Ranking the Live-Action Disney Remakes (Circa 2010)
(Disclaimer: The following post presents a considerably different ranked list of all the recent live-action Disney remakes compared to the one that Andy Neal compiled on October 14th, 2019 for our official podcast, The DCast. To check out both his list and the accompanying video that goes into greater detail about this topic, just head to the following link.)
I’m going to start this post off with a quick disclaimer. If you’re someone who is by no means a fan of Disney’s recent trend of producing live-action remakes of their animated classics, you’re probably not going to get much out of this post since it will be a generally positive take on these films. Yes, since 2010, Disney’s live-action output has primarily been focused on live-action re-imaginings of some of their most iconic animated films. However, while these films have been quite successful at the box-office, they’ve been far more polarizing in terms of their overall reception. While general audiences seem to be fairly receptive towards these new spins on Disney classics, there are a sizable number of folks who have been highly critical of this trend for the exact same reason that folks would take issue with any remake in general. Why would anyone even bother remaking something that’s been regarded by many as an undisputed classic? And yet, as someone who recognizes that the original animated films will always be there regardless of how these new films turn out (which is why I’m thankful for the advent of Disney+, which prominently features both incarnations of the films that have recently gotten the live-action treatment), these recent remakes have never bothered me in the slightest. In fact, I’ve recently started to detest the use of the adjective ‘unnecessary’ when it comes to reviews because I feel that it’s become one of the most overused words in critical vernacular, especially since you could easily apply it to any film that comes out and not just the ones that are remakes/sequels/reboots. In other words, while many of these films are re-imagining some of my favorite Disney films of all-time, I try not to let my affinity for the originals overly cloud my judgment towards the remakes because I personally feel that doing so would be largely unfair to them. And so, with that in mind and in honor of the latest Disney remake Mulan’s impending ‘Premier Access’ release on Disney+ on September 4th, today I’m ranking these live-action remakes from ‘least favorite’ to ‘favorite’. While their placement on this list will primarily stem from overall preference, I will also factor in their efforts to present a new spin on their classic stories.
Before we begin, though, I just need to lay out the ground rules for this list. For starters, I won’t be including the two sequels that were spawned from these recent remakes, 2016’s Alice Through the Looking Glass and 2019’s Maleficent: Mistress of Evil. The reason for this is quite simple; from a subjective standpoint, they’re not ‘remakes’ anymore. Instead, they’re just ‘sequels’ to the remakes. However, I will briefly address them when I go over their predecessors. Also, for this list, I’m only going to be focusing on the remakes that have been released since 2010 since this is when this current trend first began to take shape. Because of this, there are two films from the ’90s that won’t be appearing on this list even though they are technically the first big Disney remakes. The first is the original live-action remake of The Jungle Book (that’s right, Jon Favreau’s version wasn’t the first time that a live-action adaptation of Disney’s Jungle Book was made) which was directed by Stephen Sommers and released in 1994. In fact, while we’re at it, there was a second live-action Jungle Book film that was made in 1998, The Jungle Book: Mowgli’s Story, but that one was just a direct-to-video release and, unlike the 1994 film, usually isn’t counted amongst all these other remakes. The other big remake that won’t be included here is the 1996 adaptation of 101 Dalmatians, which also means that we won’t be covering its 2000 sequel, 102 Dalmatians. Lastly, while it does technically count as a ‘live-action remake’ and can genuinely be considered as a part of this recent subgenre, I’m also not going to include the 2016 remake of Pete’s Dragon since it’s a remake of a live-action film rather than an animated one. Yes, for this list, I’m mainly focusing on the live-action remakes of animated Disney films, and while two of them are technically more like ‘sequels’ than ‘remakes’, I believe that they still count here given that they are primarily based on their animated counterparts. And so, without further ado, here are my current rankings of all the recent live-action Disney remakes.
10. ALICE IN WONDERLAND
We start things off with the first big live-action reimagining of a Disney classic from this modern era, Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. This is the first of the two films that I mentioned earlier that are more like ‘sequels’ rather than ‘remakes’ as it follows a teenaged Alice returning to the world of Wonderland (referred to in-universe as ‘Underland’). Like the original animated film, Burton ultimately went with a combination of elements from both the original Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland novel and its sequel, Through the Looking Glass, rather than just being a direct adaptation of the source material. And right off the bat, the best thing that I can say about this film is that it’s another prime example of why Burton is one of the greatest visual directors in the industry. While the film’s visuals do feel a bit excessive at times due to the scenes in Underland being almost entirely green-screen based, they’re still very much the best part of the film as they wonderfully capture the eccentric nature of the Wonderland setting through the equally eccentric style of Tim Burton. Because of this, it’s easy to see why this film won Oscars for both its production and costume design and how its production designer would go on to direct his own live-action Disney remake a few years later. That said, though, there are a few instances where Burton’s style arguably goes a bit too far for a film that’s primarily geared towards younger audiences. In other words, moments where creatures get their eyes poked out and a scene where Alice crosses a moat filled with the heads of the Queen of Hearts’ victims do make you wonder how the film was able to get away with its PG rating. But despite this and an often-uneven plot (which, yes, is saying something for an Alice in Wonderland film), the film still manages to be another solid outing from Burton, especially thanks to its cast. Helena Bonham Carter is an absolute standout as the figuratively and literally big-headed tyrant the Red Queen and the film sports an impressively stacked voice cast with big names like Stephen Fry and Alan Rickman.
Thus, while it wasn’t exactly a runaway hit with critics, Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland was a smash hit financially as it managed to gross over $1 billion worldwide. This has mainly been attributed to the general lack of competition that it faced upon its release in the Spring of 2010 and the boost that came from 3-D ticket sales since this was right when the 3-D format was experiencing its peak resurgence. Because of this, a sequel was eventually made in 2016, Alice Through the Looking Glass, under the direction of James Bobin, who was fresh off the 2011 Muppets film and its 2014 sequel, Muppets Most Wanted (Burton was still heavily involved as a producer). Like its predecessor, though, it didn’t do too well with critics, and unlike its predecessor, it was a rather notorious underperformer at the box-office. But while we’re not going to spend too much time comparing these two films, I will say that there are two things that the sequel does better than the original. First off, it boasts a brighter visual style that is still a lot of CGI overload, to be fair, but is all-around more pleasant to look at. It also means that there aren’t really any moments that push its PG rating like Burton’s film did. The other key advantage is that, since the first film was primarily focused on Alice finding the confidence to help her Underland friends stop the Red Queen, she is a far more confident lead in Through the Looking Glass, which is well-reflected by Mia Wasikowska’s excellent performance in the role. And so, with all this in mind, while the live-action Alice in Wonderland films are far from being my favorites when it comes to Disney’s recent live-action output, I don’t necessarily ‘dislike’ them, either. They may be far from perfect, but as much as they do have their incredibly vocal critics (especially those who love taking these films to task for not being the most faithful adaptations of their source material), there’s no denying that they also have their fair share of fans.
9. LADY AND THE TRAMP
The most recent film on our list, Lady and the Tramp was one of the many exclusive titles that debuted on Disney+ the day of its launch, and I won’t lie, it was, in fact, the first ‘Disney+ Original’ that I watched. While most of the attention that day was directed towards the pilot episode of The Mandalorian, I was genuinely looking forward to the live-action remake of one of Disney Animation’s most underrated projects. To be clear, I’m not saying that the original Lady and the Tramp is a forgotten entry in the Disney canon, but you could also argue that it often gets overshadowed by the other Disney films of the decade such as Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, and Peter Pan. Nevertheless, it’s a charming love story that was nicely translated into a live-action film by director Charlie Bean. Now admittedly, there aren’t many deviations from the original film, with the biggest changes consisting of minor things such as giving the dog-catcher a more prominent villain role and changing the song sung by Aunt Sarah’s pair of troublemaking cats in light of the original’s often-accused case of racist stereotyping. But even though this does make this version of Lady and the Tramp one of the more straight-forward installments of the recent Disney remakes, that’s not such a bad thing in this instance. Whereas almost all the other remakes are big-budget, CGI-heavy flicks, the Lady and the Tramp remake is refreshingly simple in its approach since the original film was more of a light-hearted romp with the period setting of a classic 1900’s Midwestern town. It also helps that the filmmakers utilized actual dogs to help bring the characters to life even though it goes without saying that CGI was used for the process of making them talk. All in all, this is just an incredibly cute and harmless film that does a nice job in recapturing the charm of its source material’s timeless romance.
In 2019, Tim Burton took on his second major live-action Disney remake with Dumbo. Admittedly, the story of a lovable circus elephant who uses his big ears to fly may have seemed like an odd choice for Burton to direct, but at the same time, it did fit his usual M.O. of stories about misfit characters. Thus, while Burton’s Dumbo doesn’t feature his traditional gothic style, its visuals are still very much on point throughout as they do a wonderful job of capturing the bright and majestic visual aesthetic of the circuses of yesteryear. The film also has the benefit of having greater opportunities for new material when compared to some of the other remakes on this list since the original Dumbo is one of Disney’s more simpler-plotted affairs, especially due to its short 64-minute runtime. As such, all the key moments from the original such as Dumbo’s mother being put into captivity after causing a ruckus and the moment where Dumbo first publicly showcases his flying ability during a clown act are covered in just the first forty minutes. After that, a new subplot occurs when a greedy theme park entrepreneur purchases Dumbo for use in his circus while the members of Dumbo’s original circus troupe work to free his mom from her captivity at the entrepreneur’s amusement park. The remake also focuses more on the story’s human characters, namely WWI veteran Holt Farrier and his two kids Milly and Joe, who take the place of Timothy Q. Mouse from the original as Dumbo’s primary allies since this film doesn’t feature any talking animals. However, the new material that’s added in ends up feeling just as simplistic as the original film’s plot which, to be fair, was reportedly the point according to screenwriter Ehren Kruger. Ultimately, though, Dumbo still works quite well as a good-natured family film with a solid cast headlined by Burton regulars such as Michael Keaton and Danny DeVito and some fun nods to the original, including the infamous pink elephants.
Since Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland is technically more of a sequel than a remake, one could argue that 2014’s Maleficent is where this current crop of live-action Disney remakes truly got started. Under the direction of Alice in Wonderland’s production designer Robert Stromberg, the film serves as a live-action reimagining of Disney Animation’s 1959 outing Sleeping Beauty that, as the title suggests, mainly focuses on the story’s iconic villainess, Maleficent. However, instead of just having her be the main antagonist, the film turns her into more of an anti-hero whose actions against Princess Aurora and her family were the result of her getting revenge against Aurora’s father, her former love interest, for stealing her fairy wings. And while she does curse Aurora to fall into an eternal slumber on her 16th birthday, she ends up developing a motherly connection to her to the point where she’s ultimately the one who saves her from the curse. As you might have guessed, those who prefer Maleficent’s traditionally villainous persona weren’t too pleased with this interpretation of the character, but overall, I think that it’s a uniquely fascinating take on Maleficent and the mother-daughter relationship that forms between her and Aurora is genuinely sweet. But, of course, the biggest highlight of the film is Angelina Jolie in the title role as she perfectly encapsulates the look and persona of the ‘Mistress of All Evil’… even if that designation doesn’t necessarily apply to this version of the character. Thus, Maleficent turned out to be a big hit with audiences upon its release in the summer of 2014, ultimately grossing over $758 million worldwide. This effectively paved the way for a sequel in 2019, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, which was generally on par with its predecessor in terms of quality while also expanding upon its fantasy world, namely by introducing more members of Maleficent’s race, the Dark Feys. Really, the only major disappointment with the sequel was that there were fewer scenes between Maleficent and Aurora. Nevertheless, the Maleficent films are a solid duology of fantasy flicks that pride themselves on being female-driven stories.
6. THE LION KING
Now I’ll be the first to admit that Jon Favreau’s CGI-based remake of The Lion King (which admittedly makes this one a bit questionable to include on this list since it’s not really live-action but arguably still counts based on its status as a remake) is quite arguably the most straight-forward remake of this bunch when it comes to retelling the original film’s story. Apart from some minor additions like an earlier introduction for adult Nala and a rivalry between her and Shenzi the hyena, this is the exact same story as the 1994 film with the exact same story beats. In other words, the biggest difference between the two films is that Favreau’s version is CGI whereas the original was traditionally animated. But while this has made the new Lion King one of the most controversial installments yet of the recent Disney remakes, I’d argue that it still manages to be a solid enough film. Like Favreau’s other big remake, The Jungle Book, much of this is due to the utterly impressive visual effects that do such an incredible job in maintaining their photorealistic nature. And while this does mean that the film lacks the more extravagant moments of the original (i.e. there’s no scene of Timon distracting hyenas by donning a grass skirt and dancing the hula (although there is a brilliant substitute bit for that part)), the attention to detail is truly spot on. Plus, I’d argue that the film still manages to hit the right emotional beats from Mufasa’s death to the moment where Simba speaks with the spirit of his father. And so, if anything, I’d say that at the very least, the new Lion King succeeds as a demonstration of how far CGI has truly come in the past few years. Obviously, I’m not saying that it’s ‘better’ than the 1994 film, but with phenomenal visuals and a great voice cast that includes the likes of Donald Glover, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Billy Eichner, Seth Rogen, and the Queen Bey herself, Beyonce, it’s also quite far from being completely worthless. And yes, this is all coming from someone who lists the original Lion King as his favorite Disney animated film of all-time, but as I’ve made it clear already, just because it’s my favorite doesn’t mean that I was going to hold that against this new film. Still, I will admit that the fact that it is largely note-for-note the same as its traditionally animated counterpart does keep me from putting it any higher on this list.
5. CHRISTOPHER ROBIN
Christopher Robin is the other film on this list that’s more of a sequel rather than a remake as it revolves around a grown-up Christopher Robin being reunited with Winnie the Pooh and the rest of the Hundred Acre Wood gang. But, of course, it still counts on this list since it utilizes much of the iconography from Disney’s interpretation of Winnie the Pooh, and since Winnie the Pooh was such a significant part of my childhood, this was easily one of my most anticipated films of 2018. At the end of the day, I’m happy to report that it did not disappoint. Christopher Robin is an incredibly poignant story about the tragedy that is the loss of childhood innocence through the harsh but sadly natural process of growing up. But while this ordeal ends up being an incredibly rough one for Christopher Robin (e.g. losing his father at a young age, enduring the horrors of World War II, etc.), it is what also makes his eventual reconciliation with his friends and family incredibly cathartic. Ewan McGregor does a fantastic job in the title role and when it comes to his Hundred Acre Wood friends, it was only appropriate that they bring back Jim Cummings, the voice of Pooh and Tigger for many a generation (mine included), for his iconic roles. Now admittedly, many have noted that Christopher Robin sports a rather bleak tone, which is true if focusing solely on the first half of the film before Christopher Robin regains his childhood innocence. After that, the film takes on a more light-hearted tone and the scenes where Pooh and company get into all sorts of adventures in London are purely delightful. And really, that perfectly sums up the film in general. It’s a truly delightful family flick that’s fully bolstered by the ever-enduring charm of its timeless characters to be another great Winnie the Pooh story.
Director Guy Ritchie’s live-action remake of Aladdin ended up being quite a noteworthy success story, which truly is saying something given that it was quite possibly the most scrutinized installment yet of these equally scrutinized remakes before its release. Simply put, it was almost as if this film could never catch a break as it caught flak for various reasons ranging from certain casting choices to the infamous first reveal of Will Smith’s Genie in his traditional blue form. But when it finally came out, it managed to earn over $1 billion worldwide while also doing decently enough with critics, many of whom felt that it turned out to be much better than they initially anticipated. And if you ask me, that means that this film deserves a lot of credit for managing to avoid being the disaster that many predicted it would be. Now as far as being a remake of its animated counterpart, Aladdin is in the same boat as Lady and the Tramp and The Lion King by not making a lot of radical changes to the original story of a good-natured thief who tries to woo the Princess of Agrabah with the help of a wisecracking Genie. Despite this, however, one great change that it does make is letting Princess Jasmine play a far more proactive role in the story. With no disrespect to her animated counterpart, this is the best incarnation of the character to date, especially thanks to Naomi Scott doing a phenomenal job in the role. Meanwhile, Mena Massoud shines in what is surely going to be his breakout role as Aladdin while Will Smith, despite all the pressure that stemmed from having to follow in the footsteps of Robin Williams’ iconic rendition of the Genie in the original animated film, successfully delivers his own, unique take on the character. Ultimately, the only thing that holds this film back is its mediocre interpretation of Jafar, which is primarily due to this version’s more grounded take on the character. But at the end of the day, the live-action Aladdin ends up being a lot of fun, and while it may have seemed like a weird choice to have it done by a director who’s known more for making gritty crime dramas, Guy Ritchie does a highly respectable job when it comes to maintaining the original’s great atmosphere and unforgettable musical numbers.
3. THE JUNGLE BOOK
Out of all these films, Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book is arguably the best example of a live-action Disney remake that isn’t fully tied to its animated counterpart. While it’s still very much the story of a young boy named Mowgli who is raised by wolves in the jungles of India and pursued by the sinister tiger Shere Kahn, it’s ultimately a combination of the 1967 animated film and Rudyard Kipling’s original novel. In other words, it only features three of the songs from the animated film (“Bare Necessities”, “I Wanna Be Like You”, and “Trust in Me”) and places greater emphasis on the dramatic parts of the story such as Mowgli’s history with Shere Kahn, who killed his human father, and the dangerous power of ‘Man’s Red Flower’, fire. Favreau does an excellent job of balancing these two aspects of the story, resulting in some excellent emotional moments (e.g. when Mowgli first leaves for the man-village and says goodbye to his adoptive wolf mother Raksha) while also featuring plenty of great homages to the original. But, of course, the most notable aspect of this film is its extensive use of CGI to bring both its animals and its jungle landscapes to life. And because Favreau’s VFX team did such an outstanding job with the visuals (which ended up netting them the Oscar that year for Best Visual Effects), sometimes it’s easy to forget that Neel Sethi, who plays Mowgli, is literally the only ‘real’ thing on-screen 95% of the time. All this and a top-notch voice cast that includes big names like Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, and Lupita Nyong’o helps make this adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s classic story a full-blown visual masterpiece. And if that wasn’t enough, Favreau and screenwriter Justin Marks are currently prepping a sequel that, according to Marks, could potentially incorporate some of the unused elements from the animated film’s original screenplay by Bill Peet that was ultimately rejected by Walt Disney himself for being too dark.
No matter how much these live-action Disney remakes get ragged on by their biggest critics, there will always be the select few that were genuinely well-received, and the one that started it all for this group was Kenneth Branagh’s 2015 remake of Cinderella. Unlike both Alice in Wonderland and Maleficent, which received mixed reviews upon their release, Cinderella fared quite well with critics and became the first of these remakes to secure a ‘Fresh’ rating on Rotten Tomatoes. And just like Christopher Robin, this was another one of my most anticipated films back when it was coming out due to the original Cinderella being one of my all-time favorite Disney films growing up. All in all, Branagh’s remake does a wonderful job of bringing this classic story to life. Sure, it’s another case where the remake is predominately faithful to its animated counterpart without many significant changes, but in this instance, the changes that it does make are some of the best to come from any of these recent remakes. Easily the best example of this is how it expands upon the relationship between Cinderella and Prince Charming, namely by having them meet before the ball, which also allows the latter to be a more fleshed-out character compared to his animated counterpart. And while Cinderella continues to get a lot of flak nowadays for allegedly being ‘too passive’ of a protagonist, I still stand by what I’ve been saying these past few years in that her unshakably optimistic nature in the face of all the crap she’s put through makes her a far better heroine than she’s often given credit for. Sure enough, this is well-reflected in the live-action remake, especially thanks to Lily James’ outstanding turn in the role. The same goes for Richard Madden as the superior version of Prince Charming, Cate Blanchett as the unforgettably sinister Lady Tremaine, and Helena Bonham Carter in a scene-stealing turn as Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother. And so, with a phenomenal cast, gorgeous production design, and all-around excellent direction from Kenneth Branagh, the live-action Cinderella is one of the most uplifting films to have come out in recent years.
1. BEAUTY AND THE BEAST
To be perfectly blunt, folks, I have the feeling that this film’s placement at the top spot on this list is going to garner some controversy given its usual reception. Let me put it this way; when it first came out, it did relatively well with critics. It currently boasts a 71% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, which is a decently solid score for a film to have on that site, and it also grossed over $1 billion worldwide, effectively making it the second highest-grossing film of 2017 behind only Star Wars: The Last Jedi. In other words, it was, at the very least, clearly a big hit with audiences. However, I think it’s safe to say that this was the film that fully intensified the utter contempt that the ‘Disney remake’ critics have towards this trend, especially due to the legendary reputation of the film that this remake was adapted from. Before 2017, all the live-action Disney remakes were based on older animated films such as Alice in Wonderland and Cinderella. As such, one could argue that the overall expectations for them weren’t as intense given how long it has been since their releases. Beauty and the Beast, on the other hand, was the most recent Disney animated feature to get the live-action treatment at that point and it also happens to be one of the studio’s most beloved outings. It is, after all, the first animated film that was ever nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars, a distinction that only two other films have achieved since then. As such, this remake clearly faced stricter expectations because of how much the original has meant to my generation, and the same can also be said for the remakes of Aladdin and The Lion King that would come out later and would end up garnering far more polarizing reactions from critics. Thus, despite what I just said about the film maintaining a solid rating on Rotten Tomatoes, I wouldn’t be surprised if many of those who gave it a ‘Fresh’ review aren’t as positive about it nowadays. And yet, I’m not afraid to admit that I still love this film.
Yes, this is yet another instance of a remake that doesn’t make a lot of changes to the original’s story, but overall, I was genuinely fine with the updates that they did make. This includes, among other things, Belle being an inventor just like her father (played excellently by Kevin Kline in a uniquely more subdued take on ‘crazy old Maurice’) and her discovery as to why he has been overly protective of her all these years after her mom died from the Plague. I also loved all the new songs that were made for this remake, especially the Beast’s new solo, ‘Evermore’. And while I’m well aware that much of the criticisms towards this film have been directed towards Emma Watson in the lead role of Belle, namely due to her singing, I still think that she does a fantastic job in the role if we’re talking about all the other things that have made Belle one of the most popular Disney princesses. She’s then backed by a phenomenal supporting cast that includes Dan Stevens as the Beast, Luke Evans and Josh Gad as the scene-stealing duo of Gaston and LeFou (so much so that they’re going to get their own Disney+ series) and the likes of Ewan McGregor, Emma Thompson, and Ian McKellen as the Beast’s servants. In short, I will fully admit that there’s probably quite a bit of bias behind my decision to place this film at the #1 spot on this list. I saw it twice in theaters, with the first time being in IMAX at the film’s ‘Fan Event’ screening on my birthday. In other words, I know that I’m probably in the minority when it comes to liking this film, which has certainly faced tons of scrutiny over the ‘necessity’ of its existence and has often been negatively compared to its animated counterpart. And yet, as this entire list has hopefully established by now, I don’t really care about any of that stuff, even if this is another case like The Lion King since the original Beauty and the Beast is one of my Top 5 favorite Disney films. Ultimately, though, that doesn’t prevent the live-action Beauty and the Beast from legitimately being one of my favorite films of the 2010s.
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