To quote one of the best sitcoms ever: “Did you just ”
If George Constanza was a real person — and the opinions of “Seinfeld” characters had any bearing on major movie slates — Disney CEO Bob Iger would be forced to answer in the affirmative some 20 times over thanks to his company’s buffet of CGI-laden remakes, sequels, and spin-offs. The entertainment giant has spat out scads of these so-called “revivals” of its animated classics in recent years, with critics routinely pointing out the bottom line motivating the mostly mediocre trend.
And yet, no matter how poor the reception, the Disney live-action revisits just keep coming. In 2023, nearly every major animated Disney classic is accompanied by an overly expensive — wildly under-justified — successor sporting A-list actors and little else. Robert Zemeckis delivered a Tom Hanks-starring “Pinocchio” last year, which IndieWire’s Christian Zilko called “barely a real film.” Kate Erbland enjoyed Rob Marshall’s upcoming “The Little Mermaid” starring Halle Bailey much better, but argued it tried too hard to be part of our world. Up next, audiences will be asked to endure Disney rehashing “Bambi,” “Hercules,” “Snow White,” and even “Lilo and Stitch.”
There have been exceptions to the “Disney remakes are bad” rule: Kenneth Branagh’s “Cinderella” is an undeniably charming re-telling of the quintessential fairytale, while David Lowery’s “Pete’s Dragon” arguably surpasses the original. Plus, Craig Gillespie’s “Cruella” starring Emma Stone as the notorious dognapper is simply too entertaining to begrudge. Still, the rule is a rule for a reason. By and large, Disney remakes are exhausting regurgitations that tend to undermine the joy of Disney’s most historically significant films.
These contemporary remakes have been hugely successful at the box office, of course: a kind of tried-and-true cinematic daycare for parents looking to see something kid-friendly. There’s merit in that, to be sure. But less understandable is the introduction of straight-to-streaming remakes, presented right alongside the original film — with both exclusive to Disney+. Like George enjoying a crunchy snack, it’s a textbook example of giving the metaphoric chip that forbidden double-dip.
Broken down by pros and cons (with synopses omitted, since we know you know these movies), here are all 21 of Disney’s major live-action remakes and revivals ranked.
With editorial contributions by Kate Erbland.
21. “Alice Through the Looking Glass” (2016)
Pros: Director James Bobin’s “Alice Through the Looking Glass” — a follow-up to Tim Burton’s 2010 box office smash “Alice in Wonderland” — is very colorful. Also, an exceptionally over-it Sacha Baron Cohen plays a sentient clock, so that’s fun.
Cons: Pretty much every other thing about this exhausting mistake of a movie is vexing. Not only does “Alice Through the Looking Glass” offer next to nothing for fans of Lewis Carroll, but it also manages to spectacularly mangle the “female hysteria” plot introduced in its Victorian-era prologue by smashing together a bunch of nonsensical scenes, sticking Mia Wasikowska in the middle of them, and blindly hoping for a feminist adventure epic. The 2016 sequel is a classic example of a filmmaker confusing a poorly spent, bloated budget with psychedelic maximalism: It’s not trippy, just annoying.
Read IndieWire’s review of “Alice Through the Looking Glass.”
20. “102 Dalmatians” (2000)
Pros: Glenn Close still manages to dazzle as Cruella De Vil in the deeply underwhelming sequel film “102 Dalmatians.” Both Kevin Lima’s follow-up and the original live-action “101 Dalmatians” remake from 1996 score big points for using real animals to tell their zany stories. It’s worth it for the mouthy macaw, named Waddlesworth, alone.
Cons: As unclever as its excruciating title, “102 Dalmatians” tells practically the exact same story as its 1996 predecessor — which in turn rehashes the 1961 original — and a copy of a copy does not a decent movie make.
19. “Pinocchio” (2022)
Pros: Tom Hanks emerges from this whale of a bad time mostly unscathed, delivering a reasonably likable performance as Geppetto: iconically weird dad to a puppet and infamously bad pet owner. (Seriously, who brings a kitten and a goldfish on a rescue mission?)
Cons: Pinocchio is as wooden as a post and his exasperating movie as gnarled as a hangman’s tree. Maybe Disney+ audiences could forgive all that, if it weren’t for the unmitigated nightmare fuel that is live-action Pleasure Island. Yes, watching human children morph into donkeys in a sequence best described as CGI-meets-Cronenberg nightmare fuel is terrifying. But more than that, Robert Zemeckis’ “Pinocchio” feels mean in its morality: treating its dozens of child actors with as much empathy as Honest John.
Read IndieWire’s complete review of “Pinocchio.”
18. “Maleficent: Mistress of Evil” (2019)
Pros: Angelina Jolie dons horns once more for director Joachim Rønning’s sequel to “Maleficent”: Disney’s live-action “Sleeping Beauty” reimagining from 2014. Playing opposite Elle Fanning’s Aurora again, the Academy Award winner cuts through the film’s utter soullessness with her icy gaze, razor-sharp cheeks, and knack for action performance. Jolie also delivers some astoundingly silly lines with real bite.
Cons: “Maleficent: Mistress of Evil” has too little Maleficent and an excess of everything else. Its metaphoric wings pinned down by too much lore and far too many CGI flowers, the 2019 film concocts an uninteresting inciting incident, builds to a battle that’s equally as bland, and finishes far from the 1959 animated classic. When Jolie is on screen, it’s tolerable. But when she’s not invited to the metaphoric party, it’s genuinely disastrous: a nauseating blend of aesthetic excess and narrative thinness exemplifying what many Disney fans find objectionable about these films.
Read IndieWire’s review of “Maleficent: Mistress of Evil.”
17. “Dumbo” (2019)
Pros: Director Tim Burton renders an unprecedentedly adorable elephant for his 2019 take on “Dumbo.” Rivaling the baby-faced star of the 1941 original, CGI Dumbo is a big-eyed, big-eared, snuggly lump who loves playing with feathers and bouncing on trapeze safety nets. Plus, Danny Devito and Michael Keaton deliver outrageously goofy performances as a low-rent ringmaster and villainous amusement park owner respectively.
Cons: Though the image of a creature with ears so big they double as wings seems like fun for the whole family, “Dumbo” is a deeply sad story and Burton delivers a decidedly dark remake of the tale. Recall that Dumbo doesn’t like being in the circus and, as with Bambi before him, Dumbo’s mother being unceremoniously ripped away from him plays a big part in that. You’ll feel exactly how Burton would like you to feel in the moment, but there’s no justifying hitting beats this grim in a muddled movie that otherwise can’t measure up.
Read IndieWire’s review of “Dumbo.”
16. “Alice in Wonderland” (2010)
Pros: Tim Burton brought his goofy-yet-gothic POV to the topsy-turvy world of Underland for his remake of “Alice in Wonderland”: the 2010 Disney remake most directly responsible for opening the floodgate on this unfortunate IP trend. It’s most notable for its singular costume, make-up, and production design with performances from Helena Bonham Carter as the Queen of Hearts and Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter earning the most praise among the cast.
Cons: “Alice in Wonderland” made more than $1 billion at the worldwide box office, but was a staggering disappointment to critics. Burton’s distinctive art style meshed poorly with the super-slick CGI and the story was meaningless: a string of vague Lewis Carroll references anchored by a nonplussed Mia Wasikowska.
15. “Mary Poppins Returns” (2018)
Pros: As beloved as just about any A-lister could be these days, Emily Blunt was born to play Mary Poppins. The British actress breathes effortless life into the prim and propper governess, matching both the levity and the shrewdness of Julie Andrews’ legendary rendering of the character from 1964.
Cons: The slowness of Robert Stevenson’s “Mary Poppins” still feels like a nostalgic stroll: a meandering walk taken with P. L. Travers’ most beloved characters that’s justified by its steadfast originality and committment to explicitly pondering life’s greatest lessons. Rob Marshall’s modern sequel, however, is mainly boring. The 2018 film is loyal to and sweet about the source material, yes. But without the energy of a live Broadway show to support it, seeing different actors portray the same Great Depression-era characters — only this time singing worse songs — feels more like punishment than play.
Read IndieWire’s review of “Mary Poppins Returns.”
14. “The Lion King” (2019)
Pros: Jon Favreau remains a loyal subject to “The Lion King” in this near beat-for-beat remake of the 1994 animated treasure, featuring the voice acting of Donald Glover, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Billy Eichner, Seth Rogen, John Oliver, and more. Voicing Nala, Beyoncé performs cherished original track “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” as well as original song “Spirit.”
Cons: Favreau’s photorealistic “The Lion King” may be exacting and fastidious in its recreations, but creative it is not: producing a tired re-skinning of a tale told better the first time. With both versions exclusive to Disney+, the case for watching this one over the other is as weak as a hyena’s allegiance. Here’s hoping Barry Jenkins’ Mufasa prequel brings pride back to Pride Rock.
Read IndieWire’s complete review of “The Lion King.”
13. “The Little Mermaid” (2023)
Pros: It’s star Halle Bailey, appearing in her first leading role, who makes the best case for why this classic Disney tale needed to be made into a live-action affair. Just look at her face, so expressive and so open, so deeply and wonderfully human and alive. There are some things even the most lovingly rendered pieces of hand-drawn animation just can’t match, and Bailey’s emotive skill is one of them. (And her stunning singing? Further icing on the “this young woman is a movie star” cake.)
Cons: So, does it look real? Sometimes, sure, but that’s a strange worry for a story that is — again, again — about mythical sea creatures. That trend will likely continue to be true for the foreseeable future, but until the House of Mouse cracks the real problem at hand, these films will never become classics on their own merit.
That problem: Does it feel real? Not yet, and not even movie star turns and rapping birds and the very best of intentions can bridge that divide. For now, “The Little Mermaid” exists outside of the very world it so wants to be a part of, one already so lovingly rendered in its predecessor, “real” or not. —KE
Read IndieWire’s complete review of “The Little Mermaid” by Kate Erbland
12. “Beauty and the Beast” (2017)
Pros: Casting a post-“Harry Potter” Emma Watson as the bookish beauty Belle was a smart move by Disney. Donning a yellow gown at once reminiscent of both the animated 1991 classic and Hermione’s Yule Ball dress, Watson at the very least looked the part of Disney’s most well-read princess. Plus, the extraordinarily detailed rendering of Beast’s castle felt a bit like a Hogwarts.
Cons: From inanimate objects too realistic to relate to and the unabashed queer-baiting of telling fans there would be an “exclusively gay” moment that never came, “Beauty and the Beast” was a small PR disaster for Disney. Director Bill Condon delivers some reasonably entertaining beats, but “Beauty and the Beast” feels like a cashgrab from start to finish. Hey, no one said selling audiences on a clandestine romance between a prisoner and the talking bison holding her captive would be easy.
Read IndieWire’s review of “Beauty and the Beast.”
11. “The Jungle Book” (1994)
Pros: Jason Scott Lee, Sam Neill, John Cleese, Cary Elwes, Lena Headey, and more stars appear alongside some of the most patient animals show business has ever known in this action-packed expansion of Rudyard Kipling’s story of a young boy growing up in the jungle. Technically speaking, the 1994 film is the first live-action Disney remake; though “Alice in Wonderland” kicked off the more recent stint of IP recycling in 2010. (It’s also possible that you can read this film as a live-action sequel to the original animated movie.) Come for the promise of over-the-top “Indiana Jones”-style action. Stay for Lee selling the hell out of a surprising tearjerker.
Cons: Directed by Stephen Sommers, who co-wrote its script with Ronald Yanover and Mark Geldman, this “The Jungle Book” is about as far from the animated original as you can get. It’s almost enough to discount the title from consideration on our list altogether. But considering this Disney-produced remake/sequel is (broadly speaking) pretty good — when so many others are really not — it makes the cut.
10. “Pete’s Dragon” (2016)
Pros: IndieWire’s David Ehrlich hit the nail on the head when he called David Lowery’s “Pete’s Dragon” remake “a new Disney classic.” Not only does Lowery’s script (co-written with Toby Halbrooks) effortlessly expand on the under-watched 1977 gem, but it sincerely captures what makes the original story of a boy and his pet dragon worth revisiting.
Cons: In addition to changings scads of details, the new “Pete’s Dragon” boasts not a single song. Making the film a musical arguably would have detracted from its poignant, soft-hearted story of friendship, but for some fans, songs (such as “Candle on the Water” and “Brazzle Dazzle Day”) are essential.
Read IndieWire’s review of “Pete’s Dragon.”
9. “Aladdin” (2019)
Pros: Disney fans were understandably befuddled by Guy Ritchie’s decision to turn Will Smith into an oversized smurf for his “Aladdin” remake. But there’s no denying that the outrageously theatrical performance of Smith as Genie works in the context of the film: a larger-than-life centerpiece that anchors the well-loved romance of a princess and so-called “street rat.”
Cons: Despite strong showings from leads Mena Massoud and Naomi Scott, “Aladdin” struggles to feel compelling in the same way as the original. Maybe it’s the lackluster choreography or characteristically awkward CGI. Worse, however, is the sense that Disney compromised on its casting: Accusations that white extras were made up with brown makeup to “blend in” proved true and the addition of new character Prince Anders, who is white and played by Billy Magnussen, felt at the very least misguided.
Read IndieWire’s review of “Aladdin.”
8. “Christopher Robin” (2018)
Pros: Winnie the Pooh has never been more adorable. In “Christopher Robin,” Ewan McGregor stars as the friend to the Hundred Acre Wood’s most famous honey-loving inhabitant. Jim Cummings, who has voiced the simple-minded bear since 1988, nails the unmistakable delivery generations of Disney fans have come to know and love, while the CGI rendering — emphasizing Pooh’s identity as a well-loved stuffed animal — brings out new charms. The film received an Oscar nod for Best Visual Effects.
Cons: Awfully similar to the Robin Williams-starring “Hook,” director Marc Forster’s “Christopher Robin” imagines an adult Christopher as a stressed-out luggage salesman who returns to Pooh, Tigger, Piglet, and the rest of his childhood friends when Pooh ventures into the real world to find him. It’s a funny idea that leads to some sweet moments, but more often sees McGregor trying too hard to progress an underdeveloped character who pulls focus at the worst possible times.
Read IndieWire’s review of “Christopher Robin.”
7. “Lady and the Tramp” (2019)
Pros: One of the few “live-action” Disney remakes to use real animals, “Lady and the Tramp” brought scads of adorable dogs to Disney+ at the streaming service’s launch. (Fun fact: All of the dogs in the film are rescues and human actor Yvette Nicole Brown adopted one of them when production wrapped.) Appropriately nostalgic — meaning the offensive Siamese cats song got cut — director Charlie Bean’s remake smartly expands on the notion of a dog feeling usurped by a human baby, while preservering the thematic underpinnings of the 1955 animation.
Cons: Has no one learned anything from the 1999 TV movie “Animal Farm”? Bean makes the wholly unecessary choice to animate his canine actors’ mouths in “Lady and the Tramp”: an unsettling misstep that detracts from every genuine moment.
Read IndieWire’s review of “Lady and the Tramp.”
6. “Mulan” (2020)
Pros: A compelling performance from Liu Yifei, impressive fight choreography, and a brave willingness to diverge from the original makes “Mulan” a recent standout among Disney’s recycled IP. Introducing new villains, played by Jason Scott Lee and Gong Li, the 2020 “Mulan” is a sweeping war epic that shows an even stronger side to the fabled female hero.
Cons: In addition to irritating some Disney purists with the removal of animated love interest Li Shang, the “Mulan” remake was criticized for its lack of diversity behind the camera. Director Niki Caro responded in a 2020 interview with The Hollywood Reporter, saying: “Although it’s a critically important Chinese story and it’s set in Chinese culture and history, there is another culture at play here, which is the culture of Disney, and that the director, whoever they were, needed to be able to handle both — and here I am.”
Read IndieWire’s review of “Mulan.”
5. “Maleficent” (2014)
Pros: Who better to receive a villainous origin story than the iconic Maleficent? With mega-watt talent Angelina Jolie cast in the title role and Elle Fanning playing Princess Aurora, director Robert Stromberg weaves a morally gray tale about motherhood that beautifully augments “Sleeping Beauty” with a film that’s part revisionist prequel and part fantasy character study.
Cons: Unfortunately, the original story at the heart of “Maleficent” doesn’t keep the film from feeling predictable. Like reading a picture book to a child for the umpteenth time, “Maleficent” feels like something you’ve already seen: whether that’s true or not.
Read IndieWire’s review of “Maleficent.”
4. “101 Dalmatians” (1996)
Pros: Glenn Close reigns supreme as the best Disney live-action casting to date, debuting her sensationally sinister Cruella for director Stephen Herek’s 1996 take on “101 Dalmatians.” Part “Fatal Attraction,” part “The Stepford Wives,” Close’s take on the infamous dog-napper is a smart repurposing of the fabric that made the original a tried-and-true staple of Disney’s animated closet: and she’s dressed exquisitely. Jeff Daniels and Joely Richardson play off Close as live-action Roger and Anita.
Cons: Producer John Hughes, known for “Home Alone” among other American family favorites, can’t help but force slapstick comedy where it shouldn’t be in a conflict that too often feels forced when the possibility of dead dogs should easily motivate.
3. “Cruella” (2021)
Pros: Emma Stone brings her Academy Award-winning theatricality to the role of Cruella de Vil in this devilishly delightful tale of an aspiring clothing designer warring with her cruel boss: The Baroness, played by a bombastic Emma Thompson. “Cruella” is at its best when delivering over-the-top costume reveals: wearable street art-turned-avant-garde PR attacks that redefined spectacle for the Disney remake field.
Cons: Craig Gillespie’s “Cruella” has plenty of “101 Dalmatians” nods, but in no way exists in the same narrative world as the original animated film. Even after the credits role, there’s no believing this feisty fashionista would skin dozens of puppies.
Read IndieWire’s review of “Cruella.”
2. “The Jungle Book” (2016)
Pros: Jon Favreau’s 2016 “The Jungle Book” is as loyal to its source material as the director’s inferior 2019 “The Lion King” for good and bad. But what its story lacks in originality, “The Jungle Book” makes up for with cinematographer Bill Pope’s innovative visual exploration of the dense jungle and animal kingdom as Neel Sethi’s Mowgli experiences them. Plus, it doesn’t get much better than Bill Murray voicing Baloo.
Cons: Favreau’s fantastic environment too often bumps against the cartoonish talking animals, leaving audiences stuck in a sandpit of realism when the plot requires we suspend our disbelief.
Read IndieWire’s review of “The Jungle Book.”
1. “Cinderella” (2015)
Pros: Lily James is perfectly cast as Cinderella, opposite Cate Blanchett’s wickedly delicious Lady Tremaine: rivaled only by Anjelica Huston’s performance as the evil stepmother from the 1998 live-action film “Ever After.” With truly fairytale-like production design — right down to the sky blue gown — screenwriter Chris Weitz’s “Cinderella” expands the quintessential Disney classic with an enriching exploration of happily ever after that feels almost as magical as the first time that storied clock struck midnight.
Cons: As with so many Disney live-action remakes, “Cinderella” is infested with some truly regrettably CGI animals. Plus, as far as justification goes, director Kenneth Branagh sort of just assumes his audience wants a faithful retell. If you don’t, it could be dull.
Read IndieWire’s review of “Cinderella.”