At first, it seems like the only reasonable way to rank out the history of Disney not-quite-live-action cover-band remakes of their animated classics would be by box office gross. After all, that’s why these things are made: Not as an expression of artistic sensibility or even as an attempt to pay tribute to the magic of the originals, but because paying customers go to see them – somewhat inexplicably, if you ask the movie critics who have had to sit through more than a few bizarre recreations of what are often childhood favorites. That’s the howl of movie-geek sadness accompanying these seemingly thrice-yearly projects: Why do people watch these?!?! The answer is not so different from the question of why people ride theme-park recreations of Disney movies: Because it’s the thing they already like, elaborately made “real” in a way that (while not actually real) is different enough to provide distraction. An uncanny-valley remake of Beauty and the Beast is not as impressive as mounting a Broadway show, or feeling like you’re inside the movie, no, but it’s also a lot cheaper, and lasts longer than your average theme-park attraction, and gives you cover versions of some of the best songs to ever grace a movie musical, animated or otherwise.
This does not lend these projects much artistic merit, apart from the craft involved in reinventing familiar designs in new environments. (Even then, the result is terrifying or hideous as often as not.) But it is entirely possible to make a non-worthless remake, even if the triple-branding of Disney Presents Disney By Disney doesn’t instill much confidence. That familiarity can be used to recontextualize, rethink or otherwise have fun with the movies most closely identified with the company, even if usually it isn’t. Though plenty of these movies flatten what they’re supposed to dimensionalize, they also include multiple movies by Tim Burton and David Lowery, plus Robert Zemeckis, Guy Ritchie and Niki Caro. It’s not all Rob Marshall and former VFX directors, in other words.
Nor is it all good, by any means. It’s worth, however, parsing the difference between enjoyable riff, uninspired retread and affront to the very notion of cinema. (What have you done, Jon Favreau!?) So let’s differentiate from the abominations, the curiosities and the genuine entertainment by examining these much-hated, much-seen attractions. These movies do not always deserve our close attention, but they will be presented to children and fans for years, so we might as well get into it.
A few eligibility notes: Sequels don’t count. 102 Dalmatians, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil and Alice Through the Looking Glass may not be very good on average, but they are attempting to sequelize their live-action predecessors, not adapt a particular Disney cartoon. If anything, more of these might help distinguish the more slavishly faithful of these “reimaginings.” Also, the films in question have to be based at least in some part on a particular Disney animated feature, not a character or a short. In other words, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice doesn’t count, because the cartoon it’s not really adapting isn’t the entirety of Fantasia; Christopher Robin doesn’t count, because it’s not an adaptation of The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (which itself is really sort of a compilation film anyway). Pete’s Dragon does count, because while the original was not a fully animated movie, the remake is clearly in the spirit of the others like it.
With that out of the way, let’s dissect Disney as obsessively as Disney keeps dissecting itself!
Here are all the “live-action” Disney remakes, ranked:
17. The Lion King (2019)
This is a universally powerful story, with terrific songs and countless funny and fascinating supporting characters. It’s a classic of performance and sensation. This version, seemingly by design—like that was the damned plan all along—drains every bit of life from it … in order to make it more “realistic.” I would love to watch a documentary about these beautiful animals in the flesh. I would love to watch the original film with its joy and grandeur and scope and sense of fun. This? This bizarre, literal-minded thing? I don’t know what this is. It feels like taxidermy. – Will Leitch
16. Pinocchio (2022)
Robert Zemeckis has gone to great lengths to recreate the hand-drawn feel of the original interiors. It’s not that they appear animated, but that you can genuinely sense the handiwork that went into making them. It packs the sets to the hinges with charm—especially Geppetto’s workshop, where the heart of the story beats. The animated creatures and puppets seamlessly blend into the ornate sets. There’s just enough whimsy to their realism to keep them cartoonish. Honest John and Gideon have natural, fur-like textures and clownish expressions. This may be disturbing to some. Not to worry; Zemeckis is keenly aware of how uncanny it can be to see objects and animals come to life. He enjoys pointing it out. In fact, he could have pointed it out more. In trying to keep his Pinocchio from being as severe as the original, Zemeckis shies away from fully embracing the unsettling nature of the story as other recent versions have done. – B. Panther
15. Lady and the Tramp (2019)
The original Lady and the Tramp is one of Disney’s more modest animated features – and one of its most charming, probably the most altogether successful of the studio’s five 1950s-era animated features. Disney has now remade or remixed all five of those movies, and oddly, its quasi-live-action Lady is the weakest of the lot, maybe because the original had so little room for improvement. The sets and CG backdrops recapture some of the earlier film’s painterly sensibility, but to what end? Just to showcase a couple of nice vocal performances from Tessa Thompson and Janelle Monáe? (Monáe doesn’t play the Tramp, sadly; that falls to a vaguely miscast Justin Theroux.) It’s one of the most egregious swellings of a compact cartoon (the 1955 film runs 76 svelte minutes) into a gaseous two-hour “reimagining” that scarcely contains any extra character development or plot points but still manages to add 40-plus minutes. Still: It’s a livelier talking-animal picture than that Lion King monstrosity. – Jesse Hassenger
14. Beauty and the Beast (2017)
I don’t want to bury the lede, so let me be clear: Beauty and the Beast buries its leads—not just their relatively boring characters beneath a cavalcade of charming living furniture, but sometimes literally within the music. Belle (Emma Watson) and Beast (Dan Stevens) perform their roles well, but the song mixes are so spotty, so hit and miss, that if dialogue doesn’t happen to be the opening lines of a song, it’s unintelligible, swallowed by the film’s overwhelming melodic noise. Who knows whether it was truly John Casali’s sound mixing work or if director Bill Condon demanded busier and busier edits, but the film’s music is often as muddy as it is beautiful. This wouldn’t be a major problem, except that these songs are most of the film’s draw—children in the audience should be singing along, feeling the magic in every narrative-driving lyric. Instead, the assumption that audiences know the lyrics already damns half the songs to garbled (if catchy) cacophony.--Jacob Oller
13. The Little Mermaid (2023)
Tara Bennett describes this movie’s saving grace perfectly in her review: “They cast well with Halle Bailey, who carries the whole film with her Ariel performance. You can’t help but be taken in by her expressive face, which reflects the wonder of Ariel’s experiences both under the sea and top side. She’s also fin-forward in conveying Ariel’s sense of curiosity as an integral facet of her being. It’s inspirational for kids to see, and comes across as genuine to Ariel’s character in making her a more fully-formed person, which adds some heft to the storybook romance of it all.” This is all true—consider, though, how much more of a star-making performance this would be for Bailey if the movie granted her the same sense of freedom that Ariel seeks with her adventures on dry land. Her performance is smothered in CG, both in terms of her scene partners (who largely do not exist) and her own damn body (which is largely created on a computer). A smarter movie might have played these constrictions for thematic heft, but The Little Mermaid is more interested in issuing pointless corrections and making optics adjustments than actually reinterpreting this material in a meaningful way. The original film taps into a sense of desperate adolescent desire, however sublimated within a family-friendly framework. There are glimpses of this in Bailey’s performance, visible when director Rob Marshall isn’t distracting himself with barely-shiny objects. The way Ariel grasps at a rock, for example, preparing for that iconic “Part of Your World” reprise and crescendo, has a dash of white-knuckle humanity. But the movie is too timid to heat up its love story, and too faithful to truly reorient the story toward any other desires. Even at the end of the movie, this new Ariel wouldn’t be out of bounds to keep asking: When’s it my turn?--Jesse Hassenger
12. 101 Dalmatians (1996)
An outlier in time but not in form, Disney took a less fantasy-inflected dry run at remaking its beloved animated movies in the late ’90s, with this much-hyped real-dog take on 101 Dalmatians, featuring Glenn Close going way over the top as Cruella De Vil, before Emma Stone reimagined the character again as a cracked fashion plate. Critics understandably shrugged off this John Hughes-penned redo, which claims the original Dodie Smith novel as its source material, but mostly recreates scenes from the cartoon with a bit of Home Alone-style slapstick padding out the story. In that way, it’s a prescient bit of brand management, an early example of Disney leveraging and eventizing a popular title into a predetermined hit that would replace the original in the hearts of precisely no one. Yet viewed today, there’s also a certain default charm inherent to the movie using real dogs occupying real sets, rather than pure reanimation. There are special effects, of course, some CG and some puppetry, but the de facto nature-doc vibe The Lion King sometimes flirted with is more applicable here. The more creatively inspired Cruella has the distinct advantages of (1.) Emma Stone (2.) wearing drop-dead fabulous clothes that are (3.) showcased via a series of fashion pranks. The 1996 Dalmatians is far less ambitious, but it’s inarguably more coherent in terms of what it’s trying to accomplish and why – even when it takes to repeatedly dunking Cruella in animal shit.--Jesse Hassenger
11. Mulan (2020)
Unlike other live-action takes on Disney animated classics such as Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, Mulan features no singing. Instrumental versions of some of the most famous songs from the movie, including “Reflections” and “Honor to Us All” provide the film’s soundtrack. And some scenes, like the spectacular training of the soldiers in the Imperial army with their red coats flowing in the wind as they move in synchronous movements just beg for a song-and-dance number. Donny Osmond singing “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” in the animated version may have been rife with problematic cultural appropriation and political incorrectness, but I can’t lie, when Commander Tung (Donnie Yen) says, “We’re going to make men out of every single one of you” before the training montage, I missed the infectious little ditty. While glorious to look at, the movie still feels slightly hollow. All the right pieces are there, but an emotional connection to the characters is lacking.–Amy Amatangelo
10. Maleficent (2014)
What little curiosity value Maleficent provides arrives mostly in the extravagant visual design. It’s not a patch on the landmark work in Disney’s Sleeping Beauty — still one of the most striking animated films ever made – but something to behold nevertheless. Consider it both a strength and a weakness that Stromberg clearly put so much effort into the film’s visual design (largely, it seems, at the expense of story), and his top-notch collaborators include makeup whiz Rick Baker (who designed Jolie’s witchy nose, horns and severe cheekbones), costume designer Anna B. Sheppard and production designers Gary Freeman and Dylan Cole. Their efforts vividly bring the fairy tale settings to life. – Geoff Berkshire
9. Cruella (2021)
Caught between conflicting expectations, it’s hard to appreciate Cruella as a whole. It’s overlong, with endless endings, and invites more conversations about it as a curious corporate product than as a cohesive movie. But it can also be perversely enjoyable with its flashy playlist-while-playing-dress-up aesthetic and brash, heightened central actresses—after coding villains as queer for decades, that camp is as front-and-center as ever. Cruella is a perhaps inherently flawed film, but whether its dark-but-Disney strangeness intrigues or repels, there’s often something to love and loathe in equal measure. – Jacob Oller
8. Pete’s Dragon (2016)
Even if you know that the David Lowery edition of Pete’s Dragon is a remake of the original Don Chaffey picture, you might forget as much part-way through the new film. This is a case of night and day, two related but separate phases of time, where we can recognize the common thread tying both together even if we see no other meaningful similarities between them. Lowery smartly appropriates bits and pieces of plot as needed from his source material. And before the characters make their accidental acquaintance with one another, Lowery tells a story through sensation and emotion, setting aside notions of action and incident to dive into a life lived free from civilization. – Andy Crump
7. The Jungle Book (2016)
Where the level of technology in The Jungle Book has historically been used for maximizing the wow factor in Michael Bay explosion-packed action flicks, Favreau makes the case for special effects that actually affect. Calling the visuals simply “realistic” wouldn’t do them justice, nor would it be technically accurate. Low-angle shots of the simulated Indian jungle, with richer colors, lusher plant life and bigger animals than anything found in the wild, toe the line between immersion and submersion. A baby elephant, typically about three feet tall, has at least a foot on Sethi, who is all legs and limbs. The real-life counterpart to Bagheera (voiced by Ben Kingsley, ever stately), a black panther and Mowgli’s honorary godfather, averages two-and-a-half feet in height, but the tips of Bagheera’s shoulders hit just below the top of Mowgli’s head. Favreau and his fleet of production designers and effects artists construct spectacularly vivid set pieces to remind older audiences how they may have imagined Mowgli’s journey as children. Several shots are designed after some of the most iconic images of the genre—Mufasa’s final scene in The Lion King, the chicken-sized Compy dinosaurs who get the best of Peter Stormare in The Lost World— all helping to combine familiar stories with new technologies, tapping into our nostalgia and repurposing it on a grander scale. – Melissa Weller
6. Peter Pan & Wendy (2023)
I’m going to have to go ahead and disagree with Brianna Zigler’s wonderfully vicious pan of David Lowery’s second bite at the Disney apple, while insisting that you go read it ASAP because it articulates the sheer frustration a lot of animation fans experience while watching these new versions, and also has a line about Tinkerbell that made me laugh out loud. There are moments where the intersection between Lowery’s Malick-influenced folktale style and familiar Disney imagery yields something unusually poetic for this group of films: The initial flight to Neverland, for example, with Wendy and her brothers hitting Big Ben like a massive portal, and the visual transition to the rushing water below Wendy as she opens her eyes, is downright magical. The source material of Peter Pan is well-suited to Lowery’s earthier, melancholic approach; it’s the Disney machine that isn’t really built to accommodate the kind of distinctive and personal filmmaking that Lowery clearly yearns for. Still, this is the rare Disney “modernization” where almost all of the optics adjustments (mainly involving the 1953 film’s Native characters) are appreciated and long overdue. – Jesse Hassenger
5. The Jungle Book (1994)
Another, even earlier adventure in Disney live-action expansion, this 1994 release was advertised with a Rudyard Kipling possessive, giving the incorrect impression of a version that hews closer to the Kipling stories that inspired the animated feature. In reality, it’s not at all a Kipling adaptation, and doesn’t have much to do with the Disney cartoon, either; It’s more of a Tarzan-style story where the jungle-raised Mowgli (Jason Scott Lee) re-enters human society and reunites with his childhood love Kitty (Lena Headey). The effects-augmented but largely real animals do not talk; Baloo the Bear gets shot rather than singing a classic ditty; and director/co-writer Stephen Sommers adds action-adventure material that helps ease his transition from go-to Disney guy to blockbuster monster-masher of The Mummy and Van Helsing. It’s pretty fun, not least because (like the Tim Burton-directed Disney remakes from years later) it’s more of an unofficial sequel than fussily corrective remake. Lee and Headey are appealing, the Indian jungle locations are lush, and the pace is brisk. Sommers may be known as something of a studio hack, but The Jungle Book honestly does a better job of reflecting its director’s sensibilities than most of the later Disney remakes. It’s a shame that the company has inexplicably kept it off of their streaming service. – Jesse Hassenger
4. Cinderella (2015)
Lily James is the soul of Kenneth Branagh’s movie; he can claim credit for its technical merits, but without James it’s difficult to imagine Cinderella soaring as it does. She has the most disarming smile in the history of disarming smiles, a natural inclination toward charming warmth—Ella bears a stack of crosses, and James carries them, as well as the film, effortlessly without faltering in her portrait of grace under oppression. She’s a delight, and she makes everyone around her—including the capable Madden, whose presence here may make you fear for Ella’s life, or Blanchett’s immaculately thorny Tremaine, or Helena Bonham-Carter’s dingbat Fairy Godmother—look better just by sharing the frame with her. Branagh knows how to sweep us up in the ecstatic thrall of the familiar without breaking from fantasy or making his central messages about bravery, compassion and self-confidence feel superficial. – Andy Crump
3. Aladdin (2019)
True to its ambition of presenting an epic adventure, this Aladdin runs a whopping 40 minutes longer than the 1992 version. Yet I’m happy to say that almost none of it is filler. The extra runtime is either used to flesh out the characters, or to add some action, dance and songs that enhance the experience. The character motivation and arc of 1992 Princess Jasmine was that she sought her freedom from the stifling orthodoxy of royal life. Here, Jasmine (Naomi Scott) still wants to be free, but she also has an undying desire to become a benevolent and peaceful ruler in a culture that will not accept a female sultan. Ritchie is primarily known as the director of gritty and grimy crime comedies, and he usually brings that aesthetic to mainstream action like Sherlock Holmes. But he also helms witty and colorful fluff like The Man From U.N.C.L.E., and Aladdin is mostly in that camp. With music that breathes new life to beloved songs with an emphasis on percussion and horns, and production designer Gemma Jackson’s luscious world building that borrows from various Middle-Eastern cultures as added pedigree, Aladdin is the rare remake that actually gives us a whole new world. – Oktay Ege Kozak
2. Alice in Wonderland (2010)
This is likely the most controversial ranking of the bunch, because while this movie was an enormous hit, making a billion dollars worldwide at a time when that was a rare occurrence, it’s also pretty strongly reviled within a number of contexts: Tim Burton’s supposedly faltering career (never the same since…2007, 2003, 1999, 1996… take your pick before the goalposts move again!), Johnny Depp’s late-period indifference (fair enough), and kicking off this whole Disney Remake mania to begin with. But at worst, Burton is guilty of making an OK children’s movie. First, it’s barely a remake, sequelizing the original Alice story and borrowing figures and some characterizations but not really the sensibility of Disney’s milquetoast 1951 adaptation. Yes, that sequel story is basically fantasy-movie questing boilerplate, but it has enough dream logic and nonsense to qualify as at least as strange as the original, and several fine comic performances of royalty: Anne Hathaway’s delicately squeamish White Queen and Helena Bonham Carter’s distorted, apoplectic Red Queen. Even the oft-cited dreary color scheme, while influential for the wrong reasons, has a smeared-watercolor look that feels a lot more intentional from Burton than those that followed him. Add in Mia Wasikowska as a peevish Alice, and the movie is more watchable silliness than you might remember. – Jesse Hassenger
1. Dumbo (2019)
One more time, I must branch off from the official Paste Magazine review, this one by the wonderful Oktay Ege Kozak. To me, Tim Burton’s version of Dumbo is a surprise best-case scenario for a Disney remake: It takes the animated classic as a jumping-off point, but allows the story to continue past what we know (the climax of the 1941 original happens about halfway through this film), while jettisoning some problematic relics of the original film’s time period (goodbye, racially caricatured crows) and other elements that might be difficult to fully reproduce (this version is less musical, in part because the crows aren’t in it, and in part because there’s no real need for another musical of the same material). This flying-elephant fable focuses more on the humans, which sounds dreadful until you see that those humans are played by a soulful Colin Farrell, an elegant Eva Green, and two Burton vets, Danny DeVito (as a circus boss and ringmaster!) and Michael Keaton (as the villain of the piece). Burton once again proves that he’s one of the only Disney-remake filmmakers who has an eye for looking past the contours of the original film, perhaps because he has his own animator’s eye guiding him. So while Dumbo might be described as darker and dimmer (and certainly longer) than the poppy 64-minute original, it has rich painterly tones in its portrayal of the scrappy circus, as well as the gussied-up theme-park version that doubles as a commentary on Walt Disney’s impresario image (and carelessness as an employer and creator). It manages to be both caustic and tender, a Burton monster movie where, naturally, a rapacious capitalist is the true monster, and the rest of his trademark creatures are either hokum, or an adorable flying elephant. – Jesse Hassenger