Why is it that, whenever someone announces a live-action adaptation of a previously animated story, I feel a nervous knot in the pit of my stomach? This question raised its ugly head with my realization that Disney's Descendants — a Disney Channel original movie that sees the kids of all Disney's heroes and villains going to prep school together — was a live-action movie instead of an animated one.
Regardless of the premise, I wasn't sure how I felt about making all these beloved cartoon characters into real people. And as I looked to the past for examples of good live-action adaptations, I realized two things.
1) Live-action adaptations of animated works are everywhere
2) A lot of them are pretty bad.
Both those facts don't seem to go bode well for each other, and together they raise a question: why are there so many adaptations if they're so bad? The answer to the first part is easy, but it's the answer to the second part that is important for people to understand. Figuring this out could ideally save our favorite cartoons from being bastardized by people who refuse to learn from the past.
First thing first — there is a vast visual difference between traditional animation and real people. That sounds silly to say but there are important nuances here. In a cartoon, characters have a very distinct look that comes from how the artist drew them. Jafar, for example, has a particularly long face and zig-zagy beard that wouldn't translate perfectly to real life. But at the same time, a Jafar without those things isn't the Jafar we know and love. Something close is ideal, but it's rare to find someone 100 percent is a character. It's not necessarily anyone's fault that reality doesn't look like cartoons, but it is just a fact we have to deal with.
That dissonance between what we know/expect and what we get is the first barrier to live-action adaptations, but it's only the surface. Fortunately, an upcoming live-action adaptation provides us with a perfect example of a more serious problem with aesthetics — when adapters consciously choose to make ruinous visual changes.
Have you seen the new trailer for Michael Bay's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? Have you also seen the cartoons or even the original live-action movie? If so, you probably realize that Bay actually chose to make our beloved ninja turtles into unabashed affronts to nature and common decency — because as one redditor proved, the turtles could have easily looked more like their cartoon counter-parts. And while I'm sure some people think the new turtles look good, I disagree with my whole being.
The only argument in favor of what Bay has done is that remakes often come with their own style. Not every Batman movie has the bat-suit from the original comics, so the turtles looking different is just Bay's stylistic choice. And that's certainly true. But what's also true is that the turtles look like shit because they look far too different. Without their shells, they'd look more like severely sick people than turtles. When you are updating a story's aesthetic, you can only stray so far before you ruin things from the get go.
While the first reason is usually exclusive to live-action adaptations of cartoons (though comics/manga can have similar problems), this reason is true of any adaptation. Still, respecting the source of a cartoon adaptation is often different than respecting the source of a live-action reboot. The difference lies in the kinds of characters found in cartoons.
Not to harp on Bay, but an easy example is the Transformers franchise. Now, when you watched most of the cartoons, who were the main characters? Who got all the attention and who was the focus point of all the stories? The fucking Transformers were.
Now think about the live-action adaptations. If you ask all the same questions, the answer is completely different. The main character was a stupid human no one cared about, and all the movies have spent too much time focusing on him and his stupid family. What people really want to see in a Transformers movie is Optimus Prime leading the fight against the Decepticons. And while we got that, it was frequently interrupted by Shia LaBeouf's need to get laid, or something.
(Also, before anyone has a chance to "prove me wrong," I'm aware that there were prominent human characters in plenty of Transformers cartoons. Regardless, I still think people don't watch Transformers for the people, making them basically unnecessary)
Movie makers insert human characters and shift the focus to them because they think it's too hard for audiences to relate to giant, transforming robots. Real people need other real people as anchors or they can't get emotionally invested in the story. Well, while that seems smart in theory, those movie-makers have obviously never seen Wall-E, or any movie with cute, talking animals. While it's true that an audience does need a humanized character as a focal point, the writers could just spend more time humanizing the transformers for example. Problem solved!
But just like the first problem, there's an even deeper level of disrespect than what Bay did with Transformers (The Smurfs and Dragonball: Evolution did it too, but I won't waste time talking about either). As the picture above hinted, the biggest offender of this category is M. Night Shyamalan's The Last Airbender.
My word, this is such a bad movie for so many reasons. And while everything was terrible about it, the worst thing was his complete disregard for the source material. I mean, Shyamalan wanted so badly to spit in the face of the original show that the main character's name couldn't even be pronounced the right way. What a specific and massive middle finger to the source.
In truth, everything about the story had to be altered for time, basically reducing all the show's cleverness to ham-fisted exposition and cheap action. And speaking of the action, the bending in the movie was so far from the cartoon that seeing it makes me want to gouge my eyes out with splintered table legs.
To be fair to everyone that isn't M. Night, few live-action adaptations told their source material to fuck off as strongly as The Last Airbender. At the same time, it's still a serious problem that often significantly contributes to a live-action adaptation's failure. When a director or writer decides to mess with a successful formula too much, you run into trouble.
How often does an adaptation turn out to better than the story that inspired it? Rarely, if ever. At the most basic level, this is why Disney's Descendants is likely going to be a mess. Cherry picking characters from successful stories and saying, "we're putting them all together and giving them kids — care about this!" is a terrible idea.
First off, people would likely prefer stories about characters they already know, like Belle or Mulan. Assuming that an audience will care about their kids is a mistake, yet the movie will likely bank on that to save time on actually developing those new characters. Second, these adaptations of the characters we do know won't measure up to their original sources because it's hard to recapture the same magic.
Disney's Descendants only makes their job harder by cramming everyone into the same story, but they make the task almost insurmountable by constricting that story to a single movie. It would be a completely different matter if the story of the descendants was told over the course of a TV series. That way the new characters could be built up over time and the old characters would have plenty of opportunities to mirror the feel of the originals. Once Upon A Time succeeds (mostly) for that reason. Even though Snow White isn't the same as in Disney's cartoon, we spend enough time with her to get to know and like her for the way she is.
Another option would be to go the route of Maleficent and explore the journey of one character we kind of already know but are happy to spend more time with. And for the record, Maleficent might be the first live-action adaptation of a cartoon in some time to get things right. We'll have to see.
So with all these obstacles in the way of a good live-action adaptation, why are there so many? And why do the adaptations never try very hard to emulate what made the original cartoon successful? Well, Hollywood just wants to cash in on nostalgia instead of creating something that is good in its own right. It takes less thought, effort, and therefore money that way, but it also kills any chance of establishing a potentially new source of material for series that deserve to keep going.