Disney is the king of recycling its own property, with remakes of everything from Beauty and the Beast to Lady and the Tramp. Disney live-action remakes have almost become a genre unto themselves, with each one of them varying in their respective effectiveness.
The newest Disney remake, The Little Mermaid, just hit theaters on Friday, bringing yet another installment to Disney’s growing library of remakes. Director Rob Marshall’s The Little Mermaid will make it the third live-action remake in the past two years, joining the ranks of Robert Zemeckis’ poorly-reviewed Pinocchio and David Lowery’s straight-to-streaming Peter Pan & Wendy. Whether you like it or not, Disney remakes are here to stay. Even Moana, which hit theaters in 2016, is already getting a live-action remake with star Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson returning.
The jury is still out on if The Little Mermaid remake sinks or swims, but the vast number of other Disney remakes have proven successful at the box office despite mixed critical responses. It’s difficult to justify and remake such beloved classics, as there will always be intense adoration for the original animated stories. While many live-action remakes don’t come close to living up to their original source material, a certain few stand above the rest.
7. The Lion King (2019)
In 2019, Disney’s The Lion King remake showcased the possibilities of CGI. The film, a remake of the classic 1994 feature of the same name, is a faithful retelling of the beloved original story, with its main draw being its technological wonder. The animals featured in director Jon Favreau’s The Lion King — from lions to hyenas to meerkats — never fail to astonish. However, the movie’s wonder pretty much stops there. Favreau’s remake doesn’t live up to the magic of the original film, with its hyper-realism working to its detriment.
It’s difficult to feel for the largely expression-less animal characters, and it’s jarring to see an innately fantastical story try to play itself off as “realistic.” The original The Lion King infused a Shakespearean tale into lovable, heart-wrenching characters; the remake’s focus on realism and noted lack of any humans fail to elicit that same wonder.
6. Aladdin (2019)
Will Smith as the Genie. Those five words encapsulate much of what makes the 2019 Aladdin so watchable, as the star’s outrageous performance as the big blue magic man is one that has to be seen to be believed. Smith, who in 2019 was known more as a movie star than the guy that slapped Chris Rock at the Oscars, may look a bit funky when he’s in full-on Genie mode thanks to some questionable CGI, but there’s no doubt that Smith’s charisma in the role is perfection.
Aside from Smith, Aladdin also features good performances from leads Mena Massoud as Aladdin and Naomi Scott as Princess Jasmine. However, the remake, directed by Guy Ritchie, is never really able to capture the magic of the original. The film plays like an uninspired retelling rather than an interesting evolution of the source material, and it’s difficult to dismiss a few misguided and problematic decisions by Disney. From the addition of new character Prince Anders, who is white and played by Billy Magnussen, to reports that white extras were made up with brown makeup to blend into their scenery, 2019’s Aladdin carries a hefty amount of baggage.
5. The Little Mermaid (2023)
The newly-released remake of The Little Mermaid sees Halle Bailey take on Ariel, a brilliant casting decision that almost single-handedly saves this film from being one to forget. The 2023 remake, directed by Rob Marshall, turns the original 1989 The Little Mermaid into a two-hour-plus story filled to the brim with stars. Bailey, in her first-ever leading role, injects the new film with an emotional passion and friendliness that can’t be understated. And, of course, her singing is stunning. However, Marshall’s The Little Mermaid fails to live up to the wonderfully vibrant world that the original animation was able to create. Aside from a few fun moments such as the performances of Under the Sea and Poor Unfortunate Souls, it’s still unclear if the new movie did enough to justify its existence.
4. Cruella (2021)
Emma Stone becomes a punk princess in 2021’s Cruella, which is more of an expansion than a page-for-page remake. The film follows Stone as Cruella de Vil, an edgy aspiring clothing designer warring with her cruel boss. While it may be a bit hard to believe that Stone’s Cruella will go on to skin puppies as the villain of 101 Dalmatians, the La La Land actor is undoubtedly a star in Cruella.
Alongside Emma Thompson as The Baroness, Cruella provides a new, different take on an iconic character. The film dives headfirst into its punk, visually intoxicating story filled to the brim with lavish costumes and bombastic performances. Cruella is a fun, bold entry into the Disney library, but it’s hard to separate how the film’s images of rebellion are used inside of a conforming, mass-marketable platform. Bold strides may have been taken in the movie’s aesthetics and performances, but it’s easy to watch Cruella with one eyebrow raised.
3. The Jungle Book (2016)
The original The Jungle Book is a classic, but the 2016 remake might just be one too. The Jungle Book, although it is not a flawless movie, does everything one would want a good live-action remake to do. The movie does everything that 2019’s The Lion King tried to do; it creates an astonishing world full of personable characters.
The dense tropical environments in The Jungle Book is wonderfully rendered, resulting in a lush and expansive world that lies somewhere on the border between reality and fantasy. While the film is still exceedingly loyal to its source material, it is able to hold its audience due to its heart and personality. Bill Murray’s Baloo and Idris Elba’s Shere Khan are perfect voice performances in essentially opposite fashions, and young lead Neel Sethi does just enough to make The Jungle Book soar.
2. Cinderella (2015)
Director Kenneth Branagh’s 2015 remake of Cinderella is one of the few Disney remakes that updates the original story with an emotional and aesthetic liveliness that rivals that of the original movie. The film, which perfectly casts Lily James as Cinderella, feels like a fairy tale from top to bottom. Dante Ferretti’s wonderfully elegant yet playful production design plays beautifully alongside the movie’s eye-popping costumes, courtesy of designer Sandy Powell.
Branagh and James’ performance gives the character of Cinderella a loving personality and emotional depth that the first film sorely lacks, resulting in a powerful rendition of a Disney classic. And Tár‘s Cate Blanchett’s wicked portrayal of Lady Tremaine is hard to beat. In the land of remakes, it’s hard to beat Cinderella.
1. Pete’s Dragon (2016)
The original Pete’s Dragon from 1977 may not be as beloved and revered as stories like Mulan, The Little Mermaid, or Beauty and the Beast, but that doesn’t hold back the remake from creating a touching tale of friendship, family, and adventure. David Lowery, known for his work on movies like The Green Knight and Peter Pan & Wendy, directs this 2016 remake starring Bryce Dallas Howard, Robert Redford, and Oakes Fegley.
Pete’s Dragon, even though it does not include any songs, expands the original story past its own wonder. From beginning to end, this story of a boy and his pet dragon is filled to the brim with heart. Elliot, Pete’s dragon friend in the forest, is one of the most heart-wrenching and astonishing live-action creatures to date, and the film plays upon his and Pete’s relationship to tug at the heartstrings of the audience. It’s difficult to make a remake simultaneously engaging, fun, and meaningful, but Lowery hits the nail on the head. Pete’s Dragon is beautiful. It proves that, sometimes, a remake really can be a worthwhile, meaningful endeavor.
You can stream all these live-action remakes on Disney+.
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