From tragic to magic: what’s the best Disney remake so far? | Film

Disney’s new remake of The Lion King roared into theaters over the weekend, arriving as the culmination of a decade-long endeavor to revitalize (or at least squeeze a few more dollars out of) the studio’s deep library of beloved animated classics. Simba’s lesson in the art of hakuna matata marks the 10th such release, the new doctrine having been launched back in 2010 with Tim Burton’s vision of Alice in Wonderland.

Going purely on dollars and cents, it’s been a fabulously successful experiment, though the question of whether it all passes muster on the grounds of entertainment merits a longer and more involved conversation. For as much as this new wave of polished-up favorites has bewitched audiences by droves, it has often left critics and more discerning viewers cold. Are these films innocently refurbishing cherished parts of our childhoods so that they might be adored by a new generation, or is this the work of a corporate colossus intent on wringing every last dollar out of its stable of characters no matter the creative compromise required?

To land on an answer – as with most things, it’s somewhere in the middle – the Guardian took a deep dive into the current era of Disney and compiled the ranking below. From the most dismal cash-in to an exhilarating rework inspiring hope for the future, here’s the full lowdown:

10. Alice Through the Looking Glass

Mia Wasikowska

Photograph: Allstar/DISNEY

If 2010’s previous adventure with Alice represented a new low of creative coasting for director Burton, its sequel marks the complete cannibalizing of his technique as an auteur. James Bobin steps in to fill the vacuum of talent left behind when Burton shifted to producer, mostly by aping the most superficial elements of his predecessor’s work – goth-lite flourishes, outré couture, a possibly fatal overdose of whimsy – in a diluted form. Piling on mythologies that even Lewis Carroll might have found a touch convoluted, Bobin sends Alice on a bland time-traveling journey through a realm of incoherent digitized glop to save Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter, a character the film greatly overestimates as worth saving. The six-year gap between installments really emphasizes how little this was needed, and lays bare the money-minded imperatives fueling Disney’s collective remake project.

9. The Lion King


Photograph: null/2019 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

After spinning a massive payday out of The Jungle Book, Jon Favreau returned to the House of Mouse for another photorealist fantasy with a core cast out of the kingdom Animalia. Chalk it up to laziness or reverence for the original, but this time around, Favreau nearly went shot-by-shot in his recreation of the 1994 masterpiece. The result of this experiment in boundary-pushing animation technology is an eyesore utterly devoid of imagination, exuberance or any signs of life. The simple inability of the animal characters to emote causes plenty of trouble; add to that a sleepy voice performance from Chiwetel Ejiofor as Scar, the fact that Can You Feel the Love Tonight? takes place during the day and a disappointing paucity of Beyoncé. It’s an unattractive and joyless film, seemingly for no one.

8. Aladdin


Photograph: Photo Credit: Daniel Smith/Disney

The harrowing sight of a gigantic cerulean Will Smith will haunt youngsters for years to come, and yet there’s little else memorable about Guy Ritchie’s take on the Arabian Nights folktale. He stages the musical numbers that haven’t been tossed by the wayside with some panache, but directs the intervening passages with minimal distinction. Ritchie’s spent his whole career choreographing and capturing fleet-footed chases, and now that he has got the full arsenal of Disney’s resources at his disposal to follow Aladdin (Mena Massoud), he pulls off the throttle? Saturday Night Live alum Nasim Pedrad’s amusing supporting turn as a handmaiden pretty much cancels out a dull and creakily pseudo-feminist slant on Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott), leaving little else to savor. Meanwhile, Smith’s streetwise genie pales in comparison to Robin Williams’ nonstop barrage of schtick, one big shape-shifting flaw in the new film’s comedic bedrock, though the end credits rap from the former Big Willie Style straddles the line of being so bad it circles back to good again.

7. Beauty and the Beast


Photograph: Laurie Sparham/PR Company Handout

Emma Watson took one of her infrequent acting jobs to breathe new life into Belle, making the kept woman into something sturdier. Even so, her princess-in-spite-of-herself can’t hold a singing candle to the original, and her nonhuman companions don’t come off looking much better. This is where we start to see Disney losing its way in terms of CGI design, even as the studio made its execution more sophisticated than ever; Cogsworth, Lumiere, Mrs Potts and the rest of the domestic-furnishing crew lose all their visual warmth and charm in pursuit of a more realistic standard. Not to mention the Dan Stevens-played Beast, looking less like a mammalian hunk and more like a failed genetic experiment. Both he and Watson put their best foot forward, and despite their sincerest efforts, the film often feels like an imitation at once chintzy and overly expensive.

6. Alice in Wonderland


Photograph: Allstar/DISNEY

Burton’s first dalliance with Disney stands out as the patient zero to which this whole trend can be traced back, its highly lucrative transmogrifying of intellectual property putting dollar signs in executives’ eyes for the rest of the 10s. But to make this deal with the devil, the one-time ambassador to the morose Hot Topic set made some glaring artistic concessions placing him in line with a much duller channel of the mainstream. The German Expressionist influence has vanished, replaced by torrents of garbled digital imagery and washed-out color schemes distorting light’s brilliance and the shadows it casts. As young Alice turns warrior in the Joseph Campbell mode, Mia Wasikowska lets everyone know how good she could be in a vehicle making proper use of her skills and screen presence. The rest of the colorful supporting turns shake out as hit-or-miss, with more in the former category (Alan Rickman’s hookah-smoking caterpillar, a hysterical Helena Bonham Carter as the bigheaded Queen of Hearts) than the latter (Johnny Depp’s grating Mad Hatter, Anne Hathaway’s miscalculated White Queen).

5. Dumbo


Photograph: null/AP

Burton got a little bit of the old spirit back with his most recent Disney collaboration, undoubtedly aided by the casting of regular pal Danny DeVito as the grumbling manager of a barely solvent circus. The milieu, with its vertical stripes and elaborate outfits and harsh footlights, came well-suited to the director’s house style. Regardless, he could do little to salvage a thoroughly mangled script foregrounding two exquisitely annoying human kids while shunting Dumbo himself off to a tertiary role. (Though the film’s glaring subtext – that corporate conglomeration is bad, kiddos, killing art and precipitating cutbacks – comes as a bracing tonic in the wake of Disney’s gobbling-up of Fox.) While clearing the bar he had set for himself with his take on Alice and Co, Burton gave away just how low it had been placed, as his film contains scarcely an iota of the original’s frightening surrealism. The high-gloss approximation of the pink elephant scene does a disservice to the nightmarish quality of its forefather.

4. Maleficent


Photograph: c.W.Disney/Everett/REX

Casting Angelina Jolie and her superhuman cheekbones as the nefarious queen tormenting Sleeping Beauty qualifies as a stroke of genius, though it’s not quite enough to carry this revisionist take on the fairytale. She offers an alternative portrait of the villain steeped in the tragic, a backstory in which she’s wronged by a cruel man, defamed as a vindictive woman, and only restored to power through embracing the reputation assigned to her. It all sounds significantly more interesting than it turns out to be, possibly because this is a grown-up character study forced to contort itself into the shape of a fun-for-the-family blockbuster. The interior character work that undoubtedly attracted Jolie to the job takes a back seat to flashy trailer-ready moments, though the idea it leaves behind (that some of history’s most loathed women were secretly the victims behind the scenes) can endure.

3. The Jungle Book


Photograph: Allstar/DISNEY

Another Favreau production with lifelike talking animals, a dearth of musical numbers, and a verdant setting overflowing with life – what did he do right here that would go so horribly awry just three years later? For one, this film illustrates the paramount importance of having a human actor in the lead, his expressive appearance a crucial mirror reflecting back the tone of the animals’ dialogue. With newcomer Neel Sethi as Mowgli, the reaction shot (a fairly fundamental unit of film-making) becomes a possibility. There has been more thought put into the voice casting as well, from Bill Murray’s lackadaisical delivery as Baloo to Scarlett Johansson mesmerizing croon as the hypnoserpent Kaa. But the film truly excels by allowing itself to slow down and take it easy, adopting the leisurely pace and emphasis on the easy life that entrenched the earlier film in its year of 1967. Even if Favreau overwrites the look of the film, he has the good sense not to dispose of its spirit.

2. Cinderella


Photograph: Walt Disney Co./Courtesy E/R/Rex Features

Kenneth Branagh’s no stranger to spectacle, it’s just that he usually gets his grandeur from the backlog of the Bard instead of Walt Disney. His style of stately opulence fit the storybook subject matter like a glass slipper, revitalizing the kingdom and its inhabitants with ravishing costumes and production design befitting the monarchy. Lily James holds it together as our riches-to-rags-to-riches-again heroine, but the real star of the show has to be Cate Blanchett, who spices up the role of the evil stepmother with a dash of Norma Desmond and a sprinkle of the Wicked Witch. While the computer-animated pumpkin carriage lacks the magic of the genuine article, the additional attempts to update or otherwise modernize do little to disrupt the bedtime fable atmosphere viewers can still feel nostalgic about.

1. Pete’s Dragon


Photograph: Disney

Director David Lowery may be the only one to have realized the full potential of Disney’s remake campaign, starting from square one to completely reshape the given property into a fully formed work with its own fresh themes and aesthetic – you know, a real movie. Lowery followed the studio’s marching orders to swap out the 1977 live-action/animation hybrid’s hand-drawn creature for a CGI creation and ditch the songs, but he still tapped into the spirit of youth with a purity unseen in the rest of this small canon. His film exudes such tenderness, such kindness, such freeness that the experience of watching it makes the viewer feel like a child at play.

In the Pacific north-west (a lush prelapsarian Eden in cool greens and browns, as depicted through cinematographer Bojan Bazelli’s earthy lensing), an orphaned boy escapes into the beckoning forest and finds refuge with a gentle reptilian colossus. The bond between them, developed in a handful of scenes wisely left free of any dialogue to get in the way, resembles that of a boy and his dog, offspring and parent, kid and best friend. It’s threatened by a logger (gamely played by box-chinned Karl Urban), a harbinger of environmental destruction in direct opposition to kindly old man-of-the-woods Robert Redford. Their clash claims the survival of the natural world as its stakes, an analog for the eternal push and pull between our better angels and the darker sides of ourselves. It’s mature content packaged in a way children can understand, kiddie entertainment done right.

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