Ranked

Every Live-Action Disney Remake, Ranked

As the new Mulan is released on Disney+, we look back at a history of Disney do-overs and ask: has anyone ever got this right?

Maybe it was inevitable that one day Disney would look back at their great animated canon and decide to render them all as inferior, live-action products. But what, really, is a “live-action remake” except a cynical attempt to repackage nostalgia and resell it to the masses? But the box office doesn't lie, and Disney's attempts to do-over their beloved catalogue has brought billions to the studio in the past decade alone.

Are these ever a good idea? Do they ever really work? With the release of Disney's latest reimagining, Mulan, we look back at every live-action attempt of the modern era (no sequels) and wonder just that…

 

12. Alice in Wonderland (2010)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

A travesty for the eyes, arguably the ugliest film ever made, this sludge-coloured CG nightmare was a huge hit at the box office, its success basically ensuring the era of mostly questionable remakes we currently find ourselves in. The idea, on paper, might have even seemed like a good idea at one time: Tim Burton! A darker take on the animated original! Yet for many, Alice in Wonderland proved one Burton misfire too far: Johnny Depp's mugging at an agonising apex, with every British celebrity – Stephen Fry, Alan Rickman, Helena Bonham Carter (of course) – delivering a tragic script with half-arsed intent. It spawned a terrible sequel in 2016, which – thankfully – flopped at the box office.

 

11. The Lion King (2019)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

True sacrilege, in every sense, mostly because this “live-action” reimagining fails to reimagine much at all. It's a shot-for-shot remake poised as an upgrade, yet it offers nothing to back up such claims. Director Jon Favreau, hired off the success of his Jungle Book remake, fails to carry over the lessons of that superior film. Instead he hopes to win us over entirely with a blend of nostalgia and eye popping visuals alone. But the script, barely changed, make two disastrous mistakes: going down the fully realistic path means we're essentially watching a fake nature doc; the once cutesy animals are made lifeless, expressionless. Then he replaces the original's deliciously campy villain Scar with a duller, more solemn equivalent, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor. You can admire the graphics, but the experience is as hollow as they come.

 

10. Maleficent (2014)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

I hesitate to call this a “CG nightmare” because, well, Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland is a thing. But with its poor man's Lord of the Rings battles, lazy creature designs, and endlessly convoluted story, it's not far off. Angelina Jolie plays the titular witch in this incredibly strange take on Sleeping Beauty, which attempts to pull a Wicked and show us the unseen, “she's a monster because we made her that way!” origin story. That doesn't explain why it completely overwrites the original tale, or why Sharlto Copley is the only one doing a terrible Scottish accent. Overstuffed, deranged, but somehow also as lethargic as a needle-induced slumber, it's better than The Lion King on the basis that it tried to do something differently.

 

9. Dumbo (2019)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

What if Dumbo, but double the length? Tim Burton returned to helm yet another beloved Disney tale, once again intent on piling on oodles of unnecessary CGI and countless diversions from the original. Dumbo is simply too much. It takes something so slight and perfectly formed – and running at one hour – and plagues it with so much unnecessary baggage: new characters, new twists, new action sequences, new songs. Danny De Vito, Colin Farrell, Michael Keaton, but they're just there to look and gulp – all of them as two-dimensional as a cartoon.

 

8. Christopher Robin (2018)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

The idea appears to be “do Paddington, kind of.” But instead this strange attempt to reprise the success of that film ends up getting bogged down in a depressing story about a workaholic, middled-aged Christopher Robin, here played by Ewan McGregor. It's all very sincere and quite downbeat – not exactly something that evokes the family fun of Winnie the Pooh. Light on plot, but heavy on melancholy, it's also very predictable, and features barely a single interesting narrative moment  – odd, really, since it was co-written by one of cinema's least predictable indie filmmakers, Alex Ross Perry. Silly old Disney.

 

7. Aladdin (2019)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

I can sort of see what Disney were going for when they hired Guy Ritchie to helm their remake of Aladdin, but at the same time, this filmmaker hasn't made a good picture in twenty years… what did we expect? Well, the Lock, Stock director might find some of the necessary, giddy energy in isolated moments, and there are brief instances where Will Smith exudes the charisma required to play a character as iconic as the Genie (he is no competition for Robin Williams). But the film feels half-realised, the musical numbers lack verve, and minor diversions from the source material prove distracting because they are so few and far between. Whenever the material tries to flip a joke or make a change, it's so noticeable. They'd have been better off starting from scratch: a whole new world instead of this slightly revamped one. Jasmine is good, though.

6. Lady and the Tramp (2019)

Where to watch it: Disney+

A perfectly serviceable remake of Lady and Tramp that improves on the original in zero ways, but is so inoffensive in basically every department that it does nothing to hurt the legacy. They're dogs, they're in love, the CGI isn't anywhere near as bad as you'd expect. All this to say, the new Lady and the Tramp kind of doesn't exist, which is almost a compliment?

 

5. Mulan (2020)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

Niki Caro's new reimagining of Mulan  – the original is now a superhero origin – had so much potential, drawing more influence from the original Chinese legend but also from a history of Chinese wuxia films. But the notion of trying to please both Chinese and American markets equally has left us with something a bit flat, a bit on the safe side. Removing the musical numbers and playing down the comedy aspects initially seemed to suggest a new direction for the Disney remake – something grittier and more serious that you could really get your teeth into. But this adaptation doesn't quite succeed because it fails to properly lean into not only the wuxia elements  but anything truly inspired. Muted performances and wooden acting don't help. It is fine, but it has left your memory the minute the credits roll.

 

4. Beauty and the Beast (2017)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

All in all, this is a pretty faithful and a pretty successful remake, though it is sorely lacking in that thing we called “magic.” Director Bill Condon directs with his usual, journeyman competence, while the CGI isn't as excessive as in some of these other reimaginings – at points, it's possible to have a good time! There are some issues with Emma Watson's flat line deliveries and some ghastly, auto-tuned singing that doesn't get anywhere near close to Paige O'Hara's work on the original, but Luke Evans is inspired casting as Gaston, and somehow even Ewan McGregor makes his performance as a French candelabra work. Put it this way: it could have been worse.

 

3. 101 Dalmatians (1996)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

There are masterstrokes in casting, and there are masterstrokes in casting, and Glenn Close is about as inspired as it gets when it comes to bringing a formally two dimensional character to life, the very embodiment of Cruella de Vil. She is good enough, even, as to eclipse basically every other flaw in this very cartoonish but very entertaining live-action 101 Dalmatians, made at a time when this current market of excessive Disney remakes seemed like a thing from another universe. I would not quite argue that this is better than the original animated version, but somebody could and that would be entirely respectable.

 

2. Cinderella (2015)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

This is just quite lovely, all things considered – a remake of Cinderella that manages to strike just the right balance, padding out the story, yes, but just enough to expand the world without sacrificing what made the original tale so captivating. Kenneth Branagh helms this like a true gentleman, injecting it with warmth, humour, and emotion. Lily James is an infectious delight as the titular princess, and Cate Blanchett gets the laughs as the Wicked Stepmother (she could have chewed the scenery even further, to my mind, but I won't complain). An altogether less cynical film than most mentioned here: expect little and the payoff is huge.

 

1. The Jungle Book (2016)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

To my mind, the most successful of the Disney live-action movies is this one from Jon Favreau, who also gave us one of the worst with his shot-for-shot remake of The Lion King. It sticks with the basics of the 1967 classic, but is never beholden to it, and achieves a great visual look by blending live-action and CG. The fact that there's a real human here – Mowgli as played by Neel Sethi – helps to ground a film packed with realistically-rendered animals. And there are moments of such inspired weirdness – the giant King Louie, to name but one – that showcases a willingness to try new things and create new set-pieces that stick with you. And is there better re-casting in the entire Disney remake canon than Bill Murray as Baloo? This is the template every remake should be aiming to emulate.

Mulan is now available to stream on Disney+ in the UK for £19.99.

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