A few years ago, Disney began remaking their old animated classics as live-action movies (although since they involve CGI effects to create most of the characters and environments, they’re still essentially animated movies – they’re just better-looking animated movies). And since those movies have continued to get more and more popular, making about $1 billion a pop, it doesn’t seem like the Mouse House will be stopping them any time soon.
A lot of them are just cheap cash-ins, but with a couple, the directors have taken the opportunity to reconceptualize the classic cartoons they grew up with. Still, they’re a mixed bag. Here are Disney’s live-action remakes, ranked by Rotten Tomatoes score.
9 Dumbo (46%)
Tim Burton’s Dumbo remake from earlier this year wanted to have its cake and eat it, too. In a misguided attempt to update a non-PC movie for today’s PC crowd, the 2019 Dumbo movie wants to celebrate the pageantry of the circus and critique the animal cruelty of the circus at the same time, without acknowledging the dichotomy of the two. As always, the cast is brilliant, with such greats as Colin Farrell, Eva Green, Michael Keaton, and Danny DeVito making up the ensemble.
Perhaps Burton wasn’t the best choice to direct this one, since what made the original Dumbo so wonderful was its warmth and its soul, and Burton’s movies generally have no warmth or soul (except for Edward Scissorhands, but this wasn’t the work of Scissorhands Burton; it was the work of Corpse Bride Burton).
8 Alice in Wonderland (51%)
Tim Burton directed a live-action remake of Alice in Wonderland for Disney long before the studio was pumping out live-action remakes like clockwork. Burton’s version wasn’t as surreal as the Disney animated original – or, indeed, as surreal as Lewis Carroll’s source material. Unsurprisingly, he directed it as a Tim Burton movie, with all the gloomy visuals, gothic architecture, creepy characters, and Johnny Depp in a silly costume playing a weirdo that his fans have come to expect.
The bleak palette and depressing historical context weren’t to everyone’s liking, but at least Burton put his personal artistic stamp on it and went for something he’d be proud to put his name on as opposed to a factory-made product for a juicy paycheck.
7 The Lion King (53%)
Jon Favreau’s follow-up to his photorealistic remake of The Jungle Book was a photorealistic remake of The Lion King. The main problem with the latter is that – while Favreau made some interesting changes to The Jungle Book to shake it up for a modern audience – The Lion King is basically a shot-for-shot remake. Favreau’s justification for this is that most of the shots in the original couldn’t be improved on, but that just means the remake was utterly pointless.
If the original already told the story perfectly, then why bother with a remake at all? The answer, of course, is money, and The Lion King’s instant success at the box office can attest to that. It looks beautiful and the cast is filled with top-tier talent, but the whole thing is so blatantly unnecessary.
6 Maleficent (54%)
This is more of a reimagining than a remake, since it takes the villain from Sleeping Beauty and makes her a tragic hero, and the focus of the story, but it’s still technically a remake and it feeds into this whole money-grabbing scheme by Disney, so it counts. By all accounts, Maleficent is actually a pretty good movie. The film’s costumes are spectacular (real costumes, designed by human hands and worn by human actors, are always going to be better than CGI ones), its cinematography is to die for, and James Newton Howard’s musical score is, as expected, filled with brilliant compositions.
Of course, the success of the film rests on Angelina Jolie’s lead performance, and she’s mesmerizing, clearly relishing the opportunity to play a classical, snarling, evil-for-the-sake-of-evil villain with a little more gravitas than you usually get to see.
5 Aladdin (56%)
Poor Will Smith. His take on the Genie character was slated across the internet from the second Disney dropped the first Aladdin trailer. Smith is a fine actor with a lot of charisma, so it’s certainly not his fault. It’s not that Will Smith couldn’t play the Genie; it’s that no one could play the Genie, except for Robin Williams. The character was literally created and animated to be Robin Williams, so no one else could or should play the Genie. It’s the same reason why James Earl Jones was brought back to play Mufasa in The Lion King remake – no one else could play that character as well as him.
Robin Williams sadly died a few years back, so he couldn’t have been brought back to play the Genie (and probably wouldn’t have wanted to anyway, based on how much Disney screwed him when the original Aladdin movie came out), but maybe that just means Aladdin shouldn’t have been remade.
4 Beauty and the Beast (71%)
Aside from making one of the characters gay (and, in doing so, getting the film banned in a couple of narrow-minded markets, which incidentally didn’t put even the slightest dent in the box office takings), Beauty and the Beast is pretty much a straightforward remake.
It takes all the iconic moments and scenes from the ‘90s animated classic (one of the only animated movies in history to get an Oscar nomination for Best Picture) and recreates them in live-action. However, this was way back in early 2017, long before the slew of Disney remakes had become tiresome and it was still a novelty to see our favorite animated characters realized in live-action on the big screen.
3 Cinderella (84%)
The reason why 2015’s Cinderella remake is the one that properly kicked off the trend of live-action Disney remakes as opposed to 2010’s Alice in Wonderland despite making half the money is that Kenneth Branagh nailed down the tone that has made these remakes so successful. Alice in Wonderland was bleak and cold and entirely separate from the animated original.
Branagh’s Cinderella, on the other hand, was warm and nostalgic and stuck closely to the visual style of the animated source material. Nostalgia is the climate these days, with the likes of the Star Wars sequels (also Disney) and Stranger Things capitalizing on that – Cinderella helped to establish that climate.
2 Pete’s Dragon (88%)
What made Pete’s Dragon different from some of the other Disney remakes like The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast is that Pete’s Dragon isn’t as beloved a classic as those others. Disney fans aren’t as precious about it as they are about something like Cinderella. So, the team behind the remake could take the premise of a boy making friends with a dragon and spin it into something new, something fresh, that simply made for a delightful, family-friendly romp with storytelling as strong as its values.
Director David Lowery managed to update the original’s style with slicker effects without losing any of its heart and soul, while the cast, including Bryce Dallas Howard and Robert Redford, gave excellent performances.
1 The Jungle Book (94%)
Jon Favreau’s live-action take on The Jungle Book was Disney’s first truly huge remake, with a worldwide gross upwards of $900 million. The remake’s strength is that it takes the plot and characters of the original and finds something new to do with them. Changing some of the camera angles, the ordering of the scenes, the length of some of them – the script and direction of the original were tweaked to suit today’s audiences and the breathtaking visual style allowed by photorealistic cinematography.
Every role was perfectly cast with a different A-lister, from the commanding, wise-sounding voice of Ben Kingsley as Bagheera to the goofy, soothing, lovable voice of Bill Murray as Baloo.