Disney’s Live-Action Remakes Ranked, From ‘101 Dalmatians’ to ‘Mulan’
Art and Experience:
This week’s release of “Mulan” marks the tenth adaptation of a beloved Disney animated film to live-action, a process that began back in 1996 with “101 Dalmatians” but really took off with 2006’s “The Jungle Book.” While many may feel the originals could never be improved on, the resulting reboots have all been major hits and we took a crack at ranking them here. For the purposes of this list, we’re not looking at sequels to adaptations (no “102 Dalmatians”) or retellings (i.e. “Maleficent” or “Christopher Robin”) but straight-up adaptations of the animated classics. All the films and their originals are currently streaming on Disney Plus.
Tim Burton is a visual wonder but his style is a terrible match for a Disney family film with an adorable animal at its center. The impressive cast is wasted, just there to give reaction shots to the CGI, and rather than cute, the animal antics are mostly unnerving (see the baby elephant with smeared clown makeup) if not downright disturbing.
The Lion King (2019)
Technically not live-action, this version uses photorealistic computer animation and while initially kind of interesting, it really doesn’t need to exist. The 1994 original is better on every level including the fact that the animals can actually emote. Going in, I was so worried I would be devastated by seeing the death of Mufasa, but it turns out the glassy-eyed reaction of Young Simba failed to move me at all. Plus, they cut down “Be Prepared,” one of the most iconic Disney villain songs ever.
Alice in Wonderland (2010)
A better fit for director Tim Burton than “Dumbo,” this entry still feels a bit too psychedelic for children but it features a fun Johnny Depp performance as The Mad Hatter and some eye-popping visuals. Plus, a true heroine in Mia Wasikowska’s Alice, here more warrior than waif. The oversized head of the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) is nightmare fuel and the story runs long, but it’s far superior to its 2016 sequel “Alice Through the Looking Glass.”
Lady and the Tramp (2019)
There is nothing revolutionary about this adaptation and nothing that could possibly improve on the 1955 classic but how can you resist those adorable, real-life (not CGI) dogs? And add to that a voice cast that includes Sam Elliott, Tessa Thompson and Justin Theroux, you can’t go wrong. Even the humans aren’t too bad, with Thomas Mann and Kiersey Clemons displaying some real chemistry. The production wisely keeps most of the original songs and adds two new ones, performed by the incomparable Janelle Monáe.
101 Dalmatians (1996)
The first live-action adaptation of a beloved Disney classic, “101 Dalmatians” works so well it’s surprising it took so long for the studio to make more – maybe the disappointing box office of its sequel “102 Dalmatians” is the reason. Glenn Close is delicious as Cruella De Vil, happily chewing more scenery than her canine costars, who are irresistible. We’re looking forward to seeing how Emma Stone will revisit this territory in the upcoming “Cruella,” but Close is a tough act to follow.
Beauty and the Beast (2017)
While the film stays very faithful to the 1991 original, that’s not a bad thing. Surprisingly, the effects of turning recognizable stars from Ewan McGregor and Emma Thompson into household items works far better than one might expect. And Dan Stevens shines as the titular Beast, even under considerable costuming and CGI. Some songs rely too much on auto-tune but overall it’s a visual stunner that keeps the heart of the animated version.
The Jungle Book (2016)
This was Jon Favreau’s first go-round in live-action Disney remakes – though like “The Lion King,” its technically computer animation – but this version has at least some human actors, mainly Neel Sethi as Mowgli, the young boy raised by animals. The effects are impressive and the voice cast (Bill Murray, Christopher Walken, Scarlett Johansson among them) unparalleled. It’s far grittier than the 1967 animated version but still wildly appealing to kids – and adults.
Will Smith wisely doesn’t try to imitate the phenomenal Robin Williams as the Genie but brings his own charm and humor to the role – and even gets a love interest! Guy Ritchie might seem an odd choice for a musical adventure but the story and cast are so charming (Marwan Kenzari as Hot Jafar!), you can forgive a few rough edges. While Princess Jasmine was always portrayed as intelligent and independent, the new script gives her much more to do with a subplot about her wanting to succeed her father – something unheard of for a woman.
It’s a tale we’ve seen adapted countless times yet when it’s this well-done, everything feels brand new. Director Kenneth Branagh treats the material with the right amount of reverence but also isn’t afraid to adjust the story when needed, giving this Cinderella a more feminist twist. Lily James is perfect as the princess and Helena Bonham Carter brings her offbeat energy to the Fairy Godmother, but you simply can’t beat Cate Blanchett as the wicked stepmother.
A stunning epic that wisely knows people are there for the intimate, heartfelt moments as much as impressive battle sequences, director Niki Caro has delivered the most assured, most tonally consistent live-action adaptation yet. Honoring the spirit of the animated original while not hesitating to follow its own path, this tale of a young woman who disguises herself as a man to fight in place of her elderly father is going to elicit cheers and tears. Every role is perfectly cast, with Tzi Ma a standout as Mulan’s father and newcomer (to American audiences) Liu Yifei truly bringing this legend to life.