Disney is a company that always looks at its past to find its future. It brings back characters, concepts, stories, and more; time and time again, it attempts to transport you back to the way you felt when you were a little kid. That’s always been Disney’s thing. But, for the last 15 years or so, it’s been going a step further and remaking its classic animated movies in live-action, which had been a very controversial, but very lucrative trend.
Though most point at 2010’s Alice In Wonderland as the start of this current wave of remakes, which includes this month’s The Little Mermaid and continues in the future with Snow White, Mufasa, and more, the trend started in the mid-’90s. That’s when a live-action adaptation of The Jungle Book (yes, another one) and 101 Dalmatians with legendary actress Glenn Close really kicked things off.
We’ve taken all of those, and many more, and ranked them. What’s the worst? What’s the best? Where does The Little Mermaid fit in? Find out now.
21. Pinocchio (2022)
Besides just being generally soulless, the reason the live-action adaptation of Pinocchio is, in our mind, the worst of the bunch is the wasted potential. Robert Zemeckis directed it. ROBERT ZEMECKIS. The dude made Back to the Future. Oh, and it starred Tom Hanks. TOM HANKS. One of the best ever. They wasted months and years on this and that just makes its existence that much worse.
20. Dumbo (2019)
After the wonderful whimsy of Tim Burton’s Big Fish, which included Danny DeVito, we were excited for this reunion of director and star. But Dumbo, while very cute and featuring the best CG-designed Disney animal character yet, barely took flight in a meandering story about family loss, with a hot sad dad played by Colin Farrell and muddled anti-animal abuse messaging.
19. Alice Through the Looking Glass (2016)
As you’ll see on this list, not only are we including straight adaptations like Pinocchio or Dumbo, but also the spinoffs and sequels of those live-action versions. And all of those are inferior to their (usually, already not-great) originals. The best example, making it the worst, of those is Alice 2, which swaps the at least fun story of the original for pointless repetition.
18. 102 Dalmatians (2000)
That Glenn Close took a role as a live-action Cruella de Vil remains completely inspired casting. That helped elevate the original movie, which had the original film’s story. In 102 Dalmatians though, it’s basically just the same movie again, but less exciting or interesting because we’ve seen it all before.
17. Lady and the Tramp (2019)
Here Lady and the Tramp attempts the romance between two spaghetti-loving dogs in a pretty paint-by-numbers adaptation of the animated film. While Disney keeps going back and forth with its CG animal design, this one fares better than most, favouring more animated eyes on the furry cast instead of the hyper-realistic nightmare fuel seen elsewhere.
16. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (2010)
The Sorcerer’s Apprentice isn’t a very good movie, but does have Nicolas Cage as a wizard and a much bigger, action-packed feel than most of these other movies. Which, well, is more than you can say for most of the other movies. And though it’s a very loose adaptation of the sequence in Fantasia, we figured it kind of fit here.
15. Alice in Wonderland (2010)
Alice in Wonderland became the Hot Topic meets psychedelic wallpaper art blueprint of fantasy worlds in Disney live-action that we were cursed with for a while. The garish tones and moody makeup looks became a huge fad along with the design of the main characters, but the story? Well, bless the movie, it tried to action-hero Alice in ways that didn’t feel earned — in the hands of Tim Burton at least.
14. Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book (1994)
Not to be confused with Jon Favreau’s completely CGI version, this 1994 film starred Jason Scott Lee as an older-than-usual Mowgli, the animals don’t speak, and it’s directed by Stephen “The Mummy” Sommers. It’s a different take, and not hugely memorable, but super solid.
13. The Lion King (2019)
As we move up this list, we hit a few movies that are good based on the story alone. The originals are so perfect that even with hundreds of millions of dollars spent to remake them, that heart remains. The Lion King is that. The incredible CG doesn’t feel like it adds much, but it’s still got that moving story with the excellent music — and that alone makes it worth watching.
12. Peter Pan and Wendy (2023)
Let David Lowery go all in! The director behind The Green Knight and Pete’s Dragon is masterful in making even the most fantastical of lore have weight and texture in ways that other live-action Disney films have not been able to capture. Neverland looks real, the magic looks real, Peter and Wendy were perfectly cast. Spiritually, the kids feel more along the lines of Hook with a new take on Peter and a backstory for Captain Hook that’s riveting and imaginative for fans of all ages. But this recent release was failed by an apparent lack of belief in this project that perhaps prevented it from reaching the heights it aimed for… and it being homed on Disney+ didn’t help.
11. Maleficent: Mistress of Evil (2019)
Maleficent: Mistress of Evil had no right to be as good as it was. Sure, it’s essentially alternate-universe canon fanfic, but it cooks with Angelina Jolie and Michelle Pfeiffer oozing glam and going to war with one another. And Elle Fanning? She’s the warrior Princess Aurora we didn’t know we needed. More of these please.
10. Christopher Robin (2018)
Though Christopher Robin isn’t a direct remake of Winnie the Pooh, it has the same idea at its centre, so we’re putting it on the list. It would be higher too if it was a bit more focused and not as “Oh bother” as it is, but with Ewan McGregor starring and Marc Forster directing, it’s at least interesting and noteworthy.
9. Mulan (2020)
Mulan was done so dirty by the timing of its August 2020 release; remember that whole “even Disney+ subscribers will have to pay extra” strategy? It’s the first Disney heroine canon film to be directed by a woman, Niki Caro — who really captured the correct perspective in handling the story of Mulan. Filled with dynamic action, the film kept true to the spirit of the legend of Fa Mulan while still sprinkling in some of the favourite plot points from the beloved animated feature.
8. 101 Dalmatians (1996)
Would any of these other movies exist if, around 1995, Glenn Close didn’t agree to start in a live-action remake of 101 Dalmatians as the villain Cruella — resulting in a movie that was pretty damned good, thanks in large part to Close’s all-in performance? We don’t know, but you can probably make the argument. Anyway, it was a huge hit, the studio made a sequel, and for the next quarter century and beyond, Disney has been repeating the formula.
7. Cinderella (2015)
Lily James embodies Cinderella in this Kenneth Branagh feature, which really crystalizes that fairytale dream of Perrault’s original folktale and Disney’s animated film. Its downfall? Not including the music in the film, a choice made odder by the fact that Lily James can sing (just watch Mamma Mia 2: Here We Go Again). Thankfully, you can find her take on “A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes” on the soundtrack — and truthfully, even without any on-screen crooning, she’s still one of live-action Disney’s best casting choices.
6. Aladdin (2019)
Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin is absolutely one of the best live-action adaptations of a Disney film. Will Smith re-invented the Genie character with his takes on the film’s show-stopping classics, and along with Mena Massoud and Naomi Scott provided the strongest ensemble to date. Oh, and Marwan Kenzari’s hot Jafar? A bold choice that worked out. We still want a sequel, dammit!
5. Maleficent (2014)
While Alice in Wonderland may have really gotten the ball rolling on these remakes, Angelina Jolie’s turn as Maleficent is where the trend solidified. With this film, not only did you have that megastar, you had a film that added to the mythology of the original. She’s a villain who changes and we get to see her from a whole new perspective. That’s what these movies do best, and few do it as well as Maleficent.
4. The Little Mermaid (2023)
Releasing this week, The Little Mermaid raises the bar for live-action Disney Princesses, giving fans an Ariel who can sing and act beautifully, and who carries the film to shore even with its underwater shortcomings. Halle Bailey’s performance in the film is a star-maker, and her versions of the animated movie’s beloved Menken and Ashman songs will stand the test of time, topping even the originals.
3. The Jungle Book (2016)
That Jon Favreau shot a remake of The Jungle Book in a Los Angeles warehouse remains a technological marvel. That the film then captured the magic of the original while also forging its own unique path forward, made it even better.
2. Cruella (2021)
Cruella continued the alternate universe takes on Disney Villains with a fun, rollicking riff on the story of one misunderstood fashion genius — turns out she doesn’t hate Dalmatians as much as she does the elitist purebred conventions they stand for. Emma Stone lets loose in her wild and ambitious interpretation of Cruella as she sets to burn the fashion world down. This is Disney’s Joker but better.
1. Beauty and the Beast (2017)
Saying the 2017 Beauty and the Beast is the best of the live-action Disney remakes may be controversial to some. But out of all these films, few had as difficult a task or knew the assignment as well. This movie clearly loves and adores the original, so you get a lot of that — but then you also get some tweaks and additions that make it stand out, and a cast that brings every scene to vibrant life. It’s not a perfect movie (Emma Watson, sorry you were auto-tuned to hell), none of these are, but with everything on the table, Beauty and the Beast delivered a film worthy of the original.