Steven Spielberg’s 1991 fantasy Hook feels like the true father of Disney’s massive wave of live-action remakes and spinoffs of its classic animated features, but it wasn’t actually made by Walt Disney Studios. Disney took another two decades to really see the appeal of that kind of big blockbuster brand extension, once the billion-dollar box office for Tim Burton’s CG-filled Alice in Wonderland and the similarly massive take for the villain backstory Maleficent made the live-action formula seem like a gold mine. Disney has been cranking them out ever since, generally producing hits that many people see, and few people love.
The rise of Disney Plus gives Disney even more reason to keep pumping out these movies — with worldwide box office still significantly below pre-COVID levels, the company needs a steady stream of new features to keep subscribers happy. But which of Disney’s live-action cash-ins are actually worth watching, and which are just tedious repeats of better movies? We watched all of them to find out.
What movies qualified for the list? We followed a few rules: They have to be remakes of or direct prequels or sequels to fully animated Disney movies. (For instance, the fabulous Pete’s Dragon isn’t on this list because the original feature was already mostly live-action.) We did include the CG Lion King remake because Disney considers it a live-action feature, even though there’s only one non-animated shot in the movie.
[Ed. note: We’ll continue to update this post periodically as new Disney live-action remakes are released. Latest update: January 2024, to add Pinocchio, Cruella, Peter Pan & Wendy, and The Little Mermaid, plus Lady and the Tramp, which we originally omitted because it never had a theatrical run — a requirement for this list that we’ve since dropped.]
20. Pinocchio (2022)
The story of the magically animated wooden puppet who just wants to be a real boy is understandably tempting for directors. From Pinocchio’s rickety, loose-jointed dancing to the dark chaos of Pleasure Island to the dramatic escape from the belly of a whale, Carlo Collodi’s children’s novel is full of disparate tones, clever sequences that must seem ripe for reimagining every few decades or so.
At least, that’s the only explanation I can think of for why Guillermo del Toro and Robert Zemeckis would choose to make Pinocchio movies at almost the exact same time. But while del Toro’s stop-motion beauty at least adds a new level of artistry to the puppet’s tale, Zemeckis’ live-action remake of the Disney animated classic adds nothing. An artless, charmless, ugly bore, Pinocchio feels like the hollowed-out endpoint for Zemeckis’ decades-long fascination with animation and moviemaking technology. Every performance feels like a sleepwalk, and even the (still great) Disney songs feel like karaoke performed under duress. Even on a list with plenty of less-than-great entries, Disney’s live-action Pinocchio stands out as wooden. —Austen Goslin
19. The Lion King (2019)
While “live-action” doesn’t technically apply to this remake, director Jon Favreau wanted immaculate CG animation to trick audiences’ brains into believing what they watched was real. But in paving over the Pride Lands with comparatively drab photorealistic flora and fauna, The Lion King relies exclusively on nostalgia for the original film. The awkward song-and-dance numbers now come with a brown palette and Earthly physics, and they strip the humanity out of all the animal performances.
Favreau makes all the wrong choices with this movie, including adding 20 minutes to the run time for things like a dung beetle pushing a ball of poo across the African plains. In the end, it’s all joyless, even for Disney fanatics. Not even Beyoncé can imbue this voice-over-heavy redux with life. —Matt Patches
18. Alice Through the Looking Glass (2016)
For all its problems (and it has so many), 2010’s Alice in Wonderland still has a vision behind it. Tim Burton’s version of Wonderland is aggressively colorful, and weird for the sake of weirdness, but it also got the benefit of being explored. The whole movie was about taking us on a tour of a world and seeing each bit of strangeness as Alice came across it. In another world, it’s possible that a sequel, with a new director, could have done something similar with someone else’s vision driving the colors of Wonderland. But the first one made over $1 billion, so that isn’t the world we got.
James Bobin’s sequel to Burton’s movie, Alice Through the Looking Glass, is weighed down by the dramatic turns of a real plot, and the burden of trying to one-up its predecessor while bringing back everything that helped the first movie make so much money. As a result, everything in the movie just feels like Tim Burton karaoke. It’s a hollow imitation of the things that resonated with a very specific audience (our writer Petrana, see below) six years earlier when the original was released. —AG
17. Beauty and the Beast (2017)
A lot of the conversation about the 2017 Beauty and the Beast focused on the ballyhoo over Disney’s “first openly gay character.” Which means not enough was ever said about the film’s real flaws, particularly the half-assed, halfhearted additions to what was already a pretty perfect movie. Bill Condon’s version crams extra lines into songs, ruining their rhythm, and adds a weirdly operatic new song for Beast. It also packs in some extra backstory for the characters, most of which is confusing and doesn’t make much sense, and piles on plenty of bombastic action and manic slapstick.
In other words, it makes everything louder, more chaotic, and far less sincere than it was in the original version, while keeping the script, designs, songs, and even shots and camera angles the same — a strict downgrade of a classic, with nothing new to recommend it. —Tasha Robinson
16. 102 Dalmatians (2000)
102 Dalmatians has the same problem many sequels with good antagonists do: The creators clearly fell in love with their own villain. It’s easy to see why. Glenn Close is fabulous as Cruella de Vil, and she seems to be having the time of her life. Her Cruella is a high-fashion sophisticate with a maniacal love of fur coats, and a puppy-murdering plan to make the perfect ’fit. Her name is basically Cruel and Evil, her license plate reads “Devil” at a glance, and Close knows that this villain never needs to be any subtler than that.
But Cruella works in the first live-action 101 Dalmatians because the movie isn’t really about her. She shows up whenever the movie needs a comic lift or a scary moment, but it’s still about the heroic dogs. The sequel isn’t. There are still dogs, but the movie focuses more on Cruella. Even when she’s briefly cured of her love of fur (by Dr. Pavlov — the names aren’t subtle here), it’s hard to remember that her original (and future!) plan is to slaughter 100 dogs to make a coat. She’s the villain for a reason, and this movie just gives us too much Cruella face time for her to be fun. (Which seemed to bode ill for the 2021 prequel Cruella, but more on that later in this list.) —AG
15. The Jungle Book (1994)
Stephen Sommers’ 1994 version of The Jungle Book doesn’t have anything in common with the 1967 animated classic except for the names. The animals don’t talk, because almost all of them are played by real animals. They also don’t romp through the jungle, raise a small human boy, and argue about the Law of the Jungle. But hey, the kid’s name is still Mowgli. This Jungle Book is more of an action-adventure-romance about colonialism. After stumbling through almost the exact plot of Tarzan, the film ends in a third-act set-piece straight out of Temple of Doom, complete with a hidden ancient temple full of treasure, booby traps, a vault that fills with sand (which buries a character alive), and the biggest snake you’ve ever seen. And that snake eats the villain in a scene far too horrific for this movie’s PG rating.
If this version of The Jungle Book had been a colonialist drama about an Indian boy falling in love with a British girl who learns to respect the sanctity of nature, or an Indiana Jones knockoff with some impressive animal acting, it would have been exciting. Instead, it falls right between the two, and never makes either plot interesting. —AG
14. Maleficent: Mistress of Evil (2019)
The live-action Sleeping Beauty riff Maleficent didn’t beg for a follow-up, and yet we got one! And it could be a lot worse than it is. Angelina Jolie and Michelle Pfeiffer save the movie with absolutely stellar performances, though it’s still hard to buy that Pfeiffer’s Queen Ingrith wants to kill all fairies because she’s… allergic to flowers? Thinks her brother died? It’s unclear.
When the movie focuses on Maleficent’s clash with the royal family, it rules. The awkward meet-the-parents dinner is funny and deliciously tense, as Jolie’s quips slice through the air, as sharp as her cheekbones. But when the story pulls away from the family drama to focus on overarching mythology that no one really needed — and specifically, on fantasy conflict that seemed like it was resolved in the first movie — it drags. —Petrana Radulovic
13. Lady and the Tramp (2019)
Everything charming about the original Lady and the Tramp is flattened in the live-action version. Turns out, when your whole movie is about dogs falling in love, using actual dog performers for the roles ends up pretty stilted. Real dogs can convey a lot of emotions, but “conflict between affection and the perceived barriers of implicit social classes” isn’t usually high on their list. While the voice-over performances from Justin Theroux and Tessa Thompson are fine, it’s all lost when the dog characters just… are dogs. —PR
12. Mulan (2020)
The frustrating thing about the Mulan remake is that all of the threads of a good movie are there — a chance for a more accurate retelling of the legend, tightly choreographed fight sequences, some pretty gorgeous cinematography — but the final product is woven together clumsily. It feels like the filmmakers were indecisive about how much they wanted to rely on the 1998 animated film: There are no songs in this version, but some of the lyrics are still clunkily spoken out loud, like “Ha ha, see what we did there?” moments.
The emotional beats that worked with the original animated feature, like Mulan’s decision to run away and join the army, feel rushed. So why include them at all, when there are so many additional plot points? In the end, while some things work in the new version (I’m here for the Shang replacement character, Chen Honghui, and the dope fight sequences within the city walls), all together, it just makes me want to rewatch the original — a common side effect of most of these live-action adaptations. —PR
11. Alice in Wonderland (2010)
Let me say that my praise for Alice in Wonderland carried it all the way to this perhaps surprisingly high position on this list. What can I say? Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland is a movie for 14-year-old Hot Topic-wearing girls who listened to pop-punk bands and reblogged edgy Disney edits on Tumblr. And when Alice in Wonderland came out, I was that 14-year-old girl.
There are certainly bad things about Alice in Wonderland: the garish production design and overblown CGI, the unfortunate implication that Alice might have a large role in the Chinese opium wars. But it wholeheartedly indulges in its teenage girl fantasies — Alice wears a bunch of beautiful dresses, but also gets some cool armor! She has a magical sword! She rides a giant snow leopard creature! She’s the savior of the realm! She’s just COOL! That gives it a warm place in my heart, haters be damned. —PR
10. Cruella (2021)
When Cruella is a movie about fashion heists carried out by a daring designer, it’s actually pretty damn fun. Unfortunately, most of the movie is not that. With a run time of more than two hours, Cruella invents an absolutely inane sob-story background for the main villain, who would be a much better character if she was just allowed to be bad, without any deeper motivations stemming from poverty and familial tragedy. Everything that could be fun about the movie is sucked away by the most cringey character backstory in Disney movie history. —PR
9. Peter Pan & Wendy (2023)
Too many adaptations of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan put the emphasis on the titular never-aging boy or the nefarious Captain Hook, and forget that the most important characters are actually the three Darling children — especially Wendy Darling, who’s navigating the tricky transition between childhood and adolescence. The live-action take on the beloved tale, directed by David Lowery (Pete’s Dragon, The Green Knight), does center the narrative on Wendy, for the most part. A lot of Wendy’s journey and her acceptance that growing up isn’t necessarily bad still gets lost amid the Peter Pan versus Captain Hook backstory, which adds a secondary message about missing your mom that distracts from the main theme. Someday, Wendy will have her proper place in the sun — just not quite yet, apparently. —PR
8. The Jungle Book (2016)
Jon Favreau’s remake of Disney’s 1967 animated film was just good enough to warrant The Lion King. The human element goes a long way: As Mowgli, newcomer Neel Sethi nails the instincts of a boy raised by wolves, the relaxation of floating around through life with a big bear, the terror of Shere Khan’s confrontation, and the existential dizziness of realizing he doesn’t belong in the jungle. Favreau complements the performance by turning The Jungle Book into an action-adventure movie — only a few shots nod directly to the original film. But as with The Lion King, the initial rush of seeing Baloo and Bagheera realized with photoreal animation subsides, and the spectacle sans the music element leaves something to be desired. It’s fine! —MP
7. Aladdin (2019)
For all the hoopla and uproar about blue Will Smith replacing Robin Williams’ beloved take on Genie, the Aladdin remake is entirely OK. The blockbuster’s worst crime is the uninspired choreography — instead of racing through Agrabah after stealing a loaf of bread, for instance, Aladdin casually meanders through the streets without much alarm. New characters and plotlines keep the film fresh enough to be engaging: It isn’t just a dusty rehash of the original, it actually brings something to the story that feels more justifiable than some of the other remakes.
Princess Jasmine, instead of having some random hobby tacked on because “feminism,” finds her own agency by the end of the movie. It takes a bit for Will Smith and Mena Massoud to find their chemistry, which shines the best when it isn’t straining to replicate the original, and instead gets its own dynamic. Overall, the most glowing thing to say about this one is that it could have been a whole lot worse. —PR
6. Christopher Robin (2018)
Marc Forster (Quantum of Solace, Finding Neverland) follows Steven Spielberg’s Hook template to a T in Christopher Robin, this time with Ewan McGregor as the grown-up version of a famous Disney kid character, living such a gray, stuffy life that his idea of a bedtime story is reading his young daughter a history of the Industrial Revolution. Naturally, Winnie the Pooh has to infiltrate live-action London to remind Christopher of the wonder of childhood.
It’s sentimental, predictable, by-the-book stuff, and the “realistic” CG versions of Pooh and his friends are pretty creepy and not particularly charming. Real-world Pooh also reads remarkably like a spoiled, whiny, impulse-driven kid out to drive a caring parent bonkers. But Christopher Robin does have a warm, hazy, wistful look and feel that’s appealing and distinctive, and McGregor makes for a convincingly put-upon sad dad. And you can say this for the movie — it’s new material with its own distinct agenda, rather than a strict translation of a classic into live action. That said, the “return to childhood” narrative might land better if Christopher Robin’s “boring, joyless adult obsession” wasn’t an attempt to protect his co-workers from being laid off by his struggling company. Leave the guy alone, Pooh, he’s trying to save people’s jobs! That’s more important than eating honey and playing Pooh-sticks. —TR
5. Dumbo (2019)
What makes Disney’s live-action Dumbo work is just how much it feels like a Trojan horse. On the one hand, director Tim Burton faced the difficult task of translating a bizarre but beautiful little kids movie into something interesting, while giving its source material a much-needed update and bringing the whole thing into live action. And he does most of that respectably well. Dumbo remains the story of a cute elephant, laughed at because of the size of his ears, whisked off into a horrific life before being rescued.
But Burton adds a daring pivot by making Disney — and Walt Disney specifically — the villain of his movie. Played with vicious glee by Michael Keaton, the theme-park impresario who wants to imprison Dumbo for his show feels inseparable from Disney’s esteemed founder. It’s a cheeky statement for the man who helped kickstart Disney’s live-action-remake craze to end one of his remakes by burning evil-Disneyland to the ground. But it’s also an incredibly fun way to cap off his goth-tinged Dumbo adventure. —AG
4. The Little Mermaid (2023)
Halle Bailey and Jonah Hauer-King shine as Ariel and Eric in the live-action Little Mermaid. Bailey’s amazing singing voice, coupled with her incredibly expressive eyes, make her one of the most charming live-action Disney princesses out there. But Hauer-King’s Eric seals the deal, turning the otherwise bland Disney prince into an earnest dreamer, a worthy partner for the curious and adventurous mermaid. The two leads are strong enough to mostly save the film from bad talking animals, superfluous plotlines for the side characters, and uninspired underwater scenes. —PR
3. Maleficent (2014)
For Johnny Depp or Will Smith, starring in a Disney live-action remake was a way to siphon off the magic of a mega-brand. For Angelina Jolie, it’s the other way around. Disney’s reimagining of the Sleeping Beauty story invests in the fire and glow of the A-lister, who commands the screen as she flutters around a fantasy world with a pair of dark fairy wings. Elle Fanning, another major talent of her generation, co-stars, enlivening what could have been another murky march across CG backdrops (grrrr, those Alice movies — sorry, Petrana!) into a tale of feminine revenge. Yes, our antihero still turns into a dragon, checking the box of the original film’s big spectacle. But the movie pops when it’s Jolie on screen, chewing up scenery. —MP
2. 101 Dalmatians (1996)
One of the problems of Disney’s live-action remakes is that the villains rarely stack up to the animated originals. Classic Disney villains are big, silly, theatrical, full of ridiculous melodrama, and still terrifying to young minds. Their pitched-up personalities were perfect for that era’s beautiful animation, but the evil alchemy that made these characters work is something that’s eluded most of Disney’s live-action remakes over the last several years. These new villains don’t have any of the charm, charisma, or fun of their more dastardly animated counterparts. The only real exception to that came in 1996 when Disney cast Glenn Close as Cruella de Vil.
101 Dalmatians is certainly the story of heroic dogs and their defeat of the evil would-be puppy murderer, but Close’s performance as Cruella is what really makes the movie. Cruella is the only live-action villain so far to join the pantheon of Disney’s great evil characters. Her perfect, never overused presence helps elevate this at least near some of Disney’s classics. —AG
1. Cinderella (2015)
The animated Cinderella is timeless and beautiful, but the story itself is simple. Perhaps more so than the other movies on this list, the Cinderella fairy tale has had dozens upon dozens of adaptations, and the simplicity of its story means that reimaginings are welcome. The 2015 Cinderella gives depth to the Disney tale; our heroine was always kindhearted and resilient, but this version gives her more backstory and personality, along with a connection with the prince that goes beyond their fateful meeting at the ball.
The cast is winning. Lily James is so effortlessly Cinderella; Richard Madden brings charm to the generic prince. Cate Blanchett is a formidable and almost sympathetic stepmother, and Helena Bonham Carter is the perfect quirky Fairy Godmother. The costumes are gorgeous: Cinderella’s ballgown looks like a watercolor painting. Prince Kit’s spring-green embroidered riding jacket slays. Lady Tremaine’s almost anachronistic daily wear suspends the movie in a nebulous point of fantasy time. Above all, though, is the message of “Have courage and be kind,” a soft reminder that seamlessly fits into the fairy tale and sticks with you after. —PR