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9 Disney Live-Action Remakes: Better or Worse Than the Originals?

Disney's Beauty and the Beast posters.

No matter what you love from generations of animated films, Disney either has created or will be creating a live action remake to suit your obsession. Mulan hits theaters in March, and there is a slate of proposed live-action reboots like The Little Mermaid and Lilo & Stitch in the works.

So, it all begs the question: All-star casts and CGI advances aside, how do these remakes fare when watched side-by-side with the originals? Which remakes improved on the original concept, and what films fell short? We took a look at nine Disney reboots that rehash the story of a beloved classic, and set out to determine which one is more watchable.

101 DALMATIANS 

101 Dalmatians animated and live-action posters.

The classic boy-with-dog meets girl-with-dog, both dogged heavily by a fur obsessive. This 1996 reboot was one of Disney’s first and bears all the zany hallmarks of kids’ films of the era, like a pair of comically inept henchmen (Mark Williams & Hugh Laurie, ad libbing brilliantly) and comeuppance for kidnappers administered with skunks and manure.

The 1961 original, by comparison, is plot-heavy, honoring characters and devices featured in a popular children’s book. It moves a great deal slower and relies on a solid amount of fat jokes and body shaming (lay off Rolly, folks). This would have been a tie, were it not for one secret weapon: Glenn Close. Her biting take-downs, facial tics, and the way she holds her cigarette aloft are gleeful and singular.

WINNER: REMAKE

Glenn Close as Cruella de Vil in Disney's 101 Dalmatians remake.

ALICE IN WONDERLAND

Disney's Alice in Wonderland original vs. live action posters.

This pairing of films almost didn’t make the list; Tim Burton’s epic CGI landscape acts as more of an expansion pack to the original, with new characters and a semblance of a plot. While the remake isn’t shot-for-shot, both films traffic heavily in imagery and style.

1951’s Alice in Wonderland has a bare-bones journey at its center, with fleeting character interactions that are hard to get invested in, but makes up for it with singular, colorful visuals. The 2010 version goes for broke with lots of story, characters, and a huge saturation of visuals that skew much darker.

Burton’s Alice (Mia Wasikowska) returns as a “chosen one” figure destined to save a real fantasy world from certain doom, but the journey is muddy, with as many unrelated side-quests as the original. The deciding factor comes down to performance and style, and even with the best performers of 2010 in the fray, the original is snappier and better at conveying emotion.

Fun fact: The original animated version used filmed live-action performances from its voice actors as animation reference material.

WINNER: ORIGINAL

Disney's Alice in Wonderland animated classic.

CINDERELLA

Disney's Cinderella posters.

The 1950 animated film was popular enough to have brought Disney back from the brink of financial ruin, and it’s no coincidence; Cinderella is a solid marriage of Tom & Jerry/Alvin & The Chipmunks-style rodent comedy antics, very catchy pop tunes, and a very universal “humility and generosity are rewarded” theme.

That said, it has dated politics of assigning “good” character traits only to those who are conventionally attractive. The 2015 remake wisely leaves behind most of the cartoon rodent antics and redirects its focus onto the love story between Ella (Lily James) and the prince (Richard Madden). We also get the benefit of a prince with active relationships, as compared to 1950 Cinderella’s mostly silent, cardboard-cutout Prince Charming. Throw in a criminally underused Cate Blanchett, and you have a contender.

WINNER: IT’S A TIE

THE JUNGLE BOOK

Disney's Jungle Book posters.

If there’s an original film that needed a remodel, it’s 1967’s The Jungle Book. Troubling ideas, like British military imperialism, unflattering racial coding, and sexualizing children are played for laughs, and the threat of danger for Mowgli drops away during visual gags and songs.

Compare that to 2016’s respectful and more faithful adaptation. Family relationships factor in more, with the threat to Mowgli’s (Neel Sethi) life permeating the wolves who raised him, and any animal who would harbor him. The danger and value of his human traits tip the scales of unspoken order wherever Mowgli ends up, but when pitted against order-defying tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba), they are restorative. Where you belong is less about what you can do, and more about who you are.

Fun Fact: The 2016 version isn’t the first live-action The Jungle Book remake on record. A 1994 version cast Jason Scott Lee as an adult Mowgli.

WINNER: REMAKE

Neel Sethi as Mowgli in Disney's live-action Jungle Book remake.

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST

Disney's Beauty and the Beast posters.

For Disney fans who were children in the early nineties, the original Beauty and the Beast animated feature was massively formative. It was heartfelt, zany at times, and the musical numbers were too winning to feel schmaltzy. It was slightly feminist, slightly cultured (they spoke French! About three words of it), and funnier than it had any right being. The simplicity and smartness of this feature made us feel smart, too.

It’d take a lot of unnecessary complexity to bog things down, and that’s where the 2017 live action remake steps in. It adds additional characters, musical motifs (not outright songs), long pauses for CGI flourishes, and if you wanted a crudely conceived queer character, LeFou (Josh Gadd) steps in as the gay bestie only a very heterosexual artistic team could conjure. Objectively, there’s nothing outright horrific about this live-action remake, but its blandness will make you long for the original.

WINNER: ORIGINAL

Disney's Beauty and the Beast dance.

DUMBO

Disney's Dumbo posters.

The original Dumbo of 1941 is a feverish nightmare. The visuals are overwhelming and haunting, and evoke the circus not as fun or cute, but as a place that is loud and cruel at best.

It is a film is so thoughtlessly racist that it implies the creators couldn’t fathom a world that would ask them to address that racism. It is a film so sexist that it helped generations of viewers regard women who set personal boundaries for themselves and their children as dangerously hysterical. It is an unflattering look at our past, and anything that may have been considered carefree or jolly back in 1941 has grown mold in our modern consciousness.

Tim Burton’s bland Dumbo of 2019 chooses to wash its hands of that sordid history. Instead, it has war vet/circus performer Captain Farrier (Colin Farrell) dub his new baby elephant pal “Big D,” and that is somehow worse.

WINNER: ORIGINAL

Disney's animated Dumbo.

ALADDIN

Disney's Aladdin posters.

There was a lot of internet skepticism about remaking 1992’s Aladdin, given the original was tailor-made for Robin Williams as the Genie, and anyone stepping in for him would have big shoes to fill. It runs on the clockwork of Williams’ manic jokes and inspired delivery; no performer has ever informed so much of an animated movie’s style, pacing, and lyrics.

Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin subs in a new Genie (Will Smith), who does just fine with the material, but it would be more interesting to see a role tailored to fit Smith, instead. Performances, however, are not what stymie 2019’s Aladdin; it is smothered in its own self-doubt. The film worries we are to sophisticated for the premises of the original, so it over-explains how Aladdin could go unrecognized, how a fictional kingdom appears overnight, and the complicated rules of wish-making.

WINNER: ORIGINAL

Jasmine says, "I am not a prize to be won," and walks away in Disney's Aladdin.

THE LION KING 

Disney's Lion King posters.

One idea that propelled the remake of this incredibly formative 1994 smash was correcting the lack of representation in The Lion King’s original cast & creative team. There was such support for the concept of re-casting as many roles with voice actors and singers of color as possible that the 2019 remake seemed cemented as a classic long before it ever hit theaters.

The problem with the Lion King remake lies in the very visual realism that lumps its CGI in with live-action remakes: The faces of real animals don’t emote particularly well. The remake is a testament to what made the animation of the original so magical, and how much more agility, expressiveness, and impossible dance moves you can assign to a drawn creature. When you lose clarity of expression, the music suffers, and with Lion King, the music is the best part.

WINNER: ORIGINAL

Simba and Nala grin in Disney's The Lion King.

LADY AND THE TRAMP 

Disney's Lady and the Tramp posters.

This most recent entry on the slate of Disney remakes was the movie that inspired this original vs. live action title bout, but it was the hardest to classify. On one hand, the 1955 original Lady and the Tramp engaged in some harmful racial stereotyping and gender role conformity with its demure depictions of “good” women of all species.

The remake course-corrects on both counts, with a much less passive Lady (Tessa Thompson) and a thoroughly Americanized pair of Siamese cats, but has issues with establishing a love story for the titular pair. But it’s still a solid love story; Tramp of 1955 (Larry Roberts) had homelessness as one strike against him, but was otherwise confident, kind, and a joy to all. 2019 Tramp (Justin Theroux) is defensive, mansplain-y, and every bit the gruff male that romantics want to append with a “… but lovable!”

It’s not lovable, though, and their wiser, independent Lady deserves better.

WINNER: IT’S A TIE

What do you think? If your favorite remake hasn’t gotten a fair shake, or a classic you love has taken some guff, give us your assessment in the comments!

(images: Disney)

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Sean Margaret Wagner is a playwright, storyteller, comedy writer, and theater reviewer based out of Chicago, IL. She’s a Film/TV buff, pop-culture obsessed, and very shrill feminist.