It was Alice in Wonderland that changed it all. The Johnny Depp-led film was a stunning and massive box office success for Disney that took them a bit by surprise. Less of a remake and more of a film that got Depp (a confirmed superstar) on screen with Tim Burton again, it wasn’t supposed to be the start of a new series of films. But it was.
The success of that movie led Disney to begin remaking all their animated classics with varying degrees of success. Unlike, say, the MCU, Disney didn’t really have a style or guidelines for how they were going to do this. First they made Malificent, a film that focussed on the bad guy; then they made Cinderella, a completely different take from the animated movie; later came The Lion King, a film that is at times shot-for-shot the same as the original. There’s was no plan, and it’s made for a “series” of films that are wonderfully different.
That being said, we can still rank them. They might not be stylistically the same, but some are far better than others.
A few rules before we begin:
- We’re only ranking films starting with 2010’s Alice in Wonderland. There’s no Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book or Glen Close as Cruella De Vil here.
- Only films based on animated originals, so that means no sequels.
- We’re including films based on animated/live-action originals.
10. Dumbo (2019)
The only live-action Disney movie to be a complete and utter flop at the box office is also the worst of the lot. While debate may rage over whether Disney should hew closer to the originals or deliver new takes on their classics, it can be agreed that the decisions made for Dumbo were just not all that great. Tim Burton’s style has a time and a place and it wasn’t for Dumbo. Aside from the drunk scene, Dumbo could have used light and levity to balance out its depressing tale. There’s also an argument that Dumbo just shouldn’t be adapted; it’s a film that works in animation but not in reality. This version may have proved that argument.
9. Alice in Wonderland (2010)
At the time, Alice in Wonderland was quite the sensation. It stood out from other films through Tim Burton’s visuals and a thoroughly Johnny Depp performance. That was at the time, though. Now, the movie feels like a mess, with a performance from Depp that is more forced than fun. Yes, Helena Bonham Carter’s Red Queen is delightfully fun, but it’s hard to save the rest of the film, which just feels tired and overplayed. The movie’s complete reliance on CGI also makes it feel a bit dated. This one just doesn’t have the legs to stand up to the rest of the live-action movies.
8. Maleficent (2014)
It’s all about Angelina Jolie here and really not much else. While the visuals of the film are stunning, it’s hard to argue that the imagery should set Maleficent above any other of the live-action remakes because nearly all of them have stunning visuals. This is by far the most divergent that the live-action remakes have gotten thanks to the fact that it’s scarcely a remake at all and instead focuses on the “villain.” Yet difference doesn’t automatically make something better. There’s a fantastic movie in here, but it just didn’t get made.
7. Christopher Robin (2018)
Christopher Robin suffers from cliche. While the movie is emotionally heart wrenching and often times poignant, it can’t ever get beyond melodrama, especially in its saccharine conclusion. Less of a remake of Disney’s original series of Winnie the Pooh films, the movie is a continuation of Christopher Robin’s storyline that plays on nostalgia more than it should. At the same time, Pooh and Christopher Robin’s relationship is lovingly and wonderfully recreated in live-action thanks to the original voice actors and Ewan McGregor’s performance. A touching movie that just misses the mark.
6. Lion King (2019)
Lion King should be rightfully heralded as a landmark in filmmaking technology, but as a movie it suffers from a variety of issues. Director Jon Favreau went hard into making a straight-up remake, and the film suffers for it. The highlights mostly come from the original or Timon and Pumba, and the lows are the questionable changes made. The original movie is a perfectly paced feature that hits all the right notes (both directorial and musically), but Favreau’s “homage” is too overblown for its own good. By mimicking the original again and again, it simply draws comparisons to a better constructed film. There are moments of absolute visual splendor, but in the end all the fancy CGI and technology can’t deliver the same soul as the first film.
5. Aladdin (2019)
Aladdin is a bit of a mixed bag, and mostly because it isn’t sure if it wants to be a straight adaptation or something else. This leads to an awkward imbalance between old and new throughout the film: Will Smith as the genie both works wonders and feels out of place; the new songs are powerful yet clearly different; Princess Jasmine’s larger role is both welcome and forced. Still, the Bollywood-style musical numbers and fantastic visuals mean Guy Ritchie is able to do some fun things with the film. He takes risks and not all of them pay off, but at least you don’t feel like you’re simply watching fan fiction with a million dollar budget.
4. Cinderella (2015)
There is something to be said for being straightforward, and that is what Cinderella is. While not a direct adaptation of the original Disney film, it is simply a fairy tale down to its very core. There’s something magical in that, and Kenneth Braughnaugh brings it forward in all its opulent and ridiculous glory. Cinderella might be the remake that gets forgotten the most (in close contention with Pete’s Dragon) but it works. There’s fantastic turns from an incredible cast, with visuals that feel fresh and yet classic. It may not be anything special, but it’s still got its magical charm.
3. Pete’s Dragon (2016)
Poor Pete’s Dragon. No one really went to watch it, which is too bad because it’s full of that magical bit of heart that the classic Disney films were so good at capturing. Unlike technically more challenging films like Lion King, Pete’s Dragon manages to capture both the magic and humor of the original while also making a better movie out of it. Honestly, the original Pete’s Dragon wasn’t all that fantastic anyway, and this new one took its strongest aspects and delivered a fun, heartwarming, modern tale.
2. Beauty and the Beast (2017)
Beauty and the Beast had an unfair advantage over a lot of these other films: it was a successful Broadway musical first, which helped its transition to live-action with new songs and plot points. That advantage doesn’t mean that the film is any less stunning, fun, entertaining or gripping. While often cribbing from the original movie, it never feels like it’s simply copying, instead capitalizing on the power of its stars to make the characters their own. While you could argue the film is a little long, the songs, action, and quality of nearly every aspect of the movie carry it through. Plus, Josh Gad. Really all Disney movies should have Josh Gad.
1. The Jungle Book (2016)
Everyone might point to The Lion King as the groundbreaking film for its completely CGI visuals, but it was Jon Favreau’s first live-action adaptation that truly broke ground. The Jungle Book is an absolute masterpiece. Lovingly crafted with visual splendor and incredible integration of CGI and human performances, the movie is not just stunning but emotionally powerful in a way that the original could never be. The film is a perfect blend of nostalgia and newness, delivering the feel of classic Disney movie we all loved while expanding that story into something more. The casting is perfect, the darker tone fits the live-action, and the movie never feels like it’s simply pandering to fans of the original. In the pull and tug between Disney’s style of remakes, this is the perfect balance.