To Sing or Not to Sing in Disney Live-Action Remakes

From Cinderella to Mulan, we're judging whether music helps or harms Disney’s self-adaptations.

Yifei Liu as Mulan
Photo: Disney

Since Disney began rolling out live-action adaptations of its animated classics in 2015, the past five years have seen roughly one new release per year, each one confronting the question of whether or not to attempt the musical numbers—arguably the most emblematic element—without the aid of animation and trained singers.

In the case of movies like 2020’s live-action Mulan, many directors have eschewed the earworm-y songs and complex musical set pieces altogether, with the argument that it’s simply too difficult to manage the tonal shifts from stories that have become a bit darker in translation with songs that are bright and palatable enough for young audiences. But even those movies that have taken direction from successful movie musicals have not always recaptured the magic of Disney musical numbers. Here, we analyze which movies were right to ditch the music, and which get points for trying.

A note on judging: I defined “musical numbers” as featuring singing and some form of choreography, so snippets of songs were out. I didn’t include any ending credits songs (a common factor among these adaptations) in my count since they’re audio-only. Each movie I ranked by High/Middle/Low Notes, which is by no means by any professional musical standards and should be pretty self-explanatory.

Cinderella (2015)

Musical Numbers: 0

Success: High Note

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As the first live-action adaptation, there were of course questions of whether Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella would have its actors crooning “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes” or CGI mice working along to “Cinderelly Cinderelly”—whimsical moments for the kiddos, but tougher to suspend disbelief for when it’s real people in front of the camera.

“I don’t know how to write that kind of thing really,” screenwriter Chris Weitz told Cinema Blend in 2015, “and I think that that’s something that, for me, it’s much easier to do that with an animated film. That’s why many of the Disney animated films are musicals. With live action, sort of getting into and out of those moments of song is really super tricky.”

Instead, Weitz and Branagh opted to score the iconic melodies—which are just as recognizable in instrumental form as sung—to key emotional moments. Lily James’ Cinderella also receives a new mantra: have courage and be kind. It’s a rough translation of the lyrics from “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes”: no matter how your heart is grieving / if you keep on believing / the dream that you wish will come true. But instead of it being a subconscious desire that gets solved while one snoozes, the mantra reminds the heroine to consciously hold strong to her faith in the goodness of other people, and she will eventually be rewarded for that belief.

The movie reflects this in how it recreates the fairy godmother’s (Helena Bonham Carter) “Bibbity Bobbity Boo” scene without the actual song (it plays over the credits) but maintaining the whimsy. Magic replaces music, and the movie does not suffer for the lack. (Let’s also not forget that Ever After, the beloved 1998 adaptation starring Drew Barrymore, didn’t need music to be affecting, either.)

Crucially, it is Ella’s singing that saves her: The king’s men are about to leave her home, having failed to make the glass slipper fit either of her stepsisters, when her voice comes drifting from the attic—thanks to the mice, who may not be able to sing, but who are still clever enough to open the latch on the window. Her crooning of the English folk song “Lavender’s Blue” (when I am king dilly-dilly / you shall be queen) alerts the men to her presence, and is how Kit identifies her even before the slipper meets her foot.

This Cinderella has to do (almost) everything herself, from helping out with chores even before she is forced to wait on her stepmother and stepsisters to charming the prince to securing her own freedom, and is the better for it.

The Jungle Book (2016)

Musical Numbers: 2

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Success: Low Note

“What’s a song?” young Mowgli asks before one of The Jungle Book’s two main musical numbers. “You never heard a song before?” Baloo (Bill Murray) gasps. “Everyone’s got a song.” And then he jumps—both literally, as the CGI bear, and figuratively, for the actor—into “The Bare Necessities.” It’s not a skilled rendition by far, but compared to the uncanny auto-tuning in other entries, it actually sounds like him.

The same goes for “I Wanna Be Like You,” wherein Christopher Walken channels his best King Louie: It loses the hyperactive energy of the animated version, but it’s undeniably him doo-wopping his way through the song. Both numbers demonstrate how The Jungle Book ultimately succeeds over later film The Lion King (both directed by Jon Favreau): The CG animals at least resemble the people voicing them, so even though they’re imperfect, they’re still personal.

Beauty and the Beast (2017)

Musical Numbers: 10

Success: Middle Note

The only thing that saves Beauty and the Beast is “Gaston.” This adaptation beats the others in the musical numbers count, but almost all of them fall short of both the animated original and the Broadway musical. (The new numbers expound on the former, interestingly, with very little overlap with the latter.) This video essay from Sideways best illustrates the movie’s fatal flaw: Casting actors who are not singers as the leads. Emma Watson’s Belle has one of the most recognizable Disney “I Want” songs, and her voice is entirely flattened out by auto-tune. In songs like “Evermore,” where Dan Stevens is supposed to convince us that there’s still a man hidden beneath the Beast, he’s stripped of any longing.

The actors who are trained singers, like Audra McDonald as Madame de Garderobe, or who have proven themselves in movie musicals previously, like Ewan McGregor as Lumière, get too little screen time. “Be Our Guest,” charmingly mimicking the entire hospitality industry in its attempts to change with the times with clever new lyrics and dazzling CG animation, winds up feeling like a heartless attempt at copying the original’s magic. The best way I can sum up Beauty and the Beast’s music overall is that the opening prelude theme has more character than half the numbers.

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Thank goodness, then, for “Gaston.” It arrives at the perfect point to perk up both its boorish antagonist (Luke Evans) and the audience. That’s mainly due to Le Fou (Josh Gad, bringing a mix of his Broadway experience and his goofy Olaf-from-Frozen charm) and the slyly meta details that he is literally paying everyone in that tavern to start singing Gaston’s praises. As Le Fou keeps surreptitiously tossing coins to ladies to sing over Gaston’s muscles, to men to dance around and mock-duel him, and to the chorus of patrons to keep generating new refrains, Gaston eventually is encouraged enough to take the lead and keep this drinking song-slash-tribute going on ad infinitum until Maurice (Kevin Kline) bursts in. Well, all good things must end.

Aladdin (2019)

Musical Numbers: 5

Success: High Note

Guy Ritchie’s adventurous adaptation is the most successful of the bunch, even though it too falls short of being entirely as convincing as one of the Genie’s schemes. The movie’s stubborn adherence to Robin Williams’ rendition of “Friend Like Me”—again, the Sideways video has more in-depth analysis—does a disservice to Will Smith, who unlike the other actors in this list does have the chops to take on this iconic role. It’s especially baffling that there is a different cover, with Smith in his element, playing over the credits that very much slaps.

It’s not as if Ritchie treated every element of the animated Aladdin as untouchable: “One Jump” gets recontextualized as Aladdin (Mena Massoud) touring Jasmine (Naomi Scott) through the city. As she tags along on his petty thievery, skilled sleight of hand, and ingenious misdirection, she gets to know the street rat better than any dialogue could have achieved. That number is shot a bit frenetically, which comes through in the spoken-word style of singing, but it’s still undeniably fun.

“Prince Ali” has this same gleeful energy, and gives the Genie a little more wiggle room. There’s a great “drop the beat” moment partway through that could have been ad libbed or could have been built in, but either way it’s completely unexpected. Several dance sequences conjure A Knight’s Tale in their anachronistic style but still strengthen the movie by showing just how much Genie can make people do his bidding in service to his master.

Alas, “A Whole New World” is entirely forgettable, and shot so dark that you miss all of the details that made the magic carpet ride such a thrill for the princess and for audiences. Ditto Jasmine’s “Speechless” number and its tragic refrain. If the Broadway adaptation taught us anything, it’s that you don’t mess with a good thing.

The Lion King (2019)

Musical Numbers: 7

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Success: Low Note

Finally, the Disney movie that asks why anyone would think a remake is necessary. Without the aid of stunning animation, “Circle of Life” and “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” fall short of the epic scale of their predecessors, so both early numbers are just underwhelming. Though Chiwetel Ejiofor is a great choice for the voice of Scar, it’s clear that director Favreau and collaborator Tim Rice did not know what to do with “Be Prepared.” Running into the same issue of tonal shifts, they adjusted it to be part spoken-word monologue, part song; but the number itself is so confused that one might get halfway through it before realizing where in the movie they’re supposed to be.

The CG-animated animals lose all character, and it’s incredibly uncanny to watch their mouths open and close without enunciating lyrics. Auto-tuning flattens out supporting characters like Seth Rogen’s Pumbaa, though somehow his and Timon’s (Billy Eichner) cover of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” is still incredibly charming. And then there’s “Can You Feel the Love Tonight.”

Donald Glover (a.k.a. Childish Gambino) and Beyoncé Knowles were perfect casting for adult Simba and Nala, but the tracks they’re given to work with just don’t match the energy of the original. If you’re going to tone down every single song to either meet an untrained singer where they’re at or to match the other newly low-key numbers, then why have Beyoncé at all?

Elton John’s GQ interview around the film’s release better delves into all of what went wrong with the soundtrack, but even just this quote is pretty damning: “Music was so much a part of the original and the music in the current film didn’t have the same impact. The magic and joy were lost. […] I wish I’d been invited to the party more, but the creative vision for the film and its music was different this time around and I wasn’t really welcomed or treated with the same level of respect. That makes me extremely sad. I’m so happy that the right spirit for the music lives on with the Lion King stage musical.”

Mulan (2020)

Musical Numbers: 0

Success: Middle Note

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Five years after Cinderella’s release, the live-action Mulan cycles back to its formula—doing away with all of the songs in favor of instrumental tracks—out of the same considerations of tone.

“It will not be traditional ‘break into musical’ [songs],” producer Jason Reed explained to Collider during a 2018 set visit. “They’re not going to stop their workouts to do a big musical number to camera. However, there are a number of songs that are iconic for the movie and tell a great version of the story and they are very helpful to us in how we’re putting the movie together. It gets a little easier in animation to keep the tension and the reality in place and still have people break into song and sing to camera. We made the decision that we wanted to keep the world—even though it’s a fantasy—more grounded, more realistic so those emotions really played and the threat is very real. So we are using music in a slightly different way.”

Unfortunately, Mulan tries to have its cake and eat it, too, when it comes to the animated film’s beloved soundtrack. A scene with Hua Jun and the other men at the training camp puts the lyrics to “A Girl Worth Fighting For” into their mouths as dialogue, except it comes out jarringly sing-songy. There’s a throwaway line about making them into men that should have just been dropped; it’s mister I’ll make a man out of you or it’s nothing. 

But the biggest misstep is with “Reflection”—which, to be clear, is transformed from humble “I want” song into epic instrumental strains backing sequences in which Mulan first disguises herself as Hua Jun, and then throws off her disguise to triumphantly ride back into battle to save her fellow soldiers. 

There’s just one big problem: Because Mulan never sings “Reflection” and articulates her ambivalence about the face staring back at her, it doesn’t actually mean anything to the plot of this movie when the refrain plays. That doesn’t stop it from tugging at the heartstrings, but that’s solely a chemical reaction based on music ingrained in our brains twenty-plus years ago. Having two covers of “Reflection”—Christina Aguilera recording a new version, and Liu singing the Mandarin version—play over the credits fills in those lyrics for anyone who doesn’t know them, but it’s retroactive.

Interestingly, Disney brought back Christina Aguilera to record a new number, no doubt trying to tap into audiences’ nostalgia for her rendition of “Reflection.” Personally I would have loved to see Lea Salonga return for “Loyal Brave and True,” but Disney was banking on its former Mouseketeer and pop star to further tie audiences to the original.

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What Reed had wrong was that the animated Mulan did manage to balance the drama and grim reality of war with tension-breaking musical numbers. We need look no further than “A Girl Worth Fighting For,” the soldiers’ cheery, jibing ode to their rewards for victory, abruptly stopping short when they come across the burned-out village—a stark reminder that they are nowhere near the end of the war. Now, this live-action Mulan clearly wasn’t set up for that same tone-shifting, but it still tricks emotional resonance out of disconnected musical cues.

Mulan is available now on Disney+.