Disney animated films are an inescapable part of childhood. Walt Disney and his company have such a long history of creating entertainment that they can now draw on their own legacy. Though there were a few examples before then, since the mid-2010s, the studio has invested in live-action versions of some of its beloved animated classics.
Now, these films are a significant portion of the Disney release slate. The latest is actually premiering on Disney Plus soon: Pinocchio, directed by Robert Zemeckis and starring Tom Hanks as Geppetto.
So, what better time to take a deeper look at these live-action remakes? They vary widely in quality and faithfulness. Which ones capture that Disney magic best? Which ones are the most worthwhile viewing experiences? Read on and find out!
The Jungle Book (2016)
Director and actor Jon Favreau helmed this adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s classic 1894 book. This film is quite similar to the 1967 animated version from Disney, in which man-cub Mowgli is raised by wolves and faces the villainous tiger Shere Khan. But computer technology takes this film to the next level. The photorealistic graphics create seamless animal characters, and the voice actors provide the icing on the cake. They include Bill Murray as Baloo, Ben Kingsley as Bagheera, Scarlett Johansson as Kaa, and Idris Elba as Shere Khan.
The story here is true to Kipling’s original stories, with well-measured changes that deepen the emotional stakes. Favreau also shows a knack here for exciting action beats.
I just love the whole romantic feel of this one.
The timeless fairy tale, about the girl turned into a servant by her evil stepmother until her fairy godmother gets her to a ball to meet a prince, was animated by Disney in 1950. The live-action version gathers an excellent cast under the direction of Kenneth Branagh. Lily James, as the title character, has good chemistry with Richard Madden as her prince, and no less than Cate Blanchett plays the stepmother.
This movie is another example of how moderate story changes can work well. Cinderella and the Prince meet before the ball, for example. At the same time, the grand and theatrical production values bring the moments we all expect from this story to life in a big way. I think the costumes, in particular, are impressive.
Beauty and the Beast (2017)
Disney’s 1991 animated film of this story is literally my favorite animated film of all time — and the only animated film nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars. So, the fact that this live-action remake comes anywhere near this list is saying something.
I love that the classic songs were kept for this film. Despite the limitations of some of the cast as singers, the music really does add to the experience. And there are a couple of new songs that I also enjoyed. This one has a star-studded cast as well, with the likes of Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Kevin Kline, Ewan McGregor, and Ian McKellen. One of my favorite aspects of this production is its design. It’s just gorgeous, even when the CGI of some of the characters gets a bit dodgy.
This film was an unfortunate example of the fallout from the pandemic. Mulan‘s live-action remake actually already had its premiere event before theaters shut down, but it was forced to go straight to Disney Plus. The visuals that director Niki Caro were truly orchestrated for the big screen. The imagery here is steeped in the story’s culture of origin and epic in scope.
The 1998 animated film is delightful, and this version does has some pedestrian bits compared to that one. I miss Mushu, the hilarious dragon. But, on the other hand, we get another female character besides Mulan. And she’s a villain with an arc, no less! I also love the supporting cast, like Gong Li, Donnie Yen, Jet Li, and Jason Scott Lee. Fun fact: Lee also starred in a completely entertaining live-action kind-of sequel to The Jungle Book in 1994.
Lady and the Tramp (2019)
Yeah, you could argue that there wasn’t much of a necessity for this remake of the adorable 1955 animated tale of the romance between two dogs. But it’s still sweet and fun! And funny!
The smart choice here was to avoid CGI characters and use real dogs as the leads, with actors voicing them. It works better than you might expect. The two lead dogs were actually rescue animals who were chosen to star in this movie, for extra cuteness. The songs are here too, and you’ve probably forgotten how classic they are. I mean “Bella Notte” and “He’s a Tramp” and the Siamese cat song? Come on! The story of Lady and her stray mutt suitor has always been strong in terms of story, too. It’s about finding home, and this film gets that.
So, clearly, Pinocchio will be joining a long list of Disney live-action remakes that came before it. And more are coming in the future, such as The Little Mermaid and Snow White. Whether you feel like you’re in an animated mood or not, there are options for you to experience the Disney magic.
The Jungle Book, Beauty and the Beast, Mulan, and Lady and the Tramp are streaming on Disney Plus. Cinderella is available for rent on Prime Video.