Disney has dabbled in remaking animated classics in a live-action mold, but after Tim Burton’s CG-filled Alice in Wonderland made a billion dollars, the company went all in on its live-action remakes.
Now, 10 years into the conversion strategy, Mulan becomes the first of these live-action remakes to bypass theaters and land directly on Disney Plus. It’s a bold move that could shift the industry all together — but is Mulan worth the $29.99? Where does it land on our definitive ranking of live-action Disney remakes?
As with any good ranking, there are a few rules to go over about which movies we included and which ones we didn’t. The movies had to be remakes or re-imaginings of fully-animated Disney movies; Maleficent may not follow the exact plot of Sleeping Beauty, but it culls from the same source material. The fabulous Pete’s Dragon, on the other hand, doesn’t make the list because the original was already partially live-action. The movies on the list also needed to have a theatrical run — sorry, Kim Possible. Finally, we’re including the fully animated Lion King remake because it had clear live-action ambitions (and there was one non-animated shot in the movie).
And now, please, be our guest — a song that somehow appears in two movies on this list — as we invite you to relax, let us pull up a chair, as the Polygon staff proudly presents ... our list.
[Ed. note this post contains spoilers for every Disney live-action remake and the animated movies they’re based on.]
15. 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 by paving over the Pride Land with photorealistic flora and fauna, The Lion King relies exclusively on nostalgia for the original film, staging awkward song-and-dance numbers with a brown palette and Earthly physics, and stripping the humanity out of every animal’s performance. The movie makes all the wrong choices, including the addition of 20 minutes to the run time so that a dung beetle can push 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
14. Alice Through the Looking Glass (2016)
For all its problems (and it has so many), 2010’s Alice in Wonderland still had a vision behind it. Tim Burton’s version of Wonderland was aggressively colorful, and weird-for-the-sake-of-weird, 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 a billion dollars so that’s not the world we got.
Alice Through the Looking Glass is weighed down by the dramatic turns of a real plot, and the burden of trying to one up a 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. —Austen Goslin
13. The Jungle Book (1994)
This movie doesn’t have anything in common with the 1967 animated classic except for names. The animals don’t talk, because almost all of them are played by real animals, nor do they romp through the jungle and raise a small human boy — again real animals — but hey, the kid’s name is still Mowgli. This Jungle Book is more of an action-adventure-romance about colonialism. After stumbling its way through almost the exact plot of Tarzan, this Jungle Book ends in a third-act set-piece straight out of Temple of Doom. There’s a hidden ancient temple full of treasure, with booby traps, a vault that fills with sand (that buries a character alive), and the biggest snake you’ve ever seen — which winds up eating 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 knock-off with some impressive animal acting it would have been exciting. Instead, it falls right between the two and never manages to make either plot interesting. —AG
12. 102 Dalmatians (2000)
102 Dalmatians has the same problem many sequels with good antagonists do: it fell in love with its villain. It’s easy to see why. Glen Close is fabulous as Cruella de Vil and seems to be having the time of her life. She’s a high-fashion sophisticate with a maniacal love of fur coats and a puppy-murdering plan to make the perfect one. 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 original 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 cares more about Cruella. Even when she’s briefly cured of her love of fur — yes by Dr. Pavlov, the names aren’t subtle here — it’s hard not to remember that her original, and future, plan is to murder 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 anymore. What’s that? Disney’s making a Cruella prequel ... oh good. —AG
11. Beauty and the Beast (2017)
The one thing that really struck me about the live-action Beauty and the Beast was that, instead of ending on a shot of either of its two leads or even the Beast’s castle, it ended on a shot of the now-human former harpsichord, played by Stanley Tucci, grinning through a mouthful of false teeth after having lost all of his real ones while in harpsichord form. It’s an image charged with macabre energy, and then segues directly into a credits sequence that feels more like an in memoriam reel than anything else.
It’s probably the most interesting thing about the film, besides Luke Evans’ terrific turn as Gaston. Emma Watson and Dan Stevens get lost in a CGI soup that only muddies what’s happening on screen rather than enhancing or clarifying it. “Be Our Guest” turns into the final fight in a superhero movie rather than a colorful culinary bonanza, and the new songs are, unfortunately, drags. —Karen Han
10. 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 ... is allergic to flowers? Thinks her brother died? We’re still not clear about that. 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 with as much sharpness as her cheekbones. But when we pull away from the family drama to overarching mythology that no one really needed, to fantasy conflict that was seemingly resolved in the first movie, it drags. — Petrana Radulovic
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. How much the filmmakers want to rely on the 1998 animated film ultimately feels like indecision; there are no songs in this version, but some of the lyrics are still clunkily spoken out loud and feel like “haha, see what we did there?” moments. The emotional beats that worked with the original, 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 there are some things that work about the new version (I’m here for the Shang replacement character Chen Honghui and the pretty 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
8. Alice in Wonderland (2010)
Let me say that my praise for Alice in Wonderland carried it all the way to this abnormally high position. What can I say? Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland is a movie for a 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 you can say about Alice in Wonderland: the garish production design and overblown CGI, for one, not to mention the unfortunate implications that Alice might have a large role in the Chinese opium wars at the end of the movie. 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! — giving it a warm place in my heart, haters be damned. —PR
7. The Jungle Book (2017)
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 you don’t belong in the jungle. Favreau complements the performance by turning Jungle Book into an action-adventure movie — only a few shots nod directly to the original film. But like Lion King, the initial rush of seeing the Baloo and Bagheera realized with photoreal animation subsides, and the spectacle sans the music element leaves something to be desired. It’s fine! —MP
6. Aladdin (2019)
For all the hoopla and uproar about blue Will Smith, the Aladdin remake is deeply fine. 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’s not just a dusty rehash of the original, but 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 its not trying to replicate the original and instead gets to be its own dynamic. Overall, the most glowing thing to say about this one is that it could have been a whole lot worse. —PR
5. Christopher Robin (2018)
Movies that feature adults getting back in touch with their inner child usually only deal with absolutes. This typically involves leaving behind a soul-sucking day job in order to pursue a more fulfilling and creative line of work, or to focus entirely on family. Christopher Robin is the rare film to realize that compromise is necessary in real life, and manages to pull it off without being a complete downer.
That said, Christopher Robin will probably make you cry. It’s a surprisingly thoughtful meditation on growing up, faintly equating abandoning your childhood friends to committing homicide and making it clear that balance is necessary when it comes to being happy once you’ve grown up. The film is made even more potent by the way Pooh and company have been rendered in the fashion of the original illustrations rather than their more readily recognizable present-day counterparts, making them look somehow more plaintive and melancholy. As for the film’s human contingent, Ewan McGregor stars as the grown-up Christopher Robin, reckoning with his departure from the Hundred Acre Wood as well as trying to be a good husband, father, and employee. —KH
4. Dumbo (2019)
Most of Tim Burton’s recent work doesn’t inspire much confidence (sorry, Petrana), but against all odds, his Dumbo soars. In part, it’s because he’s used his ticket into the Mouse House to make a film about the vagaries of corporate greed and how it throttles art in a thinly veiled reference to the Disney-Fox merger. The tale of a little elephant who learns to fly takes on grander proportions as Burton builds a human cast around him, bringing his former Batman Returns stars Michael Keaton and Danny DeVito back to play a wealthy impresario and the small-time ringmaster who falls under his spell as Dumbo becomes increasingly famous.
Blessedly, the little elephant in Tim Burton’s Dumbo isn’t photorealistic. Or, at least, though his skin may be leathery and his tiny body may carry all of the heft of a real elephant’s, his eyes still remain cartoonishly large and shiny, able to convey all of the emotions he can’t through speech. At times, he looks strange, but so it goes with all of Burton’s work. The key here is that he’s not attempting a total retread of what came before, and that he’s traveling into more personal (and hence more affecting) territory. —KH
3. Maleficent (2014)
For Johnny Depp or Will Smith, starring in a Disney live-action remake was a way to siphon the magic of a mega brand. For Angelina Jolie, it’s the other way around. Disney’s re-imagining 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, costars, and enlivens 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. The renaissance villains are big, silly, theatrical, full of ridiculous melodrama, and still terrifying to young minds. Their pitched-up personalities were perfect for that eras 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 Glen 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 it’s Close’s performance as Cruella that really makes the movie. Cruella is the only live-action villain, so far, to join the pantheon of Disney’s great evil characters and just like the renaissance movies those villains come from, Cruella’s perfect — and never over-used — 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 kind-hearted 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 shines: 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 the perfect quirky fairy godmother. The costumes are gorgeous: Cinderella’s ball gown 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 fairytale and sticks with you afterwards. —PR