I have extremely mixed opinions when it comes to live-action adaptations of material that was originally intended for another medium. Be it of cartoons, animated films, or video games, the transition from traditional or computer animation always tends to be a particularly rocky one, at least when compared to comic book adaptions or film adaptions of literature. And it’s a trend that’s becoming more and more frequent in Hollywood as of late, particularly with Disney.
In the case of Disney’s live-action “remakes” of their classic animated films, I’m against it. I think it’s the absolute lowest form of storytelling, opting to redo something that already exists and is beloved by entire generations of audiences rather than craft something new or unique. On the one hand, this is definitely not new for Disney in terms of storytelling. After all, the company’s biggest animated hits, from Snow White to Frozen, have always been their princess stories, which are almost all adaptations of classic European folklore and fairy tales. But on the other hand, there’s a pretty drastic difference between modernizing classic, centuries old stories and simply redoing your own work, only a few decades later. It makes it seem like the company is completely devoid of any original ideas, and simply wants to rehash things for nostalgia’s sake.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I don’t understand why it’s done. I totally get it. New IP carries an inherent risk of failure due to audience familiarity, while existing characters and stories already have a dependable, profitable fanbase attached to them. But you’d think that if anyone could afford to take risks, it’s be the most profitable film company on the planet. It speaks to a greater, underlying overemphasis on the economics of the business, rather than the underlying art behind it. Which is of course disappointing, but shouldn’t at all be surprising to anyone who’s even been paying the slightest amount of attention.
But that’s a discussion for another time. That’s not what I want to talk about here. No, what really annoys me about these adaptions has less to do with storytelling, and more to do with the feel of the films, the character they possess, and their ability to really deliver on the more fantastical and magical elements of their stories. I’m talking about the visuals themselves. I genuinely think something special is lost in the translation from animation to live-action. There’s a certain charm in animation, due to the exaggerated and expressive nature of the medium, one that I don’t think can be properly replicated in any other medium. There’s a fluidity, an energy that an animated character has, and it loses all of its inertia and its magic when it’s suddenly forced to exist in a realistic space.
Let’s take a look at some classic Disney scenes alongside their live-action counterparts. Since it just hit theaters this past week, and is pretty much the film that set me off on this particular rant, I feel Aladdin is the best example of the problems I’ve been talking about here. The original is an absolute classic, a product of Disney’s much lauded and successful “Renaissance” era, due in no small part to the late Robin Williams’s instantly iconic voicework as the Genie. The decision to cast Williams in the role, which seems perfectly standard now, was, at the time, highly irregular. The politics surrounding this decision and the resulting consequences in the industry as a whole are an entirely separate story altogether, which you can get a pretty good overview of here. But the long and short of it is this: The role of the Genie was specifically written for, and tailored to, the comedy style and physical stage performance of Robin Williams during his stand-up. That is, the character was always meant to be an extension of his own personality, made more fantastical and comedic by way of animation. His voice, as well as his movements and expressions, make the character a unique, one of a kind entry in animation history, one that would be imitated for years to come. And it’s not hard to see why. Here’s the Genie performing his signature, introductory song early in the film:
The frenetic, hyperactive motion and the rapid-fire impressions and pop-culture references are a staple of Robin Williams as a performer, and were therefore integrated into the character as well. The Genie HAS character, and therefore IS an all-around more entertaining and interesting figure because of this. This is, of course, largely to do with Williams’s performance and talent as a comedian and voice actor, but also owes a lot to the animation style as well. The Genie can transform, shape-shift, and pull off some incredibly cartoonish and outlandish feats because of the limitless medium he exists in, without straining belief or violating the film’s aesthetic. Unfortunately, it’s for those very reasons that the Genie does not translate well to live action. Here’s the Genie introducing Aladdin in disguise as Prince Ali in the original film:
And here it is in 2019, in Guy Ritchie’s live-action remake of the film, in which Will Smith takes up the mantle of the Genie:
See how different the two are? The live-action version has none of the energy, none of the expressiveness as the original. Will Smith’s Genie is stilted, bland, and just simply too human. Whether or not Will Smith was a smart choice for the role or not, performance aside the character itself is just uninspiring, and altogether unentertaining. There’s none of the fantastical transformations, none of the snarky voicework, none of the pizazz. The musical number in the original meanders, spills out into the streets, and seems like a massive event that electrifies the entire village. In the live-action version, it’s a small, one-street affair, with some rather bored and robotic looking performers and onlookers taking part. The Genie, and by extension everything created by his magic, is too whimsical for real life. And the adaption definitely suffers because of this.
With human or humanlike characters like the Genie, the difference is certainly noticeable. But with animals and creatures, it’s so much worse. Human characters have the benefit of facial expression and body language to help them convey emotion and meaning. Animals have no such advantages. So, when animating animal characters, they are, simply by virtue of necessity, anthropomorphized to the point where they can properly express recognizably human emotions and speech. Big eyes, lips, more humanized mouths, you know exactly what I mean. But for live-action adaptations, photorealism is the main goal, for some reason. There seems to be a misguided notion in Hollywood that something is made better just by virtue of it being more technologically advanced. So yes, the visual effects can be highly impressive, and in some ways downright stunning, but again, you lose the individuality and innate humanity of the characters if you make them resemble too much their real-life animal counterparts.
Take Jon Favreau’s 2016 remake and adaption of Disney’s animated Jungle Book film. No doubt a gorgeously animated, insanely well-crafted film, visually speaking. The animal characters in the film look as though they could step through the screen at any moment. They truly are some of the most impressively-rendered CGI creations in cinema history. And yet, there’s still something missing. Despite their beautiful appearance, and performances from the likes of Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, and Idris Elba, they’re missing the soul and the heart of their original, animated counterparts. Here’s Baloo, in his original, animated medium, alongside his updated, CG counterpart:
As impressive as the 2016 version is, it’s missing the expressiveness and charisma of its simpler, animated predecessor. Likewise, King Louie, an orangutan, suffers a similar fate:
Again, while yes, the updated version of Louie looks more realistic, it’s also much less fun. And frankly, given the way that the design incorporates Christopher Walken’s facial features into the design makes it slightly disturbing as well, giving it an eerie, uncanny-valley feel. And it’s even more apparent in motion. Here’s the 1967, animated Louie singing his signature musical number:
And here’s Walken in the remake:
Is it atmospheric? Sure. It certainly works in regards to how Louie is portrayed in the 2016 film, as a sort of hybrid between Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now and The Godfather, in opposition to the previous jazz singer persona the animated version possessed. It doesn’t have that same giddy energy, or the same sense of fun. It’s not necessarily bad, far from it. I thought, and still think, that both the visuals and the performances, not just in this particular scene, but in the entirety of the 2016 Jungle Book, are incredible. I just don’t feel as much from this as I do the original.
And I only foresee the problem getting worse. Here’s the original trailer for The Lion King:
Compare it to the remake:
See? It’s the same problem as before. Is it visually impressive? Undoubtedly. The visual effects look absolutely incredible. But the animals just look like animals. Scar’s original design had a unique color palate, an instantly recognizable silhouette, and a slinking, menacing style of motion which made his screen presence ooze charisma. Here, he’s just a lion. I mean, I guess he’s a little sickly-looking, but he doesn’t really seem to stand out in any way. The same goes for the other characters as well. They don’t have the visual personality of their animated counterparts, because the filmmakers were too preoccupied with realism to imbue them with the same character and liveliness. I’m sure the movie will be fine, but I can’t help but to feel something is missing.
I would like to add that, although live-action adaptions of certainly have their issues, video game adaptions are usually the worst culprits here. Animated remakes may be soulless, but at least they try and keep the same general design and aesthetic of the original characters at least somewhat intact. But video game movies seem hell-bent on making the most horrible abominations possible. The most notorious example, of course, is the 1993 Super Mario Bros. movie. We’re all familiar with Mario, of course.
Of course. Now, here he is in the film adaption:
Not too bad. Well, how about a Goomba? You guys know Goombas too, right?
Well, here THEY are in the film:
That thing is an unholy nightmare, made by people who apparently have only been given the vaguest notion of what the original is supposed to look like. Either that, or they just flat-out hate the source material. And children. There is literally nothing about this design that works, or even remotely resembles the source material. They’ve not only abandoned the feel of the original character, and the charm that it evokes, they’ve also thrown everything about its basic, geometric design out the window as well. And over twenty years later, and Hollywood seemingly still hasn’t learned its lesson. Just compare the classic, animated depiction of Sonic the Hedgehog with its recently-revealed film counterpart:
This speaks to an issue that really seems to happen more so with adaptions of more sci-fi-heavy animated properties: Over-complication of design. The thought seems to be that the busier the design is, the more “realistic” it looks, which just isn’t true. Again, for the sake of translation into live-action, the feel of the original characters are being erased in favor of “cooler” and “edgier” designs, which are felt to jive better with photorealism for some reason. It happened with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles:
And, as I’ve mentioned before, it happened with the Transformers as well:
Overly-complex designs, which are much more violent and aggressive, don’t help to make these characters fit in better with the real world. Their premises are inherently fantastical enough so as to not necessitate realism in the first place. I mean honestly, cars that turn into giant alien robots and mutant turtles trained in martial arts are crazy, ridiculous ideas. Lean into that, and allow some levity in the design choices. Hell, the 1990s Ninja Turtles movies did better, and they didn’t use a single frame of CGI:
But amazingly, enough, against all odds, a live-action adaption of both an animated franchise AND a video game series somehow managed to have perhaps the most effectively-translated character aesthetic of all time. Detective Pikachu, which is a loose adaption of a Pokemon spin-off game, is the first ever live-action attempt at a film set in the universe of the massively popular video game franchise. Its characters are famously cute: Wide eyes, toothy grins, and relatively simplistic and cartoonish designs. And this is a property with over two decades of history, with dozens of game installments, hundreds of animated cartoon episodes, and enough merchandise to put even Disney to shame. So suffice it to say, the designs of the characters are pretty well-known. Everyone knows what Pikachu looks like. He’s essentially as recognizable as Mickey Mouse at this point, if not more so.
So there was naturally a lot of pressure on the folks at Toho and Legendary pictures to bring these creatures to life. And when the studios hired viral concept artist RJ Palmer, notorious for his “realistic” Pokemon series on DeviantArt, people began to get nervous, rightfully so. After all, this is the same artist who turns things like this:
Into things like this:
Once again, it looked like Detective Pikachu was going to be another overly-designed, terribly-adapted waste of a fan-favorite concept. But then the first image of the titular electric mouse hit the internet, and a faint glimmer of hope began to shine through the pessimism:
The design is perfect! Nothing about the game character was changed in translation. Sure, the textures are more realistic, with things like fur looking much like they would with real animals. But the core of the character was completely intact. That WAS Pikachu, 100%. And when the first trailer dropped, we got to see even more of the amazingly faithful designs, like Bulbasaur, for example:
Ryan Reynolds, the voice actor for the title character, even released a short video showcasing all of the designs:
These are live-action, relatively realistic looking depictions of animated, video game characters, that still possess all of the charm and character of their source material. They have the same large, expressive eyes, and the same cartoonish, often ridiculous proportions and biology. No attempts were made to make them seem more like their real-life animal inspirations, because then they would cease to be Pokemon; they’d just be colorful zoo animals, without any real magic or wonder to them. These were the best possible versions of what a live-action Pokemon should look like, because it acknowledged that there was a reason the designs were so popular in the first place: They just work.
I will leave this on another positive note: There are definitely some Disney films that have done a pretty decent job at emulating the charm of their animated predecessors. Tim Burton’s Dumbo, for example, has a fantastic, adorable design that serves as a near perfect modernization of the animated film (ignoring the quality of the remake as a whole):
Likewise, Angelina Jolie in Maleficent looks like a pitch-perfect representation of the classic villain, with all the menace and highbrow mystique of the animated original:
And some other franchises genuinely seem to be learning from their mistakes as well. Travis Knight’s Bumblebee simplifies its robotic designs to something highly evocative, if not downright a one-to-to recreation of, the original animated characters:
Even the terrible, nightmare-inducing Sonic design is being changed by the filmmakers, in response to, shall we say, less than glowing response from fans. What this means is that studios, creators, and filmmakers seem to be genuinely acknowledging this problem, and some are actually striving to fix it. And again, I don’t want to imply that these design translations necessarily effect the quality of the films in which they’re features (although, let’s be honest: some are terrible). But the creepy, overly-busy, unnecessarily believable live-action recreations of these characters certainly don’t help their case. I realize that there’s always going to be a certain amount of tweaking in order to make characters who were originally animated appear like they belong in a real-world environment. I just hope a lesson can be learned from Detective Pikachu and other similarly-adapted films that you don’t have to change the essence of a character in order to modernize them. Sometimes, a design is perfect how it is. There’s a reason that these animated films and characters are classics, after all.
Except Mr. Mime. He’s disturbing in any medium.