After The Lion King and Aladdin, a definitive ranking of Disney’s remakes, from worst to best
As Disney continues to abuse its own back-catalogue with a steady barrage of remakes, one thing has been made clear. Each of these new films is massively inferior to the originals. I like to think of this phase in Disney’s history as an acute case of bulimia; like watching a rich old man engage in a tremendously troubling act of self-harm, but only at three Michelin starred establishments.
Because these remakes don’t come cheap. They’ve cost over $2 billion to produce. But crucially, they’ve all made money; sometimes, like the recent Aladdin, despite major negativity. The latest, a photorealistic animated remake of The Lion King, will probably make over a billion dollars, too. It will, despite its obvious mediocrity, signal to the top brass at the world’s most successful movie studio that they’re still on the right track.
But we shouldn’t really be surprised at the ruthlessness with which Disney is operating. We shouldn’t really expect quality cinema. The studio knows exactly what the audience needs, and is more than equipped to create the product for them. Perhaps the most accurate representation of the company’s ethos was revealed, with shocking candidness, by former CEO Michael Eisner many years ago. “We have no obligation to make history,” he wrote in an infamous 1981 memo. “We have no obligation to make art. We have no obligation to make a statement. To make money is our only objective.”
With that delightful thought in mind, here’s a ranking of the Disney remakes, from worst to best.
Beauty and the Beast
A rancid example of everything wrong about this entire enterprise. Bill Condon’s Beauty and the Beast remake celebrates the most problematic aspects of the original - the Stockholm syndrome, the spirit of servitude - for a decidedly uncomfortable, and thoroughly outdated viewing experience.
Alice in Wonderland
While Disney would certainly have hoped for director Tim Burton to assume a Kevin Feige-esque role for their remakes, he’s turned out to be more like a Zack Snyder - all style, but little substance. His Alice in Wonderland adaptation is the purest distillation of the obnoxious excess of these films, a film that is at once over-directed, yet completely lacking in Burton’s signature style.
Burton’s time with Disney has been bookended by two of the worst films they’ve made in recent years. Not only did he miss the point of Alice in Wonderland - he turned it into an ugly Lord of the Rings clone - but his Dumbo remake is easily the most cloying, most emotionally vacant film he has made in years.
Funnily enough, Disney’s best approximation of a Tim Burton film wasn’t even directed by the great filmmaker, but by his Alice in Wonderland production designer, Robert Stromberg. But by most accounts, the huge $175 million budget overwhelmed the first-time director. Fortunately for him, though, Angelina Jolie’s sheer star power was almost enough to move things along.
The Jungle Book
A telling sign for things to come, director Jon Favreau cancelled out the visual ambition of his remake with a confusingly unambitious screenplay, which brought little new to Disney’s animated classic besides a lush landscape and a few quirky performances.
Alice Through the Looking Glass
Although one of Disney’s biggest box office bombs in recent years, whose failure impacted the career of not only Johnny Depp but also director James Bobin, the Alice in Wonderland sequel is a breezy improvement over Burton’s original, thanks to a lighter tone and Sacha Baron Cohen’s wonderful villainous performance.
The Lion King
A majestic monument to Hollywood excess, Jon Favreau’s Jungle Book follow-up is a narratively bankrupt, but admittedly breathtaking piece of filmmaking; the greatest visual effects spectacle since Avatar.
Oz The Great and Powerful
Even attempting to revisit The Wizard of Oz - originally produced by Warner Bros but now in public domain - is a tall ask. But back in 2013, director Sam Raimi was hot off his successful Spider-Man trilogy, Disney was basking in the glory of the billion dollar Alice in Wonderland, and a hubristic Hollywood was still trying to project James Franco as the next big star. And even though Raimi hasn’t made a film since, and no one has made the mistake of casting Franco as the lead in a tentpole again, Oz the Great and Powerful remains a somewhat overlooked romp.
Perhaps out of a complete and utter lack of expectations, more than anything else, director Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin remake turned out to be quite the fun experience. Once again, the pitch-perfect casting of Will Smith - perhaps the only movie star who could even contemplate filling the late Robin Williams’ shoes - went a long way in redeeming Ritchie’s plain direction.
In the age of twisted takes on classic material, director Kenneth Branagh brought a wonderful innocence to his live-action Cinderella film. The key here, in my opinion, was the delicate tone he struck - both whimsical and empowering - and the perfect casting of Lily James in the lead role, Richard Madden as Prince Charming, and the Red Queen herself, Helena Bonham Carter as the Fairy Godmother.
It must’ve been a strange day at the Disney office when it was decided, by mistake clearly, that a film as morose and melancholic as Christopher Robin should be made. Honestly, it introduces the beloved Eeyore while he’s in the middle of what is essentially an attempted suicide. And it maintains this dreary tone for almost the entirety of its hour-and-a-half runtime. Even the design of its characters - tactile and minimalist - is meant to evoke the heartache of growing up. I cannot recommend it enough.
As is usually the case with greatness, the best of the Disney remakes is also the least commercially successful. Director David Lowery’s reimagining has the spirit of a Pixar film, but also the pain. He understands that the only way to successfully make one of these films isn’t to ignore the past, but to embrace the passage of time, to accept it, and to honour it.