Disney’s recent push to remake their animated classics as live-action features has been well received by the moviegoing public. Though not all of them have become enduring masterpieces in their own right, many became smash-hits at the box office: CNBC reported in July 2019 that these films have made over $7 billion globally since the March 2010 release of "Alice in Wonderland."
The critical reception to these titles, however, has been a lot more thorny. While some of these movies have managed to earn widespread acclaim, many have inspired shrugs and even explicit vitriol. A portion of this is due to these projects living in the shadow of some of the most beloved animated films of all time. But many critics’ complaints target shortcomings that would be apparent in any context.
Looking over the Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic scores earned by these remakes, you quickly figure out which are perceived as worthy successors to the classics they adapt and which are widely derided. Look a little closer, and you’ll soon be keenly aware of the recurring problems that have sunk so many of these projects — and the choices that push successful remakes to the top.
Which live-action Disney remakes continue the tradition of Mouse House excellence, and which are best forgotten? We’re here to answer that question by ranking every single one, from worst to best.
17. Alice Through the Looking Glass
While 2010’s "Alice in Wonderland" is far from a critical darling, it’s practically beloved compared to the critical reception that greeted its sequel, 2016’s "Alice Through the Looking Glass." Despite being helmed by James Bobin, a filmmaker responsible for acclaimed projects including "The Muppets" and "Flight of the Conchords," "Looking Glass" was widely derided. Why? There are a variety of reasons, but the most prominent is the mere fact that it doesn’t justify its own existence.
Kristy Puchko of CBR found the project not just pointless, but flawed from top to bottom. "Its production design [is] awash in a blur of rubbery CG landscapes, vaguely grotesque animated characters, and a color palette that mistakes ‘every crayon in the box’ for an aesthetic," Puchko wrote, while also noting that "the performances … range from slumbering to overblown."
Emily VanDerWerff of Vox was similarly critical of the project’s visuals: "The film’s sky-high color levels only serve to underline just how fake its computer effects seem … The only way I can describe it is to say that ‘Looking Glass’ looks like a mid-’90s video game featuring full-motion video, where actors move stiffly in front of fake, obviously digital backgrounds." With an aesthetic as lackluster as its screenplay, "Alice Through the Looking Glass" couldn’t be considered a critical hit even in the topsy-turvy world of Wonderland.
16. 102 Dalmatians
"102 Dalmatians" is no ordinary live-action remake of a Disney cartoon. This 2000 feature is actually a sequel to 1996’s "101 Dalmatians." With no animated "Dalmatians" sequel in existence then ("Patch’s London Adventure" wouldn’t hit home video for another few years), "102 Dalmatians" charts its own path in telling a new story starring all those spotted puppies. The critics were not impressed with that they came up with, dubbing this sequel a very, very bad dog.
Roger Ebert summed up the biggest critiques of "102 Dalmatians" in his review by noting, "There are some joys in chases and thrilling escapes, but taking the dogs out of the central roles leaves you with seriously weird humans and not enough puppy love." Without enough engaging canines on screen, critics were baffled as to what the point of this generic sequel is. Other recurring quibbles include the lack of decent supporting human characters and a dragging pace. Though many things set this film apart from other live-action Disney remakes, the flaws that drag "102 Dalmatians" down are quite routine.
15. Maleficent: Mistress of Evil
Five years after the original "Maleficent" hit theaters, 2019’s "Maleficent: Mistress of Evil" continued the story. The titular villainess embarks on a new adventure in this sequel, which throws a bunch of previously unknown fairies and a malicious new villain played by Michelle Pfeiffer into the mix. Unfortunately, the daring and flair critics admired in the first "Maleficent" are utterly absent in "Mistress of Evil."
Generally speaking, the critical reception to this sequel was apathetic. "In 2014, when Maleficent — rather than the prince — delivered the kiss that roused Aurora, it felt like an awakening. This new flick doesn’t just feel like a retreat, it also feels like a poisoned, candied invitation to sleep," lamented Manohla Dargis of The New York Times. Angelica Jade Bastién of Vulture further elaborated that "Mistress of Evil" lets visual effects overrun its story. Matt Zoller Seitz of RogerEbert.com added another criticism to the pile by noting that "the story seems incapable of dealing with the issues that it makes a point of raising."
Rather than lending further humanity to an iconic Disney baddie, "Mistress of Evil" was received by critics as a mechanical cash grab.
14. 101 Dalmatians
Long before "Alice in Wonderland" kicked off the modern slate of live-action Disney remakes, 1996’s "101 Dalmatians" proved animated features could be translated into flesh-and-blood films. The appeal of seeing beloved characters like Pongo and Perdita in live-action is real, though it might pale in comparison to the promise of Glenn Close inhabiting the role of Cruella de Vil, depending on who you ask. Regardless, it was enough to attract swaths of moviegoers. But the critical reception to this update was far less positive.
"While the adorableness quotient of the new ‘101’ is never in doubt, fans of the original may feel that its wit and charm have been diminished," complained David Ansen of Newsweek. "The plot remains intact … But this sturdy tale has been squeezed to fit the John Hughes mold, which for long stretches makes it feel as much like the third ‘Home Alone’ as the second ‘Dalmatians.’" This aptly sums up the problem many critics had with "101 Dalmatians:" It updates the classic for 1990s youngsters and loses the original movie’s magic along the way. What’s good for strong box office results isn’t always a surefire recipe for critical adoration.
How do you turn a 64-minute animated movie like 1941’s "Dumbo" into a two-hour feature? If you’re director Tim Burton, you do so poorly. Receiving critical marks that ranged from mixed to brutally negative, 2019’s "Dumbo" failed to generate the kind of praise that might have justified remaking a beloved property nearly 80 years after it first hit theaters.
"There’s simultaneously too much going on here and not enough," Christy Lemire of RogerEbert.com said, summarizing a recurring critique of this narratively crowded film. "Burton and screenwriter Ehren Kruger … have significantly expanded on the beloved 64-minute original feature, adding many more human characters to carry along the story … but they failed to develop those characters beyond a few superficial traits." Kristen Lopez of Culturess criticized the film’s muddled intentions: "It’s entirely unclear what the studio, Burton, and screenwriter Ehren Kruger wanted with ‘Dumbo.’ The original features are there but are played off as an impediment, merely the old-fashioned thing that’s needed to be improved on. "
While the production design and costumes garnered positive marks, those were the only highlights consistently mentioned by critics. "Dumbo" just feels pointless, if pretty. In short, Disney’s attempt to transform the little elephant’s story into a longer-form modern movie fails to take off.
12. Alice in Wonderland
Tim Burton making a live-action "Alice in Wonderland" movie sounds like a can’t-miss proposition. But in execution, this 2010 feature ended up drawing mixed marks. Much critical derision centered on how Burton’s "Alice in Wonderland" drains many of the distinctive qualities from Lewis Carroll’s original work. As Dana Stevens of Slate put it, "An ‘Alice’ filtered through the lens of young-adult fantasy fiction, complete with villains in eye patches, post-traumatic stress flashbacks, and CGI dragons in need of Joseph Campbell-style slaying, ceases to be ‘Alice’ at all."
Criticism also revolved around Johnny Depp’s performance as The Mad Hatter — a sharp contrast to Depp’s widely-acclaimed turns in past Depp-Burton collaborations. "For the first time, though, the star feels over-indulged by his longtime director," said Ty Burr of The Boston Globe, "as though playing a madman [gives] Depp license to run amok. (It doesn’t.) This isn’t a bad performance — provided you can wipe one dreadful break-dance routine from your mind — just an unstructured one."
There are a lot of promising ingredients in "Alice in Wonderland," but according to the critics, few of them are used to their fullest potential. Given the gargantuan amount of money this movie raked in, however, the public clearly disagrees.
11. Lady and the Tramp
2019’s live-action "Lady and the Tramp" was one of the first original movies to be exclusive to the Disney+ streaming platform. Though this movie may have eschewed movie theaters, it’s still remarkably similar to most other live-action Disney remakes. Like so many of its brethren, it garnered shrugs from the critics, who found it to be a hollow and overlong do-over of a better cartoon.
Ashlie D. Stevens of Salon found the project difficult to get invested in, even on the most basic emotional level. "The new ‘Lady and the Tramp,’ … is nearly a half hour longer than the original. The extra padding doesn’t do much for the film and only serves to give viewers more time — 103 minutes, to be exact — to consider how odd it looks for real dogs to speak, yell, kiss, and cry using CGI to animate their mouths. Melding the live action with the uncanny valley animation creates an emotional dissonance."
It wasn’t all bad, however. David Ehrlich of IndieWire praised the casting — especially Sam Elliot as a bloodhound. But overall, even he deemed "Lady and the Tramp" to be "a live-action remake that feels like it was made with the same low expectations and general sense of indifference with which most Disney+ subscribers will decide to watch it."
At the very least, "Lady and the Tramp" proves something important: The novelty of streaming can’t disguise a movie’s flaws.
10. The Lion King
While 2019’s "The Lion King" was a massive triumph at the worldwide box office, it was far less critically successful. The reviews were decidedly mixed: Though much praise was showered on the visual effects used to render Pride Rock, equally widespread were critiques of the movie’s failure to bring anything new to the table.
Justin Chang of NPR summarized the movie’s problems by describing it as "a Hollywood blockbuster disguised as a National Geographic documentary, or perhaps the world’s most expensive safari-themed karaoke video. The movie feels both overwhelmed by its technical virtuosity and shackled by its fidelity to the source material." Sara Michelle Fetters of MovieFreak dubbed this new "Lion King" a "carbon copy that I found difficult to care about … other than a couple of individual scenes and a handful of strong vocal performances there was precious little that stuck with me as I left the theatre and headed for home."
For all this criticism, it should be noted that even the most negative "Lion King" reviews took time to praise the visual effects wizardry on display. However, all of that VFX is pointless without characters the audience can invest in. The lack of that crucial component earned "The Lion King" the majority of its criticism.
The pre-release buzz for 2019’s "Aladdin" consisted largely of memes regarding Will Smith’s Genie. This made it seem like the kind of movie that would either become a surprise critical darling, or an all-time-worst critical disaster. In the end, however, "Aladdin" wound up in the middle. Its reviews weren’t terrible, but they also weren’t good enough to deliver a proper response to the question of why someone would bother to remake "Aladdin" in the first place.
Aramide Tinubu of Stylecaster, for one, was pleased to report that one of the movie’s most controversial elements turned out to be its best asset: "Despite that tragic top-knot and Yaki braid, Will Smith is legendary as Genie. He makes the character his own, adding a bit of the flair and charm that Robin Williams delivered in 1992." On the other hand, Caroline Seide of Consequence of Sound was baffled by Disney’s choice of filmmaker. "Kinetic action director Guy Ritchie is an utterly bizarre fit for this lighthearted musical comedy," Seide critiqued. "He has no idea how to stage a musical number, and even the action scenes were more exhilarating in the animated original."
While "Aladdin" turned out better than many hoped, the feature’s more lackluster qualities keep it from living up to the original animated classic.
You can lob many complaints at 2014’s "Maleficent," but one thing you can’t say is that it’s your typical live-action Disney remake. Rather than try to recreate 1959’s "Sleeping Beauty," this is a revisionist project out to critique the sexism of classic fairy tales. "Jolie seems to know the history and feel a duty to correct it," Wesley Morris of Grantland wrote. "You feel a little absurd being moved by something as shoddily put together as this. But it likes these women — even the nincompoop pixies. It believes in its star. There are a couple of scenes in which Fanning looks at Jolie with radiant, admiring affection you can feel. She’s not looking at an evil queen. She’s gazing at a superhero."
Indeed, "Maleficent" offers something different, especially when compared to other live-action Disney remakes. But that doesn’t mean the film didn’t incur criticism — many critics, in fact, found the movie somewhat stiff. "Like Sleeping Beauty lying in her coma, ‘Maleficent’ is mesmerizing to behold, and hard to fully embrace," Kristin Tillotson of the Minneapolis Star Tribune wrote. Much of the reason why the film is "hard to fully embrace" comes down to tonal problems, according to most critics, though the action sequences also came under fire. "Maleficent" offers something different, and often succeeds … but it still falls prey to the hallmark flaws of the live-action Disney remake.
7. Beauty and the Beast
It’s easy to discern the shortcomings in some Disney classics that might make a remake worthwhile. This is not the case with 2017’s "Beauty and the Beast." How could a live-action remake possibly improve upon a feature so beloved, it made history as the first animated film to score a Best Picture Oscar nomination?
The critical reception to the new "Beauty and the Beast" suggests this update is a painless retelling, if an unnecessary one. Kate Taylor of The Globe and Mail, for one, praised the feature as "nothing if not lively, albeit occasionally overwrought: The dinnerware’s number, ‘Be Our Guest,’ turns into a hallucinogenic sequence worthy of Busby Berkeley." On the other hand, Karen Han of Slashfilm aptly summarized a consistent critique of the remake by noting, "The more ‘real’ the movie tries to make everything appear, the harder it becomes to ignore that the necessity to their falling in love isn’t particularly romantic. It works in a fairytale, but that’s not quite what this movie is, especially when it takes such pains to explain what happily went unsaid in its animated progenitor."
Though the worst-case scenario didn’t take place, this "Beauty and the Beast" remake still falls short of its animated inspiration.
2020’s "Mulan" became the very definition of a divisive movie. Though initial critical reception was positive, it ended up garnering a much more complicated reputation over time.
Among the most universally applauded elements of this remake are its visuals, which swathe the world of "Mulan" in lusciously bright hues. "This is such a great-looking film, with amazing set pieces and dazzling action and colors so vibrant they would dazzle a Crayola factory," Richard Roeper of the Chicago Sun-Times said. He continued, "There are so many gorgeous shades of orange and magenta, blue and yellow, it’s as if we’re seeing these colors for the first time."
However, others maintained the project’s visual splendor doesn’t mitigate its ideological hypocrisy. "It’s a feminist tract that enforces male notions of value; a call to arms that fights for the wrong side of our current history; and a proud statement of national identity that celebrates the Nation of Disney as opposed to China," Walter Chaw of Film Freak Central observed. "It’s majestically painful as a representation of how white people view Asians and, yes, it would be different had an Asian person been allowed to direct the film." This sentiment was echoed by other writers like Roslyn Talusan. Such evaluations cemented the reception to "Mulan" as mixed, rather than boasting the strength of a raging fire.
5. Christopher Robin
Among the many live-action Disney remakes, 2018’s "Christopher Robin" is a strange beast. Rather than a shot-for-shot remake of a classic cartoon, this film is a somber exploration of adulthood. Grown-up Christopher Robin returns to a run-down version of the Hundred Acre Wood to recapture his childlike sense of wonder, and, well, things get emotional. "Christopher Robin" doesn’t gel cohesively enough to earn universal acclaim. However, it did garner more positive reviews than most of the films on this list.
Many critics dinged "Christopher Robin" for not being quite as thoughtful or fun as it should be. But other aspects of the film were widely praised. Ella Kemp of Little White Lies, for example, compared the film to "a birthday party with friends you haven’t seen for years — there’s tons to talk about and so much cake to eat that you’d almost end up with a headache from having too much fun." Robin Wright of The New Yorker, meanwhile, took time to praise the film’s visual effects: "Thanks to some terrific C.G.I., Pooh and his cohort blend seamlessly into Christopher’s real world, and they are visually more appealing, and truer to E. H. Shepard’s early illustrations, than recent cartoon versions of Winnie-the-Pooh."
Though it’s an imperfect creation, critics by and large agreed that "Christopher Robin" is an enjoyable excursion into Pooh’s world.
"Cruella de Vil’s origin story" doesn’t exactly sound like a ripe premise. But the critical response to 2021’s "Cruella" was, in fact, significantly better than what most other live-action Disney remakes have earned. Simply put, the critics enjoyed "Cruella" because it’s just plain fun to watch. "Like the fashionista who gave it its name," Angie Han of Mashable enthused, "’Cruella’ is less interested in retracing old visions than dreaming up new ones, having a good time, and looking fabulous while doing it. And also like Cruella, it succeeds with flying colors." This sentiment was reflected in many other reviews, with the work of leads Emma Stone and Emma Thompson receiving particularly potent doses of praise.
The positive notes for "Cruella" didn’t end there, however. As is to be expected for a movie that reimagines its titular character as a star of the 1970s London scene, "Cruella" earned commendation for its outfits. "The costumes, by Jenny Beavan," wrote Leah Greenblatt for Entertainment Weekly, "blossom into full fantasy as the story moves into the ’70s: A Vivienne Westwood fever dream of punk-rock couture, swathed in yards of trash-bag latex and chiffon."
"Cruella" also garnered its fair share of critique, particularly for clumsier aspects of its screenplay. On the whole, though, critics celebrated the film for pulling off what so many other films on this list fumble: Bringing electric new life to a beloved classic.
3. Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book
More than two decades before Jon Favreau delivered his groundbreaking "Jungle Book" remake, Disney released another live-action iteration of the classic tale: 1994’s "Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book." Though not the most well-known adaptation, this film did receive broadly decent marks from critics, with much praise centered on Jason Scott Lee’s performance as a grown-up Mowgli.
"Lee manages to convey both childlike trust and manliness, handsomely demonstrating that goodness and strength can share the same form," enthused Melinda Miller of The Buffalo News. "He is horrified by a trophy room full of animals slaughtered for sport and puzzled by weapons of war." There were, however, critiques of the film’s approach to Mowgli’s jungle pals. "If anything lets down the show, it is the animals," said Ian Nathan of Empire, in an otherwise positive review. "There are lots of them, and they’re well-trained, but somehow all of them — even Baloo — remain personality-free zones, mere decoration ready to pound paw, growl or bare fangs on cue."
Still, even if this movie’s incarnation of Baloo and Bagheera come in under expectations, "Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book" was largely perceived as a fine retro adventure film. No wonder director Stephen Sommers’ 1999 effort, "The Mummy," became such a success — it shares many sensibilities with this earlier entry in his filmography.
While many live-action Disney remakes take something of a postmodern approach to their source material, 2015’s "Cinderella" is decidedly traditional. A cynicism-free project, director Kenneth Branagh doesn’t fill this fairy tale with self-aware winks. As a result, "Cinderella" garnered strong, positive reviews that praised the title for delivering splendid visuals and a story that reminds viewers why they liked the original "Cinderella" in the first place.
"As expansive and well-scrubbed as any of the floors the heroine is obliged to scour," praised Richard Corliss of Time, "this PG-rated treat rekindles the old Disney magic in a ballroom dance of two strangers becoming lovers. It mixes romance and a measure of droll wit without ever evoking the dread phrase ‘rom-com.’" Critics also piled compliments on the movie’s visuals. "Whether it’s Dante Ferretti’s sumptuous production designs in refreshing spring-like hues or Sandy Powell’s eye-popping if anachronistic costumes, ‘Cinderella’ offers an array of lavishly frosted eye pastry at every turn," said Susan Wloszczyna of RogerEbert.com.
Visual splendor, an earnest heart, and committed performances meant "Cinderella" had no trouble becoming one of the most beloved products of Disney’s modern streak of live-action remakes.
1. The Jungle Book
Sometimes, all you need are the bare necessities to get you through another day. Jon Favreau’s 2016 remake of "The Jungle Book" doesn’t deliver the minimum, however. In fact, this film offers far more visual spectacle than anyone could gave imagined when the project was first announced.
Critics were nearly unanimous in praising this take on Rudyard Kipling’s classic novel. Its eye-popping visuals garnered the lion’s share of the acclaim, but "The Jungle Book" wasn’t given positive marks solely for its CGI accomplishments. "Despite all its computer-generated effects," Jen Chaney of Uproxx wrote, "this ‘Jungle Book’ feels more real and more frightening than its best-known predecessor … and that’s actually its greatest asset." Meanwhile, Tasha Robinson of The Verge was impressed with how many fresh ideas Favreau brought to the project: "The director of ‘Iron Man’ and ‘Iron Man 2’ largely follows his own path here, with a confidence and freedom the previous two remakes lack. His ‘Jungle Book’ is the first of Disney’s ‘brand deposit remakes’ that isn’t just an inferior retread of an enshrined classic."
With cutting-edge CGI, a whole lot of heart, and a distinctive personality all its own, this take on "The Jungle Book" isn’t just the "king of the swingers" or "the jungle VIP:" It is, by far, Disney’s best live-action remake.