There was a time when Disney, in a post-haze of animation renaissance, opted for straight to video sequels of their biggest hits as easy cash cows. Those paved way for their merge with Pixar, creating a whole new revenue stream of original and animated sequels to hit the big screen. But for the last two decades, the Mouse House has also been focusing on mining something new from something old. Live action versions of some of their biggest animated classics and hits have once again opened the door for an entirely bankroll of blockbusters and family favorites (with a few duds), even if they aren’t always critical hits.
It’s been a mixed bag over the last 20 years, with some profound soullessness, spoon-feeding pre-packaged nostalgia and disinterest and not much beyond that, creating some of the decade’s most miserably corporatized filmmaking. But every now and then there is a shining diamond. A perfect combination and collaboration that gives us all new classics.
As their newest live action film, Cruella, is about to hit the big and small screen, I wanted to take a look back (and rank) the last 20 years of live action Disney films based on their own IP. Things really kicked off for Disney in 2010 with the massive, and surprising, success of Tim Burton’s take on Alice in Wonderland with Johnny Depp (at the height of his success) and Anne Hathaway. That billion dollar hit was more than enough for Disney to open the archives and invest hundreds of millions of dollars for a hopeful and healthy return on investment. Cruel as it may seem, 1996’s 101 Dalmatians with the inimitable Glenn Close won’t be on the list (but what a deliriously fun film). Another film you won’t see is the soul-killing 2019 version of The Lion King (good thing, for its sake). As it is 100% computer generated, there are no true ‘live action’ elements. I toyed with including Mary Poppins Returns (2018) and Pete’s Dragon (2016, a quietly effective masterpiece) but those already existed as original live action films and really belong on a different list.
And they’re just getting started, especially with Disney+ in place. Coming up will be live action versions of The Little Mermaid, Jungle Book and Aladdin sequels, a Lion King prequel, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Bambi, Hercules, Peter Pan, Pinocchio, Robin Hood, The Sword in the Stone and Lilo & Stitch all on the way.
14. Alice: Through the Looking Glass (2016)
Alice: Through the Looking Glass is not much more than a blatant attempt to rekindle the magic and the money of the 2000 film but critics and audiences rebuked it. A $170M budget brought in just $77M in the US, no Oscar nominations, a 29% Rotten Tomatoes score and an even uglier looking film. The same cast returns – Johnny Depp (his ninth collaboration with director Tim Burton, who returned only as producer here), Mia Wasikowska, Anne Hathaway, Helena Bonham Carter – with the addition of Sacha Baron Cohen as the film’s only true value. This was the last film of Alan Rickman, who voices Absolem. James Bobin took over directing duties and presents Lewis Carroll’s inventive characters in the least of inventive ways. But Burton isn’t done with Disney quite yet, he’ll be back to direct another of the studio’s most beloved properties.
13. 102 Dalmatians (2000)
While the 1996 ‘original’ was a fun romp, this sequel is a slog, too violent and even more cash grabby than most Disney sequels. Like Alice: Through the Looking Glass, 102 Dalmatians turned an $85M budget into a $67M flop that’s saddled with an silly plot of a reformed Cruella De Vil out of prison and now dog-friendly, only to be triggered out of her treatment by the clang of Big Ben (a nod to Russian psychologist Ivan Pavlov and his famous dog experiments). Glenn Close and the Oscar-nominated costumes by Anthony Powell are still absolutely on point, even if Close feels like she has far less to do than in the previous film. Her sidekicks Jasper and Horace do not appear in the sequel and are sorely missed. Also stars Gérard Depardieu, in an absurd performance even by Depardieu standards, plus Ioan Gruffudd and Alice Evans. Directed by Kevin Lima (Disney’s 1999 animated Tarzan), his live action directorial debut.
12. Alice in Wonderland (2010)
The one that kicked off this era. A huge gamble at $200M but came back with a stunning $1B and two Oscar wins (for Costume Design and Production Design). Much of the focus turned to Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter and less to Mia Wasikowska’s dreary Alice but the film is still and ugly and muddled looking mess. Also stars Helena Bonham Carter, Anne Hathaway, Alan Rickman, and Michael Sheen. Tim Burton’s first foray into the Disney live action realm since 1999’s Sleepy Hollow.
11. Lady and the Tramp (2019)
Usually the ‘uncanny valley’ is seen in animated human figures but in this live action update of the 1955 classic, the cute mutts and pure breeds of The Lady and the Tramp feel vacant. Justin Theroux, Tessa Thompson and Sam Elliot is inspired voice casting but there is little magic to relish here and it makes sense that it went straight to Disney+ and bypassed theaters because it looks and sounds like a dog food commercial. Directed by Charlie Bean.
10. Dumbo (2019)
Disney went back to Tim Burton one more time (and hopefully the last) for this overlong mess of one of animation’s most emotional and beloved classics. Turning a 64-minute film into a bloated, nearly two-hour one was almost destined to fail. It’s not entertaining enough to keep kids’ attention nor it is nostalgic or deep enough for adults. Despite Burton going back to many of his familiar cast: Danny DeVito, Michael Keaton, Eva Green, the film is a tonally jumbled disaster. While the Dumbo and mom emotional beats are still there (and a good performance from Colin Farrell), there is a hollow center in this circus.
9. Beauty and the Beast (2017)
I honestly wanted to put this lower. Almost none of the casting works for me. Emma Watson is a blank and bland Belle, Dan Stevens asserts himself well but largely because he’s simply a voice. Luke Evans is a better Gaston than expected and Josh Gad is a very effective Lefou (who is now gay at the very last minute if you don’t blink). I don’t know how you assemble an incredible cast like Kevin Kline (Maurice), Emma Thompson (Mrs. Potts), Ewan McGregor (Lumière), Audra McDonald (Madame Garderobe), Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Plumette) and Ian McKellen (Cogsworth) and make them all feel so lifeless and, well, not very animated? The Oscar-nominated production design and costume design are top notch, expectedly. Unexpectedly, the human/creature dynamic between Belle and the Beast that seemed a bit silly in animation is heightened to a far creepier and more sinister degree that’s inescapable. Bill Condon (Dreamgirls, Gods and Monsters) directs the 2 hour and nine minute film (45 minutes longer than the 1991 Oscar-winning original that was nominated for Best Picture), which features three new songs as well as additional lyrics to three existing ones. The film earned over a billion dollars worldwide.
8. Maleficent: Mistress of Evil (2019)
You can see the blueprint of Alice in Wonderland/Alice Through the Looking Glass here and the result was kind of the same. An unnecessary sequel. But no film is ever bad when it gets to utilize Michelle Pfeiffer this well. She’s radiant here and an absolute blast. Directed by Joachim Rønning.
7. Aladdin (2019)
I don’t think Guy Ritchie was the right person to direct the live-action Aladdin and as fun as Will Smith is as the genie, he was up against an insurmountable comparison to Robin Williams, who gave one of the best voice performances in film history. Still, Mena Massoud is a great lead, Marwan Kenzari was the hot Jafar we didn’t know we needed and the pageantry on display in costumes and production design is a lot of fun.
6. Christopher Robin (2018)
This might be a bit of a cheat since it’s not really a live action version of Winnie the Pooh but as it features Winnie, Piglet, Eeyore, Tigger and the rambunctious animal cast of the animated films, I think it’s fair to have it here. It’s also a really delightful and heartwarming film and one of Ewan McGregor’s most thoughtful performances. Directed by Marc Forster.
5. Mulan (2020)
Still the only modern day Disney live action remake directed by a woman (Whale Rider’s Niki Caro), Mulan was the film that was forced to test the waters of pandemic-era film releasing for Disney. Originally planned as a theatrical only release (as everything was in 2020), Disney chose to offer Mulan on their Disney+ streaming app for a premium added cost of $30. At first most balked, but it ended up proving to be a success, paving the way for the studio’s Oscar-winning Soul to debut their as well (this time at no added cost). While the transition from animated musical to an action-heavy drama with no singing was a point of contention for many (myself included, I definitely missed the songs), the film is lifted with a powerful coming of age story, thrilling action, sets and costumes to die for and excellent performances from Yifei Liu as Mulan, Donnie Yen as Commander Tung and Gong Li as Xianniang.
4. The Jungle Book (2016)
If only Jon Favreau had stopped here. Where many felt that his 2019 all CGI, shot for shot remake of 1994’s animated The Lion King was too much, his work on The Jungle Book was a stellar success, both critically and financially, raking in almost a billion dollars worldwide. The film’s visual effects were extraordinary (and won the Oscar) for their integration with the live action, rather than simply overtaking it. Favreau also assembled one of the best voice casts yet with Bill Murray as Baloo, Sir Ben Kingsley as Bagheera, Lupita Nyong’o as Raksha, Christopher Walken as King Louie plus Scarlett Johansson as Kaa (inspired casting here), a perfect Idris Elba as Shere Khan, Giancarlo Esposito as Akela and Garry Shandling as Ikki, in his last role. But with all of that star wattage voice talent, the film would be nothing without a strong lead and Favreau found that in Neel Sethi as Mowgli.
3. Maleficent (2014)
The welcome return of Angelina Jolie, the movie star. In the Disney live action canon, Maleficent is the Venn diagram of both the side character as focal point (like the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland) and villain origin story. Probably one of Disney’s most iconic villains (we should probably talk sometime about how much Disney loves and leans on female villains), moving Aurora aka Sleeping Beauty to the side in order to focus on why Mal is such a bad gal. Who hurt you, sis? A massive hit ($750M worldwide), the visual effects and costuming are spectacular (those Lady Gaga/Born This Way cheekbones are to die for) and Elle Fanning is an endlessly charming Aurora. With a stellar supporting cast that includes Sharlto Copley, Academy Award nominees Lesley Manville and Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple and Sam Riley. Directed by Robert Stromberg.
2. Cruella (2021)
It’s really that good. The best of the villain origin stories, with one of Emma Stone’s most vivacious and fun performances. The film is definitely not without its faults; at 134 minutes it’s overlong by a good 20-30 minutes and banks on us not noticing how underwritten the Black female friend of the white woman protagonist (antagonist?) is (The Queen’s Gambit vibes). Where it succeeds is in its spirit and vitality. Emma Thompson absolutely relishing her scenery chewing diva Baroness and the pair of Paul Walter Hauser (sporting a great accent) and Joel Fry as Cruella’s lifelong sidekicks and criminal cohorts Horace and Jasper. The Favourite writing duo of Dana Fox and Anthony McNamara pepper the script with delicious, PG-13 friendly one-liners that Stone and Thompson spin into piercing pin pricks at each other. Craig Gillespie (I, Tonya) directs with wit and flair and a deep love for the music of the late 1970s (a bit too much sometimes). Two-time Oscar winner Jenny Beavan outdoes herself with costumes that will live in cinema history and Oscar nominee Nicholas Britell’s score is bright and energetic.
1. Cinderella (2015)
The benchmark. Sometimes it makes all the difference in the world when you have a director as accomplished Kenneth Branagh behind the camera and for Cinderella, which marked a new era of Disney live action films, this is no exception, as his approach was surprisingly sincere and devoid of cynicism thanks to Chris Weitz’s script. Impeccable costuming from Sandy Powell and production design by Dante Ferretti and perfect casting from top to bottom; Richard Madden is a gorgeous Prince, Helena Bonham Carter is a flawlessly funny Fairy Godmother, the pair of Holliday Grainger and Sophie McShera are hilarious as the dastardly stepsisters Anastasia and Drisella and no one, and I mean no one, could have brought the regal, classic and divinely nasty Lady Tremaine to life the way that Cate Blanchett did (I expect an origin story for her at the rate Disney is going). But even with all of those things in place, it’s Cinderella that either makes or breaks the film’s success. Lily James is exquisite here, the exact balance of naivety and strength, earnestness that’s earned and not saccharine. Said Branagh, “She lit up from within. She didn’t trade one personality at the door. She brought her real self into this real place and found a way to be at ease.” It turned Lily James into a star and the belle of the ball.