something new to say,” Mr. Bailey said. Will the franchise’s problematic star, Johnny Depp, return as Captain Jack Sparrow? “Noncommittal at this point,” Mr. Bailey said, seemingly inching the door open.

One of the knocks on Mr. Bailey is that he has not created a new franchise; almost none of his bets on original movies have paid off. The sled-dog drama “Togo,” made for Disney+ in 2019, was a critical hit that failed to break out. “Tomorrowland,” an ambitious fantasy from 2015, crashed and burned. At some point, studios cannot endlessly recycle old stuff. A Xerox of a Xerox of a Xerox ends up as a blank page.

“It’s really hard to crack through and get an original, hugely commercial win,” Mr. Bailey said. “We’re going to keep trying.” He pointed to a project based on “The Graveyard Book,” about a boy raised by the supernatural occupants of a cemetery.

Every studio has been struggling to come up with original hits. But the added glare that seems to come with any Disney effort adds a degree of difficulty.

Like Mr. Iger, Mr. Bailey does not hide his political leanings. He is close to Senator Cory Booker, Democrat of New Jersey, a friendship that started in 2000, when Mr. Bailey held a fund-raiser for him in Hollywood. (Mr. Bailey has a lot of famous friends. He goes way back with Ben Affleck, helped Dwayne Johnson start a tequila brand and serves on the board of Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute.)

But Mr. Bailey is in the business of making movies for everyone. That challenge is part of what keeps his job interesting, he said.

“How do you deal with audiences that are changing outside our country, inside our country?” Mr. Bailey said. “How do you tell stories — stories that matter to everyone — in a world that is increasingly polarized?”

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