In Disney’s latest attempt at capitalising off the goodwill of its animated renaissance period, 2020’s “Mulan” has failed to meet the original’s gold standard. While we certainly appreciated the film’s attempt at portraying its setting and characters in a more authentic light, we’d much prefer some actual personality in the film. In Disney’s ever-growing catalogue of modern, flashier rehashes, this lands squarely in the “miss” category.
That being said, we can think of no better time than the present to track the history of Disney’s many, many live-action adaptations of beloved nostalgic properties. So follow us as we dive down the rabbit hole, if not an uncanny valley, and rank all of the franchise’s best live-action adaptations. From the very best to the very worst. Do take into account that we won’t be including any live-action sequels to the original. Otherwise, if we may quote the original’s Captain Li Shang, let’s get down to business!
1. “Dumbo” (2019)
Tim Burton’s “Dumbo” committed the one cardinal sin we could not forgive: it bored us. Oh, how it bored us to tears. The beauty of the original film was that it was elegant in its simplicity. The harrowing trials and journey of one sweet baby elephant was both the heart and the thrill of the film. Every time the poor creature ran into a bad player, a helpful friend reunited the creature with his mother, there was a sense of wonder, vulnerability and emotional resonance to the whole thing.
When you stuff the film full of two-dimensional characters, boring story arcs and spend more time focusing on its human cast, you’ve missed the whole point. We didn’t come for Colin Farrell’s Holt Farrier or his obnoxious children. We came to see the elephant! For all of the film’s glossy production quality, it absolutely butchers the source material.
2. “Alice in Wonderland” (2010)
Yet another one of Burton’s adaptations makes it at the bottom of the list. The only reason why this one isn’t the worst is that there’s some fun to be derived from Johnny Depp’s depiction of the Mad Hatter. Even if he is just Jack Sparrow in clown makeup. Once again, Burton forgoes the heart and charm of the original for a bloated, high-production mess. “Alice in Wonderland” is a forgettable entry in the early 2010’s line-up of edgy retellings of old fables. Remember 2013’s “Jack and the Giant Slayer”? Or “Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters”? Probably not and you’ll most likely forget about this one as well. Not every fantasy film has to feed into the cliche “chosen one” plotline. If you’re looking for a darker take on the “Alice in Wonderland” tale, we highly recommend Guillermo Del Toro’s “Pan Labyrinth”. Trust me, it’s way better than this dreg.
3. “Aladdin” (2019)
For every inspired decision made by the 2019 remake of “Aladdin”, there’s another equally frustrating and annoying foible to match it. Let’s start with some positives, shall we? We enjoyed Will Smith’s Genie for what he was. At the very least, we’re glad that the film didn’t try to recreate the sheer magic of Robin Williams’ performance. It’s nice that Naomi Scott got to portray a more competent and witty Princess Jasmine, in comparison to her animated counterpart. Beyond that, everything else feels like a hollow stand-in for a dream long past.
The musical numbers are mediocre at best and have none of the kinetic energy and contagious rhythm of the original. There are clear limitations that a live-action adaptation has that an animated film doesn’t. Mena Massoud as Aladdin was significantly douchier than the original and oh…how they ruined Jaafar. In place of a wickedly sassy wizard, we got some monotonous baddy who mumbles through his lines.
4. “101 Dalmatians” (1996)
There’s a small soft spot we have for 1996’s “101 Dalmatians”. One that fills us with ironic delight. The adorable, if not paper-thin, antics of those lovable real puppies. The horrid dialogue that lent little to no dramatic weight to Jeff Daniel’s Roger. Arguably, it made every line sound so comically ridiculous. Then, of course, there’s Glen Close’s Cruella de Vil. Her performance in the film is a far cry from her legendary role as the stoic Patty Hewes in “Damages”.
She chews the scenery more than any canine company ever could! Playing into the sheer absurdity of her character with unabashed gusto and diva power. Don’t get us wrong, “101 Dalmatians” is not a good film by any stretch of the imagination but it is hilarious to watch. It’s loud and silly enough to keep the kids entertained and gives plenty of fuel for adult commentary. At the very least, it has some personality to it.
5. “Mulan” (2020)
Alas, we come to this year’s “Mulan”. Admittedly, we were quite excited about the film at first. Sure Eddie Murphy’s Mushu isn’t there and we’ll never hear the original’s outrageously catchy “I’ll Make A Man Out of You” but the fight scenes looked good! Unfortunately, 2020’s “Mulan” is all style and no substance. For real, there are some baffling creative decisions that didn’t need to be there. We won’t spoil it, but let’s just say one of it involves a silly, contrived superpower. You’ll know when you see it.
We suppose the stakes are a lot higher and there are some impressive fight sequences but there just isn’t enough heart to carry it through. The main issue with the film is that it takes itself far too seriously. Lighten up! Let your hair down and don’t be afraid to poke some fun at the traditional Asian tropes. Not everything has to be a self-serious overcorrection of some of the original’s problems.
6. “The Lion King” (2019)
There’s a lot of pressure riding on 2019’s “The Lion King”. Namely, the pressure to live up to its iconic 1994 animated predecessor. A film that many consider the crown jewel of Disney’s animated renaissance. One full of rich characters, gorgeous visuals with an unforgettable score and soundtrack. Again, we reiterate there are just some things animated films can do that live-action films can’t! At least, without looking like some awful CGI-reality hybrid.
All of the subtle facial expressions married to phenomenal vocal performances. All the little ticks and idiosyncrasies that made Zazu, Mufasa, Simba, Timon and Pumba unique, all of it washed away. In its place, is dull photorealism that clashes with the film’s grand, Shakespearian tone. Not even its cast of talented voice actors could have lifted this film beyond the threshold of mediocrity. If “The Lion King” was doing its best to show off Disney’s revolutionary new CGI effects, then it’s done its job. As a faithful recreation of the original? Dream on.
7. “Beauty and the Beast” (2017)
In another world in which 1991’s “Beauty and the Beast” did not exist, perhaps its 2017 live-action counterpart could have been a classic. Sadly, it lives in the shadows of the original. For all of its visual splendour and impressive musical recreations, there’s one shortcoming that mires the entire film. It is the chemistry between Belle and the Beast. The issue isn’t necessarily with the cast, mind you. Honestly, Emma Watson is perfect for the role of the precocious and intelligent Belle.
In lieu of the animated version’s more demure portrayal, she brings real fire to the character. Dan Stevens’ Beast comes off more like a brooding teenager than a quick-tempered man-child but we could still see it working. It is the film’s writing and pacing that trips it all up. Their romance feels rushed and not enough time was given to developing their relationship. Instead, the writers clumsily try to inject some sob story on why the Beast is the way he is. Why do we need this? Sometimes, less is more. It would have been more effective to have shown the Beast’ gradual character growth than to have justified his abusive tendencies.
8. “Maleficent” (2014)
While “Maleficent” is a remake of the 1959’s “Sleeping Beauty” on paper, there is clearly a lot more going on beneath the surface here. Interestingly, the film doesn’t primarily focus on the perspective of the noble knight or Princess Aurora. Rather, it chooses to zero in on the villain of the original tale, Maleficent. It takes a classic story of the inherently evil witch fighting the forces of good and turns it on its head. Angelina Jolie does a fabulous job as the scorned fairy and protector of the Moors.
“Maleficent” isn’t a perfect film but of all of Disney’s attempts at adding layers to their animated classics, this one has got to be the best. At times, the film does use its large CGI action sequences as a crutch and some of the melodrama borders on comedy at times. Still, we think we should give creative props where it’s due. Good job, Maleficent! You learned from “Alice in Wonderland”’s mistakes.
9. “Cinderella” (2015)
As far as Disney remakes go, 2015’s “Cinderella” feels the most legitimate among the lot. Say what you want about its 1950’s predecessor but we can all agree that its plot was barebones at best. Longing for richer detail and greater characterisation beyond the story of a fair stepdaughter finding freedom from her wicked family via a handsome prince and magic.
Some may find its traditionalist approach to morality a tad antiquated, especially when measured up to other female heroines such as “Brave”’s Merida and “Wonder Woman”’s Diana. For those looking for a modern retelling of the original that is as faithful as it is rich with depth, then 2015’s live-action adaptation is right up your alley. It’s the rare exception to the rule. A remake that outdoes its predecessor.
10. “The Jungle Book” (2016)
The “Jungle Book” might not exactly be the animated jukebox jungle musical of 1967 but who cares! It isn’t trying to be a beat-for-beat recreation of the original, nor is it aiming to revise or reinvent the classic narrative. No, 2016’s “Jungle Book”honours the spirit of the original film with great performances and stunning motion capture. It certainly helps that the film has an excellent ensemble of talented actors. From Scarlett Johannson’s seductive voice as Kaa the serpent to Idris Alba’s fury as Shere Khan to Bill Murray’s levity as Baloo.
It never feels like the actors are working to fill a predetermined mould for them like in “The Lion King”. There’s just so much life and personality placed in its characters, and it all feels so organic. It never fails to delight us whenever Christopher Walken’s King Louie comes shuffling on-screen. 2016’s “Jungle Book” is one that fills you with wonder with its breathtaking visuals, laughter from its colourful cast of characters and a genuine sense of danger from its world. It is the very best of Disney’s modern remakes!