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Every Live-Action Disney Remake, Ranked

Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photos: Disney

When, at the height of the so-called Disney Renaissance in 1994, the studio that was producing a string of animated hits decided to revisit an old favorite in a new way, no one could have predicted what a gigantic industry Disney’s live-action versions of its own animated movies would become. There were sporadic live-action adaptations in the years following that initial remake of The Jungle Book, including a stretch of movies like Maleficent and Alice in Wonderland that offered alternate, reimagined spins on classic films. But the live-action remake trend really solidified in 2015 with the release of Cinderella, the first of many slavishly faithful retellings of well-known movies. That has often resulted in hermetically sealed reenactments designed only to remind viewers of something they’re already familiar with.

In the last few years, Disney has been mining its animated past more aggressively than ever before, and this week’s theatrical release of The Little Mermaid marks the second live-action remake of 2023, less than a month after the April premiere of Peter Pan & Wendy on Disney+. New live-action versions of Snow White, Lilo & Stitch, Hercules, and more are all on the horizon, plus sequels to some of Disney’s previous adaptations. Along the way, Disney has stretched the definition of “live action” to encompass photorealistic CGI productions that include little to no actual live-action footage.

Those movies are included in this ranking, though, since Disney has successfully sold them as something different from animation. Every movie adapted from a Disney animated feature film is here, from the semi-clever variations to the straightforward re-creations, all carefully prepackaged for easy, unchallenging consumption.

23. The Jungle Book: Mowgli’s Story (1998)

Although it was released just four years after Disney’s first live-action version of The Jungle Book, this direct-to-video production is a separate, more faithful retelling of the story — yet sticking to the original plot is about the only thing this movie succeeds at. Future Disney Channel star Brandon Baker plays Mowgli, in a cloying, awkward performance that fits with the hacky sitcom writing. The “jungle” looks like a low-rent animal-encounter attraction, and director Nick Marck places hyperactive voice-over dialogue alongside mostly static shots of real animals shuffling around uncomfortably, not moving their mouths. There’s no sense of adventure, just an annoying kid staring at various captive creatures while bored B-list actors recite bad jokes on the soundtrack.

22. 102 Dalmatians (2000)

Glenn Close’s delightfully unhinged performance as villainous, puppy-murdering fashion magnate Cruella de Vil carries 1996’s 101 Dalmatians, but it’s not enough to save this dreadful sequel. Cruella spends the first part of the movie supposedly reformed, thanks to some Jason Bourne–style government reprogramming, before reverting back to her evil ways. She breaks down a wall to get to her furs like they’re John Wick’s guns and once again sets her sights on amassing Dalmatians to make into a coat. Director Kevin Lima dials up the wackiness, and Close follows accordingly, mugging and screeching as Cruella is outwitted by various bumbling dogs and eventually defeated by being baked into a giant cake, somehow.

21. Alice Through the Looking Glass (2016)

There’s a bit of Tim Burton charm to Disney’s first live-action Alice in Wonderland, but that’s all disappeared as director James Bobin takes over for the sequel. Mia Wasikowska’s Alice is adrift in her own story, mostly just reactive as she travels back in time ostensibly to save the doomed family of the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp). Both the Hatter and the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) get boilerplate tragic origins in a cluttered plot that’s drowned out by the hideous, oppressive visual effects. Depp overloads on his irritating brand of wide-eyed whimsy, and a miscast Sacha Baron Cohen inexplicably sounds like Werner Herzog as the personification of Time.

20. Pinocchio (2022)

With his frequent fixation on technological advancements at the expense of storytelling, director Robert Zemeckis is a perfect fit for the current era of Disney remakes, as he proves in this unsettling, disastrous take on one of Disney’s earliest animated classics. Creating detailed CGI versions of the original hand-drawn animated designs for wooden puppet Pinocchio and his insect pal Jiminy Cricket renders them grotesque and disturbing, and that extends to the sour, distorted interpretation of the original movie’s story, characters, and musical numbers. Tom Hanks stumbles through his role as human wood-carver Geppetto, giving a misguided performance in a hopelessly misguided movie.

19. The Lion King (2019)

Let’s be clear: This is not a live-action movie, no matter what Disney calls it. It’s a painstakingly photorealistic CGI update of the traditionally animated original, but it’s still an animated movie. It’s also entirely stiff and lifeless, sacrificing the expressiveness of a cartoon for something that looks like it would play on TVs at Best Buy to demonstrate a horrifying new type of motion smoothing. After introducing the hyperreal CGI environments and creatures of 2016’s The Jungle Book, director Jon Favreau takes things one step further, applying the same techniques to everything depicted onscreen. He delivers the grand, Shakespeare-influenced story of betrayal and redemption as a clumsy diorama of the animal kingdom.

18. Christopher Robin (2018)

The kid protagonist of the animated Winnie-the-Pooh movies becomes a stereotypical neglectful movie dad in this glum live-action follow-up to the cartoon adventures of the stuffed bear and his friends. The title character (Ewan McGregor) is now a downtrodden World War II veteran working as a middle manager at a luggage company and ignoring his wife and daughter. His childhood animal playmates return to remind him about what matters in life, basically harassing him into becoming a better person. “Was it always this gloomy?” Christopher Robin asks when he returns to the magical Hundred Acre Wood, a relevant question about both the tone and visual style of such a dismal, hectoring movie.

17. The Jungle Book (2016)

Favreau’s first Disney project features one human actor, Neel Sethi as Mowgli, but his presence is just as stilted as the CGI animals surrounding him. Even a mere seven years later, the cracks are already starting to show in the once-astounding special effects, particularly in the harsh, artificial lighting of the supposed jungle setting. Bill Murray and Christopher Walken bring some charisma to their respective voice performances as Baloo the bear and King Louie the orangutan, but their half-hearted delivery of a couple of songs from the animated movie is pretty feeble, a reminder of how much more vibrant and memorable their cartoon counterparts are.

16. 101 Dalmatians (1996)

Close’s grandiose version of Cruella de Vil remains definitive, but the rest of this dopey family comedy is a mix of strained slapstick and unearned sentiment. Jeff Daniels and Joely Richardson — in a hairstyle that makes her look exactly like Princess Diana — play the bland lovebirds whose pet Dalmatians inspire Cruella’s envy, and their scenes are dull and treacly, with weird patriarchal overtones. Screenwriter John Hughes cribs from his own Home Alone for the silly sequences of animals thwarting criminals, but these dogs have nothing on Kevin McCallister, especially since they never get to speak.

15. Maleficent: Mistress of Evil (2019)

It’s one thing to retell a famous fairy tale from an alternate perspective, but it’s another thing to figure out how to keep that new story going, whether it’s warranted or not. The studio demand for a follow-up to 2014 hit Maleficent doesn’t translate into an engaging narrative now that Sleeping Beauty villain Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) has been thoroughly rehabilitated. New conflict comes from Michelle Pfeiffer as a scheming queen whose son is set to marry Maleficent’s goddaughter Aurora (Elle Fanning), but the simplicity of the original fable is replaced with muddled lessons, ugly special effects, and a confusing metaphor for the displacement of native peoples.

14. Dumbo (2019)

Tim Burton’s second Disney live-action remake is a poorer fit for his sensibilities than Alice in Wonderland, and he struggles to integrate his creepy-cute style with the basic, episodic structure of the animated classic. Burton and screenwriter Ehren Kruger essentially retell the entire original movie in the first 40 minutes, then continue the story by bringing flying elephant Dumbo into a new setting. The movie perks up when Michael Keaton and Eva Green arrive as a ruthless impresario and his sensitive acrobat girlfriend, and Burton envisions his obvious Disneyland analog as a capitalist hellscape. It’s a half-formed allegory at best, though, with uninteresting human protagonists and a chaotic, murky finale.

13. Beauty and the Beast (2017)

Bill Condon’s adaptation of the first animated movie ever to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture is also the first live-action remake to incorporate all of the songs from its source material. Unfortunately, this invites comparisons to the superior original, despite the admirable efforts from stars Emma Watson and Dan Stevens as the title characters. The reprises of moments from the animated movie are rather pale imitations, while the additions, including a few downbeat, maudlin new songs from Alan Menken and Tim Rice, are all superfluous. The introspective, provincial girl and the arrogant, cursed prince both get extra trauma added to their pasts, but all it does is pad out the run time.

12. The Little Mermaid (2023)

The casting of Halle Bailey as Ariel shows what a difference it makes when Disney recruits actual singers for roles that involve lots of singing, but she doesn’t do much more than smile beatifically when she’s not belting out musical numbers. The star-crossed romance between mermaid Ariel and human prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King) is mostly a dud, although screenwriter David Magee attempts to give Eric some extra depth so that the connection is based on more than love at first sight. The new songs, especially a rap-inflected number led by Awkwafina as seabird Scuttle, aren’t worth much, and the depiction of the undersea world is a garish, plasticky eyesore. Bailey’s fantastic voice only takes the movie so far.

11. Aladdin (2019)

The genie from the original Aladdin is a remarkable example of animators and a voice performer coming together to create something unique and brilliant, so there’s no way for a CGI-enhanced Will Smith to live up to Robin Williams’s legacy. He sure does try, but the effort always shows, and his domineering presence crowds out the subtler moments. Mena Massoud and Naomi Scott have a sweet, understated dynamic as street thief Aladdin and Princess Jasmine, and their version of love ballad “A Whole New World” is a highlight. Director Guy Ritchie adds unnecessary action scenes and a perfunctory solo song for Jasmine, but it all comes back to Smith’s desperate, attention-grabbing antics.

10. Lady and the Tramp (2019)

This Disney+ original, which was a high-profile launch title for the streaming service, gets points for casting real-life rescue dogs rather than relying solely on antiseptic CGI replicas. The dogs are cute, although even with special-effects augmentations, they’re still far more inert than their animated equivalents. The romance between the title characters, a pampered family dog and a rough-and-tumble stray, also lacks the warmth and passion that traditional animation can convey. The iconic spaghetti-strand kiss barely registers in this version. It’s pleasant but forgettable, serving as the first of many reminders that, on Disney+, it’s just as easy to watch the earlier, better movie instead.

9. Cinderella (2015)

Director Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella is often elegant and opulent, and if nothing else, it scales back on the title character’s grating, obtrusive little mouse friends. Lily James’s Cinderella doesn’t have much more personality than the simplistic animated version, although she gets to have a few more substantive conversations with Prince Kit (Richard Madden) before becoming the object of his obsession. Cate Blanchett is relatively subdued as Cinderella’s wicked stepmother, with her shrieking stepsisters picking up most of the slack. There’s nothing notably new here, but it’s a bright, lively adaptation of an oft-told fairy tale.

8. Alice in Wonderland (2010)

Burton has spent the last 25 years or so adding his goth-lite aesthetic to various existing properties, often giving Johnny Depp a prominent role. It would be easy to dismiss all of those efforts as equally hollow, but it’s clear that Burton doesn’t have the same level of artistic engagement on all these projects. Although it’s far from his best work, Alice in Wonderland is such an obvious choice for Burton that it’s nearly impossible for him not to connect with it. Depp is only mildly annoying as the Mad Hatter, and Mia Wasikowska brings a fierce indomitability to Alice that’s missing in the sequel. Even a watered-down version of the vintage Burton magic still has a certain appeal.

7. Maleficent (2014)

Jolie’s first go-round as the misunderstood Sleeping Beauty villain is much more successful than the second, although it still never quite justifies its independent existence. Jolie is best when she gets to be truly menacing, but that’s confined to a handful of moments in a movie that is determined to reimagine Maleficent as maligned and mistreated. The villain role shifts to Sharlto Copley’s power-hungry King Stefan, but he never seems like much of a threat compared to the majestic Maleficent. The pseudo-maternal bond between Maleficent and Fanning’s Princess Aurora is flimsy, but when Maleficent brings the full force of her powers down on her enemies, the movie can be thrilling.

6. Peter Pan & Wendy (2023)

There’s an added genuine human touch to director David Lowery’s Disney remakes, although this take on the story of Peter Pan isn’t as successful as his earlier version of Pete’s Dragon. Still, Lowery puts care and consideration into his characters, especially the adolescent Wendy Darling (Ever Anderson), whose reluctance to grow up leads her to Neverland along with her younger brothers. The other title character, Alexander Molony’s Peter Pan, is less compelling, which gives the movie a lopsided focus. Jude Law’s Captain Hook becomes a more melancholy character thanks to revelations that tie his past to Peter’s, and his villain rehabilitation is more effective than certain flashier Disney efforts in that area.

5. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (2010)

The brief sequence that re-creates the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” segment from 1940’s Fantasia could be cut entirely without any effect on the plot, but that turns out to be a good thing. Rather than copying a Disney animated classic, this Jerry Bruckheimer production fits in with the YA action-fantasy boom of the 2000s. It’s a lower-tier example, but Nicolas Cage is having fun as an ancient sorcerer who’s frustrated by his clueless college-age apprentice (Jay Baruchel), and Alfred Molina relishes the role of the evil wizard out to destroy the world. The action is passable, the mythology is generic, and the post-credits scene is overly optimistic about the prospects for a sequel, but there’s a good-natured sense of wonder that ties it all together.

4. Cruella (2021)

It may be a somewhat empty pastiche of more subversive films, but director Craig Gillespie’s origin for 101 Dalmatians antagonist Cruella de Vil (Emma Stone) is still gorgeous to look at. Taking its cues from the previous live-action movies, Cruella is set in the fashion world of 1970s London, with both Stone and Emma Thompson (as Cruella’s rival the Baroness) channeling aspects of Glenn Close’s indelible performance. The faux-gritty Cruella is a sprawling mess of a movie that never quite figures out its tone or narrative approach, but it features fabulously creative costume design and enjoyably nasty performances from the two leading Emmas.

3. Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book (1994)

Author Rudyard Kipling gets a possessive credit, but director and co-writer Stephen Sommers deviates substantially from both Kipling’s source material and the Disney animated film. Sommers is not working under the weight of decades of Disney remakes, so he’s free to make a rollicking pulp-adventure movie starring Jason Scott Lee as an adult Mowgli, returning to so-called civilization after growing up in the wild. There are no talking animals, but Lena Headey’s Kitty, who looks longingly out her tower window while her military-officer father (Sam Neill) keeps close watch on her, is essentially a Disney princess. Fans of Sommers’s retro action classic The Mummy will find plenty to enjoy, as a reluctant Mowgli leads a dastardly British captain (Cary Elwes) into various elaborate traps in search of hidden treasure.

2. Mulan (2020)

Director Niki Caro jettisons the songs and almost all of the humor from one of Disney’s weaker Renaissance-era animated films, depicting the Chinese legend of strong-willed female warrior Hua Mulan (Liu Yifei) as a sweeping wuxia epic. It’s a rousing, immersive blockbuster action movie, with excellent fight sequences and a mesmerizing performance from Gong Li as the shapeshifting witch Xianniang. Caro skillfully shoots both massive battles and close-quarters combat, with key supporting performances from martial-arts stars Donnie Yen and Jet Li. The movie streamlines some complex gender themes with Mulan posing as a man in order to join the Chinese Imperial Army, but it takes the characters’ risks and ambitions seriously. It’s a remarkably successful reinvention that stands confidently on its own.

1. Pete’s Dragon (2016)

Lowery has the advantage of working from shoddy source material for his adaptation of the justifiably forgotten 1977 live-action/animated hybrid, so nearly any kind of update would look better in comparison. Even so, Lowery crafts a lovely, heartfelt coming-of-age movie in the vein of a 1980s Amblin Entertainment production, infused with compassion and tenderness. There’s some danger for feral boy Pete (Oakes Fegley) and his furry green dragon friend Elliot after they’re discovered living in the forest outside an idyllic small town, but Lowery’s film keeps its gentle rhythm even through the finale’s perilous bridge collapse. Robert Redford delivers folksy wisdom as a local eccentric who once had his own dragon encounter, and even Karl Urban’s greedy logger is more of a nuisance than an outright villain. Lowery demonstrates the best approach to a remake, by keeping only what’s useful and using what’s left for his own personal vision.

Every Live-Action Disney Remake, Ranked