Ranking Disney’s live-action remakes
If you read through The A.V. Club reviews of all the recent Disney remakes, you may see a pattern start to emerge. Although the films are all visually impressive, they tend to be hollow imitations, and more often than not leave us questioning the need for their existence. Despite their uneven history of success, Disney can’t seem to quit these remakes. Why come up with original ideas when you can just keep mining your old catalog of classics and make them all over again? Remember all those direct-to-DVD animated sequels in the ’90s? The Mouse is gonna Mouse.
The latest of these, and possibly the most ambitious to date, is The Little Mermaid, opening in theaters on May 26. How does it stand up against the other remakes, including recent efforts like Peter Pan & Wendy and Pinocchio? For the purposes of this list, we’re only including remakes directly based on previous animated films, which would exclude prequels and spin-offs like Maleficent and Cruella. We’re also not counting literary adaptations like the 1994 version of The Jungle Book, which was more directly inspired by Rudyard Kipling’s writings than the 1967 animated film. That still leaves us with plenty of films to rank, though. Read on to see where they landed and how we reviewed them when they were originally released.
Great directors, terrible films: The biggest misses from Hollywood's heaviest hitters
12. Pinocchio (2022)
This direct-to-streaming was one of two high-profile Pinocchio adaptions released in 2022, but don’t be tempted to blame its failure on competition with Guillermo del Toro’s superior effort. Despite having big names attached, like director Robert Zemeckis and Tom Hanks in the role of Geppetto, this one would have been a letdown no matter what. In his review, Luke Y. Thompson said:
Live-action Disney remakes are best seen as the equivalent of Broadway musical versions: they add a few new songs, toss in some contemporary jokes, and throw a ton of money at special effects. Expecting the same kind of timelessness a second time is mostly a futile exercise: the state fair might book a talented cover band, but we’re listening to the original artist in our car or at home. This Pinocchio needed extra money or time, because the animation either looks unfinished or deliberately cartoonish, and the title character’s voice drastically changes from one scene to the next. Meanwhile, new songs by Alan Silvestri and Glen Ballard lack the snappiness and easy-rhyming wordplay of classics like “I’ve Got No Strings” or “When You Wish Upon A Star.” Far be it from us to actively reveal what scuttles Zemeckis’ film, but let’s just say that it seems like the people who made its biggest creative choices have more wood for brains than the character they brought to life.
11. The Lion King (2019)
The Jon Favreau-directed version of The Lion King featured the voices of Donald Glover, Seth Rogen, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Alfre Woodard. In his 2019 review, A.A. Dowd wrote:
Technically, this new Lion King is as much a cartoon as the old Lion King; it’s been created entirely on computers, and features nary a single life-form or landscape not made from 1s and 0s. But like Cinderella, Beauty And The Beast, and the recent, embarrassing Aladdin, it’s a lavish Disney remake that detrimentally thrusts material conceived for animation into an effectively live-action world. At least those films anchored their nostalgia trips to real personalities. There’s almost nothing recognizably human in The Lion King, which labors under the bizarre misconception that anyone needed a photorealistic take on the Shakespearean struggle between talking, singing lions. Joyless, artless, and maybe soulless, it transforms one of the most striking titles from the Mouse House vault into a very expensive, star-studded Disney Nature film.
10. Lady And The Tramp (2019)
The remake of Lady And The Tramp tapped an eclectic voice cast, including Tessa Thompson, Justin Theroux, Sam Elliott, and Janelle Monae. In her review, Caroline Siede said:
The first live-action Disney remake to debut exclusively on the new Disney+ streaming platform, Lady And The Tramp often has the feel of an expensive made-for-TV movie. Taken on its own, it’s a perfectly fine if somewhat generic kid’s film that aims to satisfy young viewers but won’t grate the nerves of any adults who might also be in the room. The problem is that it’s remaking one of the most gorgeous, mature films in the Disney animated canon, and doesn’t begin to rise to that high water mark.
9. Dumbo (2019)
Tim Burton’s version of the early Disney classic featured Colin Farrell, Michael Keaton, and Danny DeVito. In her review, Katie Rife said:
The original animated Dumbo (1941) clocks in at only 64 minutes, a relic of the days when an afternoon at the movies meant a double feature with cartoons in between. Now, in an era when movies must be events unto themselves, Disney’s live-action redo of its flying-elephant fable runs just under two hours. That necessitates either a whole lot of padding or a complete rewrite; screenwriter Ehren Kruger, who’s new to the Disney machine but not to blockbuster filmmaking, splits the difference by keeping the barest minimum of the original plot and bulking it up with new characters and themes. Most of these are wholly expected—kudos to whoever gave a presentation to Disney brass on the importance of STEM education for girls, which has made it into two live-action films in a row. But there’s one plotline in the reimagined Dumbo that’s truly surprising, and even ballsy, when you think about it. Basically, the movie offers a metaphor for the evils of corporate mergers, with villainous circus mogul V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton) standing in for Disney itself.
8. Peter & Wendy (2023)
David Lowery, the director who successfully managed to update Pete’s Dragon for a modern audience in 2016, takes as much inspiration from Disney’s 1953 animated film as he does from author J.M. Barrie’s source material in this diverse, live-action version of the classic tale. Starring Alexander Molony as Peter, Ever Anderson as Wendy, Yara Shahidi as Tinker Bell, and Jude Law as Capt. Hook, Peter Pan & Wendy premiered on April 28, 2023 on Disney+. In her review, Courtney Howard said:
This adaptation combines the fundamental building blocks from J.M. Barrie’s 1911 novel (and its preceding play) and Disney’s 1953 animated film to both greater and lesser effects. By changing elements—for legitimate reasons—it becomes a diverse coming-of-age tale, but it also loses a lot of what made its predecessors memorable and magical. While it’s assuredly not one of the worst, nor one of the best live-action remakes from Disney’s vault, it’s a lackluster letdown whose potential for greatness goes unrealized
7. Aladdin (2019)
Back when Will Smith was just a beloved and uncontroversial movie star, he stepped into Robin Williams’ tough-to-fill shoes as the Genie in Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin reboot. Mena Mossoud took on the title role, opposite Naomi Scott as Princess Jasmine. In his review, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky said:
Disney’s beloved 1992 animated musical about a young thief and the campy, wish-fulfilling buddy he finds in a magic lamp has always seemed like a bad fit for a flesh-and-blood update. Its zippy charms—from the mile-a-minute celebrity impressions of Robin Williams’ Genie to the scenery changes that accompany Alan Menken, Tim Rice, and Howard Ashman’s brain-spongingly hummable songs—belong to the elastically flat world of cel animation, with an occasional, pioneering digital assist. But the nostalgia-mongers and intellectual-property necromancers of the House Of Mouse have made a business out of ignoring the bog-standard life lessons of their own movies—in this case, the one about how riches and power can’t buy happiness.
6. Mulan (2020)
Liu Yifei starred in the title role, leading a cast that includes Jet Li and Gong Li in the live-action version of Mulan. Of all the remakes released so far, this one departs the most from its animated inspiration, opting for a more authentic portrayal of Chinese history, while still including some supernatural elements. In her review, Beatrice Loayza said:
It’s no big secret that Disney envisioned Mulan as a means of conquering the lucrative Chinese market, the second-biggest box office in the world and poised to soon be the first. The absence of Mushu, for instance, isn’t exactly an inspired creative decision so much as a strategic one—the silly dragon sidekick, voiced by Eddie Murphy in the original, did not play well with Chinese audiences back in 1998. The animated Mulan is a deeply stereotypical depiction of China—an American’s understanding of the country—so the live-action remake necessarily takes a different approach. At the very least, the outcome is visually stunning, with otherworldly production design and lush costumes that recall the vivid, fantastical style of Chinese wuxia films.
5. Cinderella (2015)
For this extravagant reimagining of Cinderella, director Kenneth Branagh tapped Lily James for the title role, Cate Blanchett as the wicked stepmother, Richard Madden as the prince, and Helena Bonham Carter as the fairy godmother. Ignatiy Vishnevetsky wrote in his review:
Lavish and impersonal, Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella turns the classic fairytale into a 19th century Ruritanian romance, complete with fictional kingdoms, behind-the-throne intrigues, and a scheming court advisor for a villain. Clothed in a colorful mishmash of historical fashions and scored to sweeping strings, the movie is like an antique cut-crystal vase: gorgeous, fragile, empty. The stepsisters dress like Regency lollipops, the stepmother rocks a high-collar Edwardian get-up in envy green, and Cinderella arrives at the ball in what looks to be the world’s most elegant quinceañera dress; it’s easy to get swept up in the prettiness of it all, and hard to give a damn whether it might end one minute or the next.
4. Beauty And The Beast (2017)
Director Bill Condon invited audiences to be his guest in this faithful version of Disney’s beloved animated feature Beauty And The Beast. Emma Watson brought the beauty while Dan Stevens brought the beast. The voices of the transmogrified household staff were provided by Emma Thompson, Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellen, Stanley Tucci, and Audra McDonald. In his review, A.A. Dowd wrote:
Released at the height of what’s come to be known as the Disney Renaissance, the 1991 Beauty And The Beast wasn’t just a commercial and critical highpoint for its animation house (remember, it was the first animated movie to score a Best Picture nomination). It was also a state-of-the-art technological marvel. In a way, that’s true of the new version, too. From the moment Belle (Emma Watson) steps out onto cobblestone to complain in song about her provincial life, it’s clear that no expense has been spared in recreating all the familiar details, from her modest blue-on-white ensemble to the rows of shops and homes in her quaint French village. The costumes look like costumes, the sets look like sets, but it’s still something to gawk at: a meticulously crafted amusement-park kingdom, a Fantasyland ride built from the blueprint of old animation cels.
3. The Little Mermaid (2023)
Halle Bailey takes on the role of Ariel for the next generation in Disney’s newly reimagined The Little Mermaid. Directed by Rob Marshall, it features most of the familiar soundtrack, plus new songs by original composer Alan Menken with lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda. The cast also includes Melissa McCarthy as Ursula, Jonah Hauer-King as Prince Eric, Daveed Diggs as the voice of Sebastian, Jacob Tremblay as the voice of Flounder, and Awkwafina as the voice of Scuttle. In their review, Leigh Monson said:
The Little Mermaid remake isn’t without its charms. It’s a colorful undersea adventure that allows for enough winking artificiality that it can sometimes feel like an overly elaborate stage production instead of an overly expensive tribute to nostalgia through a photorealistic lens. This should by all rights be a star-making turn for Halle Bailey, but that doesn’t overcome the film’s failure to find an artistically valid reason for its own existence. Its most iconic moments are borrowed and copied wholesale, serving as little more than a reminder of simpler days watching clamshell VHS tapes released from the Disney Vault. Maybe that’s enough for some people. But maybe, like Ariel, we should want more.
2. 101 Dalmatians (1996)
Somewhat of an outlier, this remake came out in 1996, long before Disney started churning them out on the regular. John Hughes (yes, that John Hughes) wrote the screenplay and Stephen Herek directed. Glenn Close led the cast as fashionable animal enthusiast Cruella DeVil, alongside Jeff Daniels and Joely Richardson as the humble pet owners who become victims of her puppy-napping scheme. The A.V. Club never got around to publishing a review of the film, but here’s a recent analysis by Cindy White:
The first notable live-action remake from Disney predates the current trend by 20 years, and maybe that’s what makes it stand out as one of the best. The impetus for making it seems less like a cynical cash grab and more like someone suddenly wondering one day what it would be like to see Glenn Close play Cruella De Vil, and then proceeding to make that happen. Every other creative decision springs forth from that single, genius starting point. Coming out at a time when visual effects weren’t as sophisticated as they are today, it also features more live animal actors (and real puppies!) rather than lifeless CGI ones. There is some digital augmentation going on here, to be sure, but it isn’t as heavily reliant on it as, say, the recent Lady and the Tramp. While it’s not a perfect movie by any stretch, it at least manages to add something new to the original version and feels like it has some blood in its veins.
1. The Jungle Book (2016)
For this remake, director Jon Favreau leaned on a deep and talented voice cast, including Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Lupita Nyong’o, and Scarlett Johansson. In his review, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky wrote:
Special effects take pride of place in Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book, an adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s Mowgli stories. A paean to the harmony of nature created almost entirely in digital space, without a single real animal, landscape, or tree, Favreau’s fantasy is hampered by a talent-show moppet Mowgli (newcomer Neel Sethi) and by difficulties of translation; produced as a remake of Disney’s popular animated musical, it often struggles to make a place of its own amid the callbacks. (“The Bare Necessities,” the earlier film’s best-known song, gets a tossed-off sequence.) Yet as a display of effects know-how, it has undeniable allure. Talking animals have never looked so good, which is a bigger feat than it sounds.
More from The A.V. Club
And the Oscar doesn't go to: 20 great actors who've never been nominated for an Academy Award
Sign up for The A.V. Club's Newsletter. For the latest news, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.