With Disney’s Aladdin currently in theaters and The Lion King set to break records in July, I thought this would be the perfect time to share my thoughts on Disney’s live-action remakes thus far. I won’t be including the Glenn Close 101 Dalmatians films or anything before 2010 because while Disney was flirting with live-action remakes of their classics before the last decade, it didn’t really become a renaissance until the release of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland.
Alice in Wonderland (2010) C-
The movie that started the current renaissance of Disney live-action remakes is Tim Burton’s plastic 3D cotton candy hellscape Alice in Wonderland. Released just three months after Avatar, the 3D craze was in full-swing, guaranteeing box office success for Alice, but failing to recreate what actually made Avatar so thrilling and visually astonishing. The CGI exists somewhere between full blown animation and uncanny valley realism, creating a plastic, rubbery sheen that looks absolutely dreary. It’s a visually hideous movie that takes the playful surrealism of Lewis Carroll’s original story as well as the 1951 animated movie and molds it into a by-the-numbers modern blockbuster of unforgivable banality. I was high as hell when I first saw this in theaters and it still bored me.
Maleficent (2014) C
Disney’s attempt to flesh out one of their most iconic villains is notable for the presence of Angelina Jolie in the title role, but ultimately pointless. Despite a powerful sequence where Maleficent awakens to find that her wings have been stolen, the movie doesn’t offer much in the way of menace or sympathy. There’s quite a bit of unnecessary visual fluff that only serves to distract from the fact that nothing really interesting is happening, and Elle Fanning’s Aurora is so bland she may as well be invisible. Like Alice in Wonderland, it’s a Disney live-action reimagining of a classic that plays the notes but not the music. The original Maleficent, despite no backstory and sparing screen-time, registers more danger and fascination than this entire movie about her.
Cinderella (2015) A
Despite relative box office success, Cinderella never felt like it got the attention it deserved from audiences, which is a shame because it is Disney’s best live-action remake so far. Director Kenneth Branagh takes a classical approach to the story, staying true to the fairy tale and preserving the unfettered optimism of Disney’s best works. Nothing radical is done to the story which is a relief after the pointless and unsatisfying deviation of Alice and Maleficent. All of the detail goes into the performances, the costumes, the production design – all magnificent. Cate Blanchett is a show-stopping force of nature as the wicked stepmother, and Lily James delivers a bona-fide movie star turn as Cinderella. Best of all, the movie is just downright NICE. Few movies in this cinematic climate are so utterly devoid of cynicism. Maybe that’s why it doesn’t get the attention it deserves. Audiences are too jaded to appreciate magic and wholesomeness without detached irony.
The Jungle Book (2016) B+
The Jungle Book is equal parts silly and majestic, cutesy and dangerous, surreal and all too real. The balance works most of the time, and despite an annoying live-action Mowgli, the visuals alone are jaw-dropping. Jon Favreau beautifully directs the mostly-CGI action, creating a world that feels familiar yet strikingly imaginative. Tonally, the movie may be going for a slightly darker atmosphere than the original animated classic, which makes for song and dance numbers that feel slightly out of place, but it’s nowhere near the level of wearisome gloom as Netflix’s Mowgli. All together it’s a successful and vivid reinterpretation of the Jungle Book mythos.
Alice Through the Looking Glass (2016) D
This terrible sequel to the already terrible Alice in Wonderland is a soulless, pointless, ugly, insipid attempt at a cash-grab. It justifiably flopped with critics and audiences, and hammered the nail in the coffin of the live-action Wonderland-verse started in 2010. I don’t think there’s really anything redeeming about this one.
Beauty and the Beast (2017) C+
Beauty and the Beast is arguably Disney’s most beloved property – it’s the only Disney animation film to be nominated for best picture at the Academy Awards – so it’s a shame that Bill Condon’s remake is sorta flavorless and, well, lame. Sure, it’s nowhere near the ugly visual shit-show of Alice and its sequel, but it’s annoyingly underwhelming, and in some instances, just plain off. Individual shots here and there are visibly uncanny, musical numbers are awkwardly staged, and pretty much all of the performances feel bored. Don’t even get me started on Belle’s iconic yellow gown, which, in its live action interpretation, looks like something Belle found on clearance at Kohls.
Christopher Robin (2018) B
Marc Forster’s Christopher Robin is a bewildering and sometimes lovely film that I can’t believe was actually made. Imagine Winnie the Pooh directed by Terrence Malick and you have an idea of what this looks like. There’s a shot early in the film of Pooh’s life-like paw brushing against strands of wheat that feels straight out of The Tree of Life. It’s borderline comical because it’s so surreal, and while that may put a lot of people off, especially families looking for a way to distract their kids, it’s a touching movie for anyone who feels that pang of nostalgia regarding Pooh and friends. I think it’s one of Disney’s more ambitious recent films and while it doesn’t always work, it is surprisingly moving and introspective.
Haven’t seen it yet. Faith in Tim Burton – nonexistent. But we’ll see.
Aladdin (2019) A-
Oh boy. After months of pretty worrisome online buzz, Aladdin blazes its way into theaters offering the dizzying candy-colored spectacle we’ve been yearning for. Of all the Disney classics, Aladdin is a movie I enjoyed immensely as a child but found sort of dated and uninteresting now, despite an iconic Robin Williams performance. Guy Ritchie’s take smooths out some of the dated aspects of the story and while it doesn’t reach the euphoric highs of certain moments in the original, it is still a fanciful and lavish tale, told with high-energy, charm, and wit. Mena Massoud and Naomi Scott are perfectly cast as Aladdin and Jasmine, Scott especially delivering the kind of movie-star performance that makes you realize you’re watching a star in the making. The movie itself is the kind of gee-whiz adventure romance that Hollywood doesn’t really make anymore. Although I still contend that Tarsem Singh would have been a fantastic choice to direct a live action Aladdin, I have to say, Ritchie knocked it out of the park.