When you say the word “Disney,” most people probably think of animated fare. The studio has focused just as intently on live-action movies, though. Some of the feature films in this category have been remakes of animated works, others have been based on Disney theme park attractions, and still others have been efforts to establish original franchises. In most cases, Disney has taken pains to hire big stars to appear in its live-action productions.
When the right actor gets the right role in the right film, the result is that patented Disney magic. You wind up with something that utterly transports you for two hours. When the wrong actor is cast — or when a good actor does a poor job in a role — you get whatever the exact opposite of Disney magic is. Such performances can be dull for the audience and harmful to the actor’s career.
We’ve chosen eight cases where well-known actors hurt Disney characters, by which we mean failed to fulfill their potential. To counterbalance that, we’ve also chosen eight that “saved” Disney characters, by finding a way to make them enthralling and original. Keep in mind that we’re referring to the specific performances here and not the films themselves.
Here are 8 Live-Action Performances That Ruined Disney Characters (and 8 That Saved Them).
16. Ruined: Mila Kunis in Oz: The Great and Powerful
Sam Raimi’s Oz: The Great and Powerful is a visually magnificent take on the world created by L. Frank Baum. Mila Kunis plays Theodora, a mean witch’s much nicer sister. For a while, at least. Partway through the movie, she bites into a poison apple and morphs into the Wicked Witch of the West.
When you think of “evil,” do you think of Mila Kunis? We don’t either. There are lots of things Kunis can do well. She’s great in comedies and romances, for instance.
Kunis is not someone who can convincingly come off as malevolent — at least not in green makeup and a pointy hat.
The Wicked Witch of the West is an all-time screen baddie. The actress overacts in the scene where her character transforms. That’s nothing compared to her unsuccessful attempts at seething and terrorizing afterward. Margaret Hamilton, she is not.
15. Saved: Amy Adams in Enchanted
Enchanted has a cute premise. It’s the story of a Disney-esque animated princess named Gisele who is banished to New York City by an evil queen, right before she is supposed to wed her Prince Charming. Once she arrives in the Big Apple, the film switches to live action, following her as she falls for a lawyer and tries to adjust to big city life.
On its own, Enchanted could have been sweet but forgettable.
The brilliant lead performance from Amy Adams elevates the movie into something really special.
Aside from looking the part, Adams effectively creates a personality for Gisele that sells the entire notion that she is a Disney princess come to life. She also displays a beautiful singing voice. The actress is so thoroughly lovable as the character that it instantly made her a star and turned the film into a box office smash.
14. Ruined: Johnny Depp in Alice in Wonderland
The Mad Hatter is perhaps the most beloved character in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. He’s a bizarre guy who throws tea parties and often speaks in riddles. His primary function in the story is to emphasize just how upside-down Wonderland is from the real world Alice comes from. So who better to play such an eccentric figure than Johnny Depp, right?
Truth be told, this would have been an ideal role for Depp about a decade earlier.
By the time he made Alice in Wonderland, though, he’d already done multiple films in which he wore excessive makeup and crazy costumes to play exaggerated, over-the-top characters. Willy Wonka and Captain Jack Sparrow are just two examples.
13. Saved: Angelina Jolie in Maleficent
Maleficent is a classic Disney villain. She’s the evil fairy who famously casts a spell on Sleeping Beauty. Thanks to her exaggerated appearance, turning her into a live-action character was always a risk. Making her the focus of a movie designed to humanize her only added to the risk. That’s exactly what Disney did with the 2014 fantasy Maleficent.
Angelina Jolie took on the title tole, proving to be the best possible choice.
For starters, the actress has always been known for having a bit of a dark side, so that gives her credibility as the character. She clearly relishes playing evil. But Jolie is also a talented actress equally known for her humanitarian work. That allows her to be every bit as credible in scenes designed to reveal Maleficent’s vulnerabilities.
12. Ruined: Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in Race to Witch Mountain
In 1975, kids all across America went nuts for Disney’s Escape to Witch Mountain. It was different from the studio’s other family-friendly fare, in that it was an action-adventure with very slight horror overtones. A sequel, Return from Witch Mountain, followed three years later. In 2009, Disney decided to bring the franchise to the modern era with Race to Witch Mountain.
Dwayne Johnson stars as Jack Bruno, an ex-con taxi driver helping two children with paranormal abilities to outrun the sinister government official who’s chasing them.
Although a likable actor, Johnson is badly miscast in the movie.
He’s too much of a tough guy, so the idea that the kids are in peril is never totally believable. The actor is in full-on action hero mode here. We know he’ll protect them. That undermines the suspense.
11. Saved: Glenn Close in 101 Dalmatians
You’re not likely to find a more larger-than-life animated Disney character than Cruella de Vil, the villain of 101 Dalmatians. The loathsome woman, with her black-and-white hair, strives to kidnap a bunch of cute puppies so that she can make a coat out of their fur. People don’t get much more evil than that.
When a live-action remake was announced, the thought of any human being capturing the distinct menace of Cruella seemed unlikely.
Enter Glenn Close, who looks exactly like the character thanks to the hair, makeup, and costume departments.
Even better, she brings a grand sense of theatricality to the role that is cartoonish in all the right ways.
The movie, scripted by John Hughes, is heavy on the slapstick comedy, which Close pulls off with remarkable style. Equally funny and menacing, she makes you feel like Cruella has sprung to life in front of your eyes.
10. Ruined: Taylor Kitsch in John Carter
John Carter was intended to be Disney’s next big franchise. Based on the Edgar Rice Burroughs novel A Princess of Mars, the movie had a budget of more than $250 million and was designed to be a blockbuster that would spawn a series of sequels. In the end, it became one of the most notorious flops of all time.
There are many reasons for the film’s lack of success. A big one is star Taylor Kitsch. Carter is supposed to be an action hero we admire and want to follow on his extraordinary adventures. However, the actor exudes surprisingly little charisma in the role. He’s an unusually bland protagonist, failing to create the kind of magnetic allure that, for example, Harrison Ford had in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
9. Saved: Luke Evans in Beauty & the Beast
Luke Evans toiled around in some not-so-great movies, like Dracula Untold and Immortals, waiting for the role that would really put him on the map. The more successful movies he’s done, such as The Fate of the Furious, found him overshadowed by bigger stars.
Evans finally got a chance to shine in Disney’s live-action Beauty & the Beast remake. He plays Gaston, the narcissistic hunter who repeatedly tries to force Belle to become his wife, and who serves as the story’s antagonist.
Evans somehow manages to take the puffed-up egotism that the character has in animation and transfer it immaculately to live performance.
Every ounce of the unearned bravado is accounted for, making him a suitably buffoonish menace. It’s a remarkably funny turn, complemented by the fact that Evans is a surprisingly solid singer. His rendition of the appropriately-titled “Gaston” is a musical highlight of the film.
8. Ruined: Eddie Murphy in The Haunted Mansion
Eddie Murphy is one of the funniest human beings on the planet, but not even his estimable talents could save The Haunted Mansion. The 2003 comedy received a green-light during the Pirates of the Caribbean era when Disney thought it could turn any theme park attractions into movies and reap big bucks.
Unfortunately, it was also the time when Murphy was, to put it charitably, coasting in his career. The R-rated spark that made him a star had faded, and he was in the midst of cranking out uninspired family flicks (Daddy Day Care) and action/comedy retreads (Showtime, I Spy).
The Haunted Mansion could have been a fun horror-lite romp.
It’s not the worst thing he’s done, but Murphy’s lack of engagement causes it to be neither funny nor scary.
7. Saved: Lily James in Cinderella
Of all the Disney princesses, Cinderella might be the most iconic. She’s a good-natured young woman trapped in a bad situation by her nasty stepmother. Through the help of a fairy godmother, she gets a makeover and becomes the belle of the ball, eventually finding love with a handsome prince.
Obviously, it takes an actress with both range and inherent likability to make this character work in live-action.
Lily James proved to be a phenomenal choice. She brings a great deal of humanity to the role, earning audience empathy during the scenes in which Cinderella is kept down by her stepmother. You genuinely care about her and want to see her do well.
Upon the character’s transformation, James becomes absolutely radiant. It’s easy to see why everyone is enthralled by Cinderella’s beauty and grace. Although well-made and filled with good effects, Cinderella works because its star gives it heart.
6. Ruined: Nicolas Cage in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice
The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is loosely based on the section of Fantasia in which Mickey Mouse gets a job working for a magician, tries to emulate some of his tricks, and unleashes a world of havoc. Making a live-action version of it was a dumb idea for many reasons, most notably the fact that you can’t cast a human as Mickey.
Instead, the film was conceived as a Nicolas Cage action vehicle. Cage plays the Sorcerer, Balthazar Blake, and the plot concerns him training an apprentice and fighting a sorceress.
Cage is an enormously talented actor who, far too often, seems to choose roles based more on quirk than on substance.
This is one of those times. His work is a compendium of the same tics and eccentricities that he brought to many movies before and has brought to many since. You never believe you’re watching a character, because it’s always Nicolas Cage.
5. Saved: Lindsay Lohan in The Parent Trap
Finding a child actor capable of carrying a movie is hard. Finding one who can carry a movie and fill the estimable shoes of Hayley Mills is even harder. For the 1998 remake of The Parent Trap, director Nancy Meyers was lucky enough to find Lindsay Lohan.
These days, Lohan is more known for her tabloid exploits and personal problems, but at the time, she was a fresh-faced talent. Playing identical twins who were separated at birth and are reunited at summer camp, the 11-year-old actress displayed a level of charm uncommon for her young age. She gave both twins their own distinct personalities, and managed to nail the comedic elements of the movie, as well as the more emotional scenes.
4. Ruined: Tim Allen in The Shaggy Dog
The Shaggy Dog was originally a 1959 comedy in which a teenage boy, played by Tommy Kirk, intermittently turns into a sheepdog after reading the inscription on a cursed piece of jewelry. It inspired a 1976 sequel, The Shaggy D.A., and a 1994 TV remake with Ed Begley, Jr. Then there was the 2006 reboot starring Tim Allen as an L.A. County District Attorney who develops the undesired ability to become canine.
While the central premise retains kid-friendly appeal, Allen was the complete wrong choice for the lead.
The big joke of the movie is that his character exhibits dog-like behavior, even when he’s not in full-fledged sheepdog mode. In other words, it’s a part that requires excessive skill in physical comedy. This type of humor has never been Allen’s strong suit, so he fails to mine the big laughs that someone like Martin Short would have.
3. Saved: Helena Bonham Carter in Alice in Wonderland
Helena Bonham Carter was initially known for a series of stuffy costume dramas, including Howard’s End and The Wings of the Dove. They showcased her enormous talents, yet also suggested that she would be forever typecast in roles requiring her to wear corsets and sip tea.
Leave it to Tim Burton to see undiscovered weirdness inside her. The notoriously kooky director cast Carter as the Red Queen in his take on Alice in Wonderland. It was an inspired decision.
The actress clearly understands that the character needs to be played with scenery-chewing intensity. As such, she devours everything around her. Comically ranting, raving, and making exaggerated faces, Carter is hilariously evil. Alice in Wonderland has a lot of elaborate special effects, all of which the actress upstages. Part of the enjoyment also comes from seeing her break out and do something so different.
2. Ruined: Britt Robertson in Tomorrowland
Let’s make one thing clear from the start — Britt Robertson is a talented actress. That said, sometimes good actors get stuck in the wrong roles.
Robertson starred in 2015’s Tomorrowland opposite George Clooney. Based on one of the attractions at Disney theme parks, the film casts her as Casey Newton, a science-loving teenager who is whisked away to a magical place filled with technological innovations and a hopeful futuristic vision. Clooney plays a former boy inventor who was once kicked out of the wondrous realm.
The issue here is that Robertson was actually in her mid-twenties when she made the movie. Casting actors in their twenties as teens is nothing new, except that, in this case, it’s vital to believe Casey is an adolescent. The actress is pretty clearly a good seven or eight years older than her character, to the story’s detriment, and can’t pull of the wide-eyed youthful wonder the character requires.
1. Saved: Anne Hathaway in The Princess Diaries
The Princess Diaries could have been awful. It’s the story of Mia; a clumsy, nerdy girl who discovers that she’s the heir to the throne of the fictional country Genovia. Her task is not only to rule the land, but also to learn how to behave like royalty. The plot, quite frankly, stretches credibility at every turn.
That said, it works, thanks to the efforts of Anne Hathaway. A virtual unknown at the time, the movie turned her into an immediate star.
The actress displays ace comic chops in the lead role, convincingly bringing out Mia’s awkward tendencies and rendering them hilarious. Just as importantly, she makes the character’s transformation into a graceful, dignified princess feel authentic. It’s a three-dimensional performance that elevates The Princess Diaries far above the realm of being a teen girl wish fulfillment. Hathaway makes Mia relatable to anyone who’s ever felt like a misfit.
Which other live-action Disney performances do you love/hate? Tell us what you think in the comments.
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