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If you do not wish to read the entire post, here is the ranking as a tier list (made using TierMaker).
A/A- (EXCELLENT): The Jungle Book, Cinderella, Christopher Robin
B+/B (SOLID): N/A
B-/C+ (FAIRLY DECENT): Beauty and the Beast, Maleficent, Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book
C/C- (MEDIOCRE): Aladdin, Alice in Wonderland, Lady and the Tramp, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, 101 Dalmatians, The Lion King
D+/D (BAD): Mulan, Dumbo, Alice Through the Looking Glass, 102 Dalmatians
D- (TERRIBLE): The Jungle Book: Mowgli’s Story
Recommended Films to Watch: The Jungle Book, Cinderella, Maleficent, Christopher Robin (only if you are familiar with the Winnie the Pooh series)
Here is how all the remakes compare to their original Disney films:
BETTER THAN THE ORIGINAL: The Jungle Book, Cinderella
JUST AS GOOD AS THE ORIGINAL: Christopher Robin
WORSE THAN THE ORIGINAL: Everything else
Disney Attempts to Recapture Its “Magic”
That’s right, everyone. It’s time to talk about the ever-so-controversial Disney Live-Action Remakes. As of March 2021, Disney has released several live-action remakes of their animated films, and they show no sign of stopping. While many would like to consider Alice in Wonderland (2010) to be the start of this trend, Disney has actually been remaking their animated films since the 1990s; however, it is abundantly clear that their efforts drastically accelerated in the 2010s. We have seen (and will continue to see) remakes of films across Disney’s seven filmmaking eras (except for the Wartime/Package Era, but do you really want to see realistic versions of a duck, a rooster, and a parrot portraying The Three Caballeros?), and despite generally mixed reception from critics and audiences, they have been financially successful enough to maintain their inertia.
But what exactly is a “Disney Live-Action Remake”? I think it’s important to provide a clear definition of this term before moving forward. I was pretty confused myself when choosing the films for this marathon, so here are two versions of how I’d define a “Disney Live-Action Remake”:
Disney Live-Action Remake – a Disney live-action remake of a Disney animated film.
Disney Live-Action Remake of a Disney Animated Film – a live-action or photorealistic CGI film, created by Walt Disney Studios, that remakes, or takes heavy inspiration from, an animated Walt Disney Studios film and/or its original source material. These types of films can be broken down into three categories:
- “Remake”: A film that tells the same story of the original animated Disney film, with minimal changes made to its plot
- Examples: Cinderella, 101 Dalmatians
- “Re-imagining”: A film that is inspired by an animated Disney film (or its original source material) but makes significant changes to the story (i.e. – plot details, character perspective, setting, tone, etc.)
- Examples: Maleficent, Mulan
- “Sequel”: A film that continues the story of an animated Disney film (or its original source material), a remake of an animated Disney film, or a re-imagining of an animated Disney film
- Examples: Alice in Wonderland, Christopher Robin
Now that I have you confused, let me just say that every movie that you see in this marathon is, for all intents and purposes, a Disney Live-Action Remake (of a Disney Animated Film). I am not counting live-action remakes to Disney non-animated films or Disney television series (i.e. – Mary Poppins Returns, Pete’s Dragon, Kim Possible), nor am I counting non-Disney remakes of Disney animated films (i.e. – Ever After, A Cinderella Story).
I can spend more time further explaining what these live-action films are definitively, but let’s actually talk about how these films are in quality.
I’ll get straight to the point – most of these remakes never needed to be made. Not only do they generally fare worse than their original animated versions, but many of these films, by virtue of being realistic interpretations of animated classics, are prone to the following issues:
- Maintaining the tone and mood of an animated film in a realistic setting that calls for more seriousness (i.e. – The Lion King, especially during those musical numbers)
- This isn’t to say, though, that live-action films can’t be expressive. Think about slapstick comedy.
- Casting major Hollywood celebrities whose vocal talents pale to those of the original voice actors (i.e. – Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin)
- By no means is this a personal attack on any actors; in fact, I am more upset at the casting directors and anyone involved in the music production teams.
- Similar to point #1, failing to create a good story that matches the potential a more realistic setting can provide (i.e. – Mulan, Maleficent)
- Adding unnecessary and uninteresting characters and/or plot points to pad out the runtime (i.e. – Dumbo)
- Changing key elements of the original film for the worse (i.e. – making the dogs silent in 101 Dalmatians, removing comedy from Mulan)
All but three of the films I watched for this marathon committed at least one of these five issues, and it is because of this, along with some other problems I didn’t point out, that I cannot recommend watching these films instead of their animated versions.
The Jungle Book, Christopher Robin, and Cinderella, on the other hand, are excellent remakes, and that is because they managed to effectively translate not only the visuals, but also the characterizations, plot points, etc. to more realistic worlds. I’m a bit surprised, though, that Cinderella turned out to be good because even though it made the mice silent, the film made up for it by fleshing out and focusing more on the human characters (something that Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book (1994) did but led to a less interesting movie).
The beauty of animation, in my opinion, comes from the fact that it is a limitless form. In other words, the world of animation is not restricted by the laws of our natural universe, and this freedom can make for great animated films that give life to imagination. Special effects and computer-generated technology have evolved to the point at which physical impossibilities can appear realistic on screen, but just because we can use this technology to recreate classic animated films does not mean we need to do so, especially when the original films are still available and in high quality. Many of these classic Disney films, especially those from the Renaissance-era onward, do not have any significant technical issues that require them to be “updated” for modern audiences.
On the other hand, there are indeed notable social issues in these animated films (i.e. – the crows in Dumbo) that may solicit changes in a remake, but such issues are addressed poorly or are not at all remediated in the remakes. As I hinted in my Sofia Coppola marathon, I usually don’t weigh sociopolitical matters (i.e. – racial/gender/etc. representation, political commentary, etc.) too heavily in my criticism. I don’t mark down films for not being “woke” enough because if I did, I’d probably have to give most mainstream Hollywood movies negative reviews, even if I thought they were well-made and enjoyable. I will draw the line, though, if I find a film particularly and egregiously offensive (i.e. – 2019’s Loqueesha for its portrayal of Black women or 2021’s Music for its depiction of autism). At the same time, I do not give automatically give films positive reviews for being socially progressive, which many of these recent Disney remakes aim to be (but actually aren’t).
Clearly, these live-action remakes are obvious cash-grabs that are probably more profitable endeavors than simply re-releasing classic animated films. This might be a hot take, but I do believe that many animated Disney films, should they be unnecessarily remade, can be good, but only if they are made into well-done stories that justify their realism. There is a lot of talent among the people involved in making these films, but it generally seems to be wasted on all fronts except for visual design, which speaks more to modern technological innovation than it does to artistic merit.
When You Wish Upon The Same Star…
|BOTTOM 5||TOP 5|
|13. Mulan||5. Maleficent|
|14. Dumbo||4. Beauty and the Beast|
|15. Alice Through the Looking Glass||3. Christopher Robin|
|16. 102 Dalmatians||2. Cinderella|
|17. (THE WORST) The Jungle Book: Mowgli’s Story||1. (THE BEST) The Jungle Book|
17. (THE WORST) The Jungle Book: Mowgli’s Story (1998)
Description: Direct-to-video live-action remake of The Jungle Book (1967)
TL;DR Review: Yo, check this out. What if the 2016 version of The Jungle Book were made in the 90s, had 1/10th the budget, and was made exclusively for audiences under the age of 6? I can only wonder because this 1998 version that we actually got is far worse than that.
Alternate TL;DR Review:
Rotten Tomatoes Score: N/A
My Grade: D-
16. 102 Dalmatians (2000)
Description: Live-action sequel to One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961) and 101 Dalmatians (1996)
TL;DR Review: Oof! Or, rather, woof!
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 31%
My Grade: D
15. Alice Through the Looking Glass (2016)
Description: Live-action/CGI sequel to Alice in Wonderland (2010)
Captain Alice the Time Traveler: The Mad Hatter Origin Story You Never Wanted.
Off with its head!
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 29%
My Grade: D+
14. Dumbo (2019)
Description: Live-action/CGI re-imagining of Dumbo (1941)
TL;DR Review: “And to your left, we have another Disney live-action adaptation where the talking animals from the original are silent and sidelined in order to make room for some uninteresting humans. Did you know that this film is an hour longer than its 1940 version? Do you even care? I don’t either. Let’s move on.”
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 46%
My Grade: D+
13. Mulan (2020)
Description: Live-action re-imagining of Mulan (1998)
TL;DR Review: A serious, live-action re-imagining of 1998’s Mulan has a lot of potential, but this 2020 version manages to match such potential only in its wuxia-inspired visuals, which, unfortunately, do very little to distract the audience from its painfully shallow and bland essence.
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 73%
My Grade: D+ (Harsh, I know)
12. The Lion King (2019)
Description: Photorealistic CGI remake of The Lion King (1994)
TL;DR Review: 2019’s The Lion King, with its expressionless, photorealistic animation and fundamentally unchanged tone and story of the 1994 original, is not the worst remake of a Disney classic, but in all the worst ways, it is easily the most heartbreaking one to watch.
Alternate TL;DR Review: I can at least say that the soundtrack and the Beyoncé-curated The Lion King: The Gift are pretty great.
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 52%
My Grade: C-
11. 101 Dalmatians (1996)
Description: Live-action remake of One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961)
TL;DR Review: This would have been an excellent remake if everything else in this movie were as good as Glenn Close’s Cruella de Vil.
Altnerate TL;DR Review:
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 41%
My Grade: C-
10. Maleficent: Mistress of Evil (2019)
Description: Live-action/CGI sequel to Maleficent (2014)
TL;DR Review Rant:
DISNEY! Maleficent is one of your strongest, most iconic villains! Angelina Jolie is perfect in this role, and all the other actors for this second live-action adaptation of Sleeping Beauty are great here as well. The visuals, from the set and costume design to the impressive CGI effects, are top-notch, and the score is quite solid too. However – HOWEVER, the parent-meets-their-child’s-future-spouse-and-conflict-arises-between-both-families plot is NOT the story Maleficent, the “Mistress of [Not So] Evil [in This Movie]”, deserves.
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 39%
My Grade: C-
9. Lady and the Tramp (2019)
Description: Live-action/photorealistic CGI remake of Lady and the Tramp (1955)
TL;DR Review: This movie is like a late 90s Disney Channel Original Movie, but with 10x the budget.
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 66%
My Grade: C
8. Alice in Wonderland (2010)
Description: Live-action/CGI sequel to Alice in Wonderland (1951)
TL;DR Review: Tim Burton’s dark, gothic art style meshes quite well with the world of Alice in Wonderland; however, because of its attempt at making a coherent plot, the film holds itself back from being the great, logic-defying, live-action/CGI sequel it should have been.
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 51%
My Grade: C
7. Aladdin (2019)
Description: Live-action remake of Aladdin (1992)
TL;DR Review: Keep the actors. Keep the story. Keep the melodrama. Keep the set design. Add more hip-hop to Will Smith’s Genie songs. Replace the speical effects with practical effects.
Do all that, and we will have the stage adaptation of Aladdin this probably should have been. (If it already exists, never mind.)
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 57%
My Grade: C
6. Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book (1994)
Description: Live-action re-imagining of The Jungle Book (1967)
TL;DR Review: Focusing more on Mowgli’s adult life, Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book is a mildly entertaining film that zeroes in on the least interesting creatures (humans) from the original novel and the 1967 animated film.
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 80%
My Grade: C+
5. Maleficent (2014)
Description: Live-action/CGI re-imagining of Sleeping Beauty (1959)
TL;DR Review: Angelina Jolie powerfully leads an effective re-imagining of the Sleeping Beauty, told in the perspective of the villain. Unfortunately, the plot, which covers quite a bit of heavy-handed topics, is weighed down whenever Maleficent decides to be a retelling of Sleeping Beauty instead of a pure origin story for one of Disney’s most recognizable villains.
Rottne Tomatoes Score: 54%
My Grade: B-
4. Beauty and the Beast (2017)
Description: Live-action/CGI remake of Beauty and the Beast (1991)
TL;DR Review: Beauty and the Beast (2017) is a satisfactory remake of the 1991 original, and while it does have excellent acting performances and adds a bit of depth to the story, it suffers from a commitment to realism, rendering this entire viewing experience unnecessary.
Alternate TL;DR Review:
(No disrepect to Emma Watson. If anything, this isn’t even her fault. If the vocal direction folks weren’t fine with her actual singing voice, then why didn’t they just dub her with a vocalist whose voice wouldn’t have needed autotune?)
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 71%
My Grade: B-
3. Christopher Robin (2018)
Description: Live-action/CGI sequel to the Winnie the Pooh series (for the purposes of this marathon, I compared this film to The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977) and Winnie the Pooh (2011))
TL;DR Review: By putting the characters of Winnie the Pooh in a realistic world where its sole human character is consumed by work and the societal pressures of adulthood, Christopher Robin effectively tells us that maturity does not have to come at the cost of the “childlike” qualities of joy, curiosity, and imagination. However, to its detriment, this message is most clear for adult audiences who are already familiar with the Winnie the Pooh franchise.
It’s a great Winnie the Pooh film, but it just can’t be your first Winnie the Pooh film.
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 72%
My Grade: A-
2. Cinderella (2015)
Description: Live-action remake of Cinderella (1950)
TL;DR Review: Disney wanted to make “the definitive Cinderella for generations to come,” and that is exactly what they did.
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 83%
My Grade: A
1. (THE BEST) The Jungle Book (2016)
Description: Live-action/photorealistic CGI remake of The Jungle Book (1967)
TL;DR Review: In a middle ground between its serious (1994) and lighthearted (1967, 1998) predecessors, boasting stunning visuals and powerful voice performances, this is the best film adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. Point. Blank. Period.
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 94%
My Grade: A