The Best Disney Live-Action Remakes Have One Thing in Common: ‘The Jungle Book,’ ‘Cinderella,’ and ‘Pete’s Dragon’

With live-action remakes coming forth from Disney at every turn, it seems that the mega-media conglomerate has taken on a money-making challenge: to remake every Disney original classic in existence. While this precise mission has not been blatantly articulated, it’s hard to deny such an evidence-based proposition; The Little Mermaid, Mulan, and Lilo & Stitch will all be gracing us in their CGI splendor soon enough.

Disney Live-Action Remake of 'The Jungle Book'
Disney’s Live-Action ‘The Jungle Book’ Premiere | Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Disney

Some Disney live-action remakes have left much to be desired. The Lion King rids of its characters’ emotive capabilities and reduces Scar to mere villainy — dishing aside his seductive and sinister disposition in favor of a trite, guttural sounding foe. Aladdin presented a blue and bland Will Smith as Genie and failed to offer much beyond surface pleasures. And let’s not even dare venture into the disaster that is Alice in Wonderland, starring an incomparable cast giving it their best 50%.

Though we can ramble on and on about the disasters certain Disney live-action remakes, even the ones with great intentions, became, a few succeeded. Here, we will aim to highlight the one facet that a few of the most successful Disney live-action remake have in common. And why that one facet is integral to a successful remake. 

What ‘The Jungle Book’, ‘Cinderella,’ and ‘Pete’s Dragon’ have in common

The Jungle Book, Cinderella, and Pete’s Dragon all boast strong audience and critical reviews. However, if you watch these movies — or read a handful of critical reviews — an underlying trend emerges. Though these movies all weave vastly different tales, they all balance commendation with creation. They pay homage to the originals while modernizing the tale (just enough) to fit within a contemporary context. 

In short, The Jungle Book, Cinderella, and Pete’s Dragon found the sweet spot between reverence and reinvention, as The One Room With a View explained when referencing Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book. The Jungle Book was the rare exception to the rule, in which the remake, arguably, improved upon the original. 2016’s The Jungle Book introduced depth and a sense of severity that should have been, but was not, present in the first animated take. 

Cinderella, at the deft hands of Shakesperean actor-director Kenneth Branagh, was destined for greatness; though many saw his background as a threat to his potential, it definitely resulted in a film that retained a necessary degree of classical energy. 

The remake of Cinderella was “refreshingly traditional,” according to Rotten Tomatoes, yet it understands the modern landscape and does not eschew its existence in an era less drawn to old-school narratives. As ReelViews explained, “Cinderella is a wonderfully realized family feature that retains the strengths of its source material while at the same time updating it for today’s audiences.”

As for Pete’s Dragon, it may have been one of the least-anticipated Disney live-action remakes; however, it exceeded expectations. While Pete’s Dragon benefits from the abilities modern technology grants, it doesn’t lose its heart along the way. Maybe, unlike The Lion King, it’s because the star animal retained a competency for human-like expression.  With messages of family and faith at the center, the remake retains the original’s motifs but adds a necessary degree of CGI, bringing it into the modern age. Once again, adequately balancing tribute with transformation. 

As for the Disney live-action remakes that went wrong, they either strayed too far from the original or, afraid to take steps in a new direction, veered to close to their predecessors, coming off mimetic and uninspired as a result. Yet, the films above, they cracked the code; they found the balance beam and ran across it without ever faltering and falling too far in either direction.