When it comes to Hollywood films, popular children’s cartoons are a dangerous double-edge sword. On the one end, you have a property that you know a large portion of the movie-going audience is not only familiar with, but that they have a specifically positive association with the property. On the other end, you have a property that people know so well that they are going to be quite picky when it comes to how you adapt the property from cartoon to live action. You can “ruin” people’s childhoods here.
Already, then, you’re dealing with a touchy area, but that’s a problem that comes with the territory of any adaptation of a popular property to the screen (whether it be a novel, a video game or a TV show). However, cartoons have their own particular problems with adaptation in that there are certain aspects of cartoons that work in animated form but have a difficulty being adapted into a live action film. Talking animals, over-the-top sets, and other attributes unique to animation make adapting cartoons into live action films tough. When it works, though, we’re talking billion-dollar franchises, so filmmakers will always keep trying. Here, then, are 15 instances where a live action feature film adaptation ruined a classic cartoon series.
TRANSFORMERS: DARK OF THE MOON
In general, the Transformers films by Michael Bay are practically a how-to lesson in how to “ruin” a cartoon franchise (quotes because the films have still been very financially successful). They stripped all of the light out of the concept and make it grim and gritty beyond belief (and considering that, that’s saying a lot). They also had the character re-designed so that they were barely recognizable.
However, of all of the films, Dark of the Moon (the third film in the series) might be the most ridiculous, in that the characters didn’t even really transform at all! The film is over two and a half hours long and the total time spent on characters transforming has to be less than three minutes!
JEM AND THE HOLOGRAMS
It is not that Jem and the Holograms was necessarily a terrible movie in and of itself. Taken completely out of context, it was a middling movie about whether selling out your creative artistry is worth the fame and fortune that comes with it. However, the whole point of the film is that it was very much in context. That’s why you make a film adaptation, because you want the film to be seen in the context of being an established concept.
When taken in that sense, the film is absurd, as it barely manages to translate any of the things that made the Jem and the Holograms cartoon stand out. Namely, there’s not even really a Jem character. That was the whole point of the show — that Jerrica transforms into Jem through futuristic technology. Here? It’s just her stage name. That’s so mundane, it hurts.
THE LAST AIRBENDER
M. Night Shyamalan’s film adaptation of the critically acclaimed Nickelodeon animated series, The Last Airbender, attracted a whole lot of negative attention when he cast a number of roles that were originally intended for Asian characters with non-Asian actors. So even before the film was released, it had already irritated a great deal of fans, especially those that had noted how important the cultural aspects of the original series were.
Shymalan took that controversy and then went out and made a disappointing film that had listless special effects and a weak story arc. It cleaned up at the Golden Raspberry Awards in 2010, netting a remarkable five “Razzies,” including the award for Worst Picture of the Year. At least the film did end up making a good deal of money (especially overseas).
MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE
As with Jem and the Holograms, Masters of the Universe was an instance where the film wasn’t too bad when you remove it from the context of the original property. In fact, the film is pretty fun, to be frank, with strong performances from Dolph Lundgren, Frank Langella and Courtney Cox. It just doesn’t even remotely resemble Masters of the Universe.
The makers behind the picture, Cannon Films, were famous for its low budget action films. However, their Chuck Norris films kept making so much money that they decided to start spending a lot more on films. The studio owners didn’t know He-Man from Rain Man, they just wanted to spend a lot of money on the biggest licensed property of the time, which was Masters of the Universe. Hence, the film did not follow the cartoon at all. When this big budget movie bombed, Cannon’s whole company went under.
G.I. JOE: THE RISE OF COBRA
In many ways, ambition is a great thing for filmmaking. However, sometimes it is a trap. In baseball, there is a fairly common mistake made by second basemen when they try to turn a ground ball double play. They are already planning on throwing to first before they even complete the out at second. Sometimes that leads to them bobbling the ball and they don’t get any outs. Similarly, studios who are planning for multiple films when they start their first film often end up not even getting one film right, let alone multiple ones.
In the case of G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, instead of giving the public what they were familiar with, the battle between G.I. Joe and Cobra, they decided to make the film be an origin story for both organizations. People just want to see G.I. Joe fighting against Cobra! You’re overthinking things here!
ALVIN AND THE CHIPMUNKS: CHIPWRECKED
One of the more remarkable achievements is not that the Alvin and Chipmunks movies have been so stunningly successful (they are not big budget films and yet they continuously rake in major box office receipts), but rather than it took until the third film in the series to become truly awful. The first film was a relatively straightforward “what would you do for fame?” and the second film cleverly worked in an interesting replacement for Dave in Zachary Levi’s Toby (Dave’s nephew).
However, they seemed to have run out of story by the time they got to the third film, Chipwrecked, the plot of which would have been a stretch to fill up a single episode of a sitcom, let alone a feature film. David Cross returns for his third film in the series, noting that it was “the worst experience of my career.”
When we talk about the difficulties in translating the unique attributes of an animated program to live action, Dragonball Z is a good bet for being the epitome of those difficulties. You see, few cartoons are quite as stylized as Dragonball Z, with Goku being one of the most larger-than-life cartoon characters around. Think about it, the guy is an awesome character and yet he is constantly walking around with a huge, bizarre hairdo. That works for a cartoon, but when you try to replicate that look with a real life person? It looks ridiculous.
That was one of many problems plaguing Dragonball Evolution (which also, of course, cast a white actor to play Goku, because, you know, that’s how these things go apparently). It was a a strikingly flat translation of an over-the-top cartoon.
TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES
We imagine that in the minds of many filmgoers, Michael Bay is a sort of Grinch-like creature, who stays up at nights pondering which nostalgic children’s property he can give his “unique” spin on next. It’s like a kind of twisted wheel of fate. In 2014, the wheel landed on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Now, the Turtles had already had a series of live action films that came out at the height of their fame in the early 1990s. Those films were ridiculous as well, but they were ridiculous in the same sort of over-the-top manner of the cartoon.
The Bay-produced version, though, stripped out almost all of the wackiness of the original films and gave us a dark, serious take on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles that was striking in just how boring the whole thing was. How do you manage to make the Turtles uninteresting?
Generally speaking, if you are curious if a film adaptation of a cartoon series understands the draw of the original series or not, there is a fairly simple test, which is “Does the film adapt the actual plot of the cartoon series or does it take them out of their normal plot and drop them into a modern landscape?” The latter is an exceptionally easy “out” for filmmakers who don’t really want to use the property, but just the familiar characters from the property.
The Smurfs from 2011 was one of the latter examples, with the Smurfs thrown into modern New York City, where they get to interact with modern items, the companies of whom might also pay a fee to see their products advertised in the film. This was best (or worst) exemplified in an extended sequence where Neil Patrick Harris’ character and the Smurfs play Guitar Hero.
FLINTSTONES: VIVA ROCK VEGAS
We’re certainly not here to suggest that 1994’s The Flintstones was a great film. It was not. However, at least it seemed to be really giving the material the old college try. The cast was strong (John Goodman and Rick Moranis as Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble, and Elizbeth Perkins and Rosie O’Donnell as Wilma Flintstone and Betty Rubble). Plus, the film at least felt like an extended episode of the original series.
The sequel, Viva Rock Vegas, showed how Fred and Barney met Wilma and Betty and it replaced Goodman and Moranis with Mark Addy and Stephen Baldwin, and Perkins and O’Donnell with Kristen Johnson and Jane Krakowski. It was a far sloppier film in general and just seemed like everyone was going through the motions.
One of the things that made Peter Chung’s Aeon Flux so groundbreaking when it debuted on MTV’s Liquid Television in 1991 is just how visually stunning the whole thing was. The environment was something that you could barely process and the lead of the series, Aeon Flux, had an almost anatomically impossible body (and a costume that would never make any sense in the real world). So, how do you adapt a series with an impossible-to-adapt setting and an impossible-to-replicate lead character and costume?
Well, in the case of 2005’s Aeon Flux, you basically just change everything to make it more adaptable. Peter Chung later recalled, “I was unhappy when I read the script four years ago; seeing it projected larger than life in a crowded theatre made me feel helpless, humiliated, and sad.” That makes us sad just reading it!
DUDLEY DO RIGHT
Academy Award-winning screenwriter William Goldman once said one of the most brilliantly observant thing about Hollywood and the film business. “Nobody knows nothing.” That’s true. Truly, there is nobody who can tell you with an absolute certainty what audiences will respond to in a film. What they liked yesterday they might not like tomorrow. What they hated yesterday, they might love tomorrow.
Filmmakers, though, try to go with the following: A.) Famous properties, and B.) Concepts that worked once. Brendan Fraser had a surprise hit with the film adaptation of the cartoon series, George of the Jungle. Fraser is practically a walking cartoon and he fit George perfectly. So they went back to the well, this time having Fraser play the dimwitted mountie, Dudley Do-Right. It did not do right for the studio, as it bombed. There just wasn’t enough plot.
For decades, Leslie Nielsen was a well-known dramatic actor who worked regularly in dozens of different television dramas. He was well known for how serious he came off. He was the perfect authority figure. That was precisely what the makers of the parody film, Airplane!, felt when they had him play a doctor helping to land a plane filled with passengers. His deadpan delivery made him a comedy icon. He followed up Airplane! with the Naked Gun series of films (after first doing a failed TV version of the concept) with him as a serious cop in a silly world.
Even as he got on in years, he continued to work on slapstick films. One of his worst was the adaptation of the cartoon about the nearly-blind old man, Mr. Magoo. The humor of the character (the joke is that Mr. Magoo cannot see very well) had not aged well.
Another entry in the “not getting what made the cartoon work in the first place” category is 2007’s Underdog. The whole concept of Underdog is that he is an anthropomorphic superhero dog. The film, though, decided to cast their Underdog with an actual dog (a beagle to be exact). It was a terrible idea, as there is no dog that can be such a good actor as to make that end result look anything but unsettling, and the beagle in this film was no exception.
On top of that, the rest of the film was an uninspired collection of generic film tropes that probably would at least amuse a kid who had never seen any movie before (since then the tropes would at least seem fresh to them).
Let’s forget for a moment that this film was produced by Bill Cosby (the star of the film, Kenan Thompson, later recalled that Cosby kept hitting on Thompson’s mother on the film’s set) and just address how lame the film was in general. Like The Smurfs, this was another example of a film that takes Fat Albert and his friends out of their normal environment and puts them into modern “real life.”
That’s the sort of thing that would work for a comedy sketch on a show like Saturday Night Live (where Thompson has been a cast member since George W. Bush’s first term in office) but not for a feature length film. Plus, it was annoying enough to listen to Cosby (who co-wrote the movie) sermonize back then, let alone with what we know about him now, so this movie is painful to watch.
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