Every Disney Live-Action Remake, Ranked

Is 'Dumbo' worse than 'Alice in Wonderland'? Where's 'Aladdin' in all of this?

by Nate Birch
Originally Published: 
Collage of scenes from four Disney live-action remakes

In recent years, Disney has increased its nostalgia-mining operations, nearly tripling the numbers of live-action remakes of classic animated movies. We’re talking about Aladdin (2019), Dumbo (2019), and Beauty and the Beast (2017), and around a dozen more are slated to hit theaters in the next few years, including, The Lion King, this month with computer-animated lions that look like lions. There’s no avoiding the trend at this point and it’s pretty much a guarantee you’ll end up watching at least some of these movies. So, which ones are actually good? Which should you and your kids avoid like a fun-killing plague? Here’s your full remake rundown, from worst to best…

Note: To qualify for this list, the remake has to have the same name as an animated Disney original. So, weird spinoffs like Maleficent or sequels to remakes like Alice Through the Looking Glass aren’t included.

9. Dumbo (2019)

The new Dumbo is a very strange movie. It blows through a Cliffs Notes version of the original Dumbo plot at warp speed, undermining all its big emotional moments, so it can devote two-thirds of its two-hour runtime to a weird plot about an evil theme-park magnate played by Michael Keaton buying the circus. A transparent Walt Disney–like figure being trashed in a Disney movie is … interesting, I guess, but it isn’t actually fun in any way. Kids won’t get it at all. Also, it’s phony as hell. I can assure you, the Walt Disney Corp. isn’t actually against people making money operating theme parks!

The new Dumbo is just a dreary experience. Everyone’s mean, everyone’s sad. Timothy the Mouse, the real star of the original Dumbo, has been cut entirely in favor of Colin Farrell’s World War I amputee and widower and his mopey children. Because that’s what one of the few Disney classics to really celebrate the mother-child bond needed — another dead mom. And I haven’t even mentioned the movie’s terrible effects! Poor Dumbo looks like an alien trying to simulate “cuteness.” The only thing this movie has going for it, is it at least lets Dumbo and his mom return to the jungle at the end. That’s not enough though. Watching the new Dumbo make me feel like a dumbo.

Is it better than Disney’s animated original? God, no. The animated Dumbo does require a lot of fast-forwarding these days, what with the racially insensitive crows and all the freaky drunken hallucinations, but it’s still better than this slop.

8. Alice in Wonderland (2010)

Tim Burton has the bottom of this list on lock. Much like Dumbo, Alice in Wonderland is really a remake in name only, dashing through the stuff you know in order to tell a lame story of its own creation. This movie was also from the awful period where every major Hollywood blockbuster had to culminate in a big Lord of the Rings–style CGI battle, whether it was appropriate to the story or not. Alice rises above the bottom spot on this list purely because it introduced the world to the lovely Mia Wasikowska. Honestly, she comes off kind of flat in this movie next to the hyperactive Johnny Depp, but she’s been fantastic in a lot of other films.

Is it better than Disney’s animated original? Alice in Wonderland is the best-animated feature Disney’s ever done, in my humble opinion. So, yeah, no.

7. 101 Dalmatians (1996)

Produced and written by John Hughes following the success of Home Alone, 101 Dalmatians is basically an excuse to beat up on some more bumbling crooks, this time with cute puppies running around! Home Alone mania was running on fumes by 1996, so this movie is pretty lifeless, although Glenn Close really gives it her all as Cruella de Vil. I’ll admit, I somehow ended up seeing this movie in the theater, like, three times back in the day, so I have a certain affection for it, but objectively, it’s a bit of a dog.

Is it better than Disney’s animated original? No, although the remake does have a lot more Hugh Laurie doing pratfalls and looking embarrassed for cashing Disney’s check.

6. Aladdin (2019)

The 2019 version of Aladdin means well. Reports that some of the movie’s extras wore brownface makeup was unfortunate, but it’s nice Disney cast actors of Middle Eastern or Indian descent for most of the main roles. The script mostly stays true to the original animated film, with only a few changes made to give Princess Jasmine more agency (her new song is the best part of the movie). As for Will Smith as the Genie … well … Lord help him, he tries really hard.

Unfortunately, good intentions don’t make a good movie. The new Aladdin just feels cheap. The sets, costumes, and let’s face it, most of the acting, feels ripped from a soap opera. The big musical numbers are low energy and dull. The effects are atrocious (no, the Genie never stops looking weird). If this had aired on some random Sunday night as a special on ABC, it would have been harmless fun, but as a major Disney tentpole theatrical release? It just doesn’t measure up.

Is it better than Disney’s animated original? Aladdin was the best movie of the ’90s Disney Renaissance, so not even close.

5. The Jungle Book (1994)

Yeah, bet you forgot all about this Disney live-action remake, didn’t you? I rewatched both live-action versions of The Jungle Book in the same night, and it was certainly jarring to see grown-ass 28-year-old Jason Scott Lee playing Mowgli after viewing the 2016 version. This Jungle Book was helmed by The Mummy director Stephen Sommers, and exhibits some of that same cheesy ’90s fun. Also, Game of Thrones fans might enjoy a very young Lena Headey as Mowgli’s love interest. Yup, this movie treats us to the sight of Mowgli getting his mack on with Cersei Lannister, so, uh, that’s something!

Is it better than Disney’s animated original? Sorry, horny Mowgli doesn’t quite elevate this one above the original.

4. Pete’s Dragon (2016)

Definitely the most unexpected entry on this list. Disney and writer-director David Lowery (A Ghost Story, The Old Man & the Gun) attempt to turn Pete’s Dragon into a heart-tugging Spielberg pastiche, and they almost succeed! There are some genuinely moving moments here, but the movie isn’t really equipped to deal with the implications of the tragic story it tells.

Pete has lived a traumatic life, witnessing his parents’ deaths in a car crash (an incident depicted in scary detail within the first five minutes of the movie) and having to make his own way in the woods for most of his childhood. Pete would be one messed up little kid, but this movie mostly glosses over all that in favor of ’80s adventure movie tropes. Oh, and our titular dragon totally looks like Shrek, which completely pulls me out of the movie every time he’s on screen.

Is it better than Disney’s animated original? Yes, actually! The remake isn’t perfect, but the schmaltzy original Pete’s Dragon is one of Disney’s least-celebrated “classics” for a reason.

3. Beauty and the Beast (2017)

For the record, this is the first entry on the list I would fully recommend. Let’s be honest, a large portion of the appeal of this version of Beauty and the Beast is down to the movie’s star Emma Watson. I’m no Hermione Stan, but she was meant to play Belle, and her performance lives up to expectations. Dan Stevens is also about the best choice possible for Beast.

Excellent casting aside, this version of Beauty and the Beast is a very faithful, mostly satisfying adaptation of Disney’s animated original. I’m not a huge fan of how Lumière, Cogsworth, and the rest of the CGI servants look, but, unlike most of these Disney remakes, they don’t butcher the songs. They also nail the ballroom scene, so what more do you need?

Is it better than Disney’s animated original? I’d say old and new are on equal footing. If you would prefer to show your kid the remake, I won’t judge you (although the original is half-an-hour shorter).

2. The Jungle Book (2016)

Whatever Disney pays Jon Favreau, it isn’t enough. The guy basically laid down the template for the modern Marvel movie with Iron Man and then showed everybody how to do a Disney remake right with The Jungle Book. The money dump truck should be backing up to his front porch daily. Anyways, this is a fantastic, lively, exciting adventure movie that does a great job of hitting the big moments from the animated Jungle Book while adding new detail, context, and emotional heft. The movie’s CGI jungle and animals are also downright amazing. Often you’ll swear you’re looking at actual nature documentary footage until the animals on screen suddenly start making wisecracks.

I hate to have to make this criticism, but I feel like a have to, as I bet a lot of folks clicked on this list expecting to see The Jungle Book at No. 1. The reason it isn’t, is the movie’s Mowgli, Neel Sethi. Don’t get me wrong, the kid is super cute, but his acting is sometimes a little too reminiscent of Jake Lloyd in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. Also, the odd side effect of everything around Sethi being CGI is that the real-life kid is often the most unnatural looking element on the screen. Don’t get me wrong, Mowgli doesn’t sink The Jungle Book, but he does keep the movie from nabbing that coveted top spot.

Is it better than Disney’s animated original? Absolutely. Disney’s original Jungle Book is fun and jazzy, but there really isn’t that much to it. Favreau’s version is much richer.

1. Cinderella (2015)

Cinderella is probably the most straightforward retelling on this list, which is just fine, because, well … it’s Cinderella. We don’t need a sequel, prequel, or reimagining. Like a lot of these Disney remakes, Cinderella’s real strength is its great cast. Lily James is the ideal Cinderella, Cate Blanchett shamelessly munches the scenery as the wicked stepmother, and Helena Bonham Carter is genuinely funny as the Fairy Godmother (and not upstaged by her own wig for once). The great cast is supported by the fantastic production design and sure-handed direction from experienced period piece overseer Kenneth Branagh.

If we’re being frank, I believe this whole Disney live-action remake thing is a fleeting trend. I really don’t expect most of these movies to be well-remembered, or remembered at all, a decade from now. Cinderella is really the only one of these movies I expect to live on. I could see people still happily watching this movie for 20 years or more in the future.

Is it better than Disney’s animated original? Another tie here. Really, there’s no need to choose — there’s no such thing as too many happily ever-afters.

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