Friday, December 28, 2007

When TV Cartoons Become Live-Action Movies...

This holiday season saw the release of Alvin and the Chipmunks, a movie based on an animated TV series, which in turn was based on a series of novelty songs. This spring will see the release of the Wachowski Brothers' big budget adaptation of Speed Racer.Live-action versions of Dragonball, Voltron, and Jonny Quest are also in the works. The fact that there are several movies based on TV cartoons should come as no surprise. From the mid-Nineties to the early Naughts there was an entire cycle of live-action films based on animated TV series. Sadly, the vast majority of these films were wretched at best. For fans of both animated TV shows and movies, movies based on TV cartoons are most often the stuff nightmares are made of.

I am not absolutely certain what the first movie based on a TV cartoon was, but it could well have been Boris and Natasha: the Movie, released in 1992. As one could guess from the title, Boris and Natasha: the Movie is based on Jay Ward's famous cartoon titled at different times Rocky and His Friends and The Bullwinkle Show, but popularly called Rocky and Bullwinkle. That having been said, Boris and Natasha: the Movie is curious in that neither "Moose" nor "Squirrel (as Boris and Natasha always referred to them)" put in an appearance in the movie. Boris and Natasha: the Movie centres entirely on the two superspies from the country of Pottsylvania as they undertake their latest plot. Sally Kellerman and Dave Thomas do well as Natasha and Boris respectively. And director Charles Martin Smith did succeed in capturing the look of the old animated series. Unfortunately, Boris and Natasha: the Movie was simply not a good movie. Indeed, it entirely failed to capture the wit and satire of the original Jay Ward cartoon. This was perhaps the reason that, while it was made in 1990, it did not debut until 1992. And while it had been meant for theatrical release, Boris and Natasha: the Movie would make its debut on the cable channel Showtime. It was not an auspicious debut either for a live-action movie based on the works of Jay Ward or a live-action movie based on a cartoon.

Sadly, the unfortunate fate of Boris and Natasha: the Movie would not prevent other filmmakers from adapting other TV cartoons. In 1994 Universal Studios released a big budget, live action adaptation of the old Hanna-Barbera sitcom The Flintstones. Arguably, the movie did have one thing going for it. John Goodman would seem to have been born to play Fred Flintstone. Unfortunately, the rest of the cast seemed to be miscast. Elizabeth Perkins did somewhat look like Fred's wife Wilma, but her performance seemed a bit lacking. Of course, Elizabeth Perkins as Wilma was far better than the other members of the cast. Rick Moranis was far too skinny to play Barney Rubble, looking more like Gilligan dressed as Barney for a Halloween party. At least he did somewhat get Barney's character right. This was certainly not the case for Rosey O'Donnell as Betty Rubble. It was not enough that O'Donnell looked nothing like Betty (who was about the same size and shape as Wilma on the TV show), but she did not even get the voice or mannerisms quite right. The miscasting in the film would not have been quite so bad if the movie did not boast one of the worst scripts for a live-action adaptation of a TV cartoon ever made (which is really saying something). The movie's plot was episodic in the extreme, lacking any sort of cohesion whatsoever. I rather suspect fans of the show were seriously disappointed.

Despite the relative lack of quality of The Flintstones, the movie did do well at the box office. This meant that there would be yet more live-action adaptations of animated TV shows, although it would take five years for this to happen. George of the Jungle was released in 1997, another film based on another classic Jay Ward cartoon. As in the case of The Flintstones, the movie was a bit miscast, with Brendon Fraser in the lead role (one would have expected someone a bit more square jawed and muscular). Even with Fraser in the role of George, however, the movie could have still worked had it not been for the script. It was not simply that the script was bad, it was also the case that it departed from the cartoon in some important respects. The cartoon had been a slapstick parody of Tarzan, littered with the wit and satire familiar in Jay Ward's work. Not only does the movie lack Ward's patented wit and satire, but it tried to be a romantic comedy and failed miserably. Amazingly, it did respectively well at the box office.

Unfortunately, George of the Jungle would not be the last of the live-action adaptations of TV cartoons by a long shot. Nineteen ninety nine would see no less than two such movies. The first was a live action version of the classic Eighties cartoon Inspector Gadget. Sadly, it would be no better than The Flintstones or George of the Jungle. While I have always liked Matthew Broderick as an actor, his performance as Inspector Gadget is one of his few misfires. For those of you who don't remember the original cartoon, Don Adams used his William Powell imitation (which he had previously used for hotel detective Byron Glick on the Bill Dana Show, TTV cartoon character Tennessee Tuxedo, and Maxwell Smart) for the voice of Gadget. Broderick did not even attempt to imitate Adams' voice (or William Powell's for that matter). That could have been overlooked had it not been for the fact that the movie itself simply was not very good. The film lacked much of the fun and humour of the original cartoon.

The second live-action version of a TV cartoon in 1999 was Dudley Do-Right, an adaptation of the classic Jay Ward Cartoon of the same name. Sadly, it was not much better than the first two adaptations of Jay Ward cartoons. Brendon Fraser was probably a good choice for the none too bright, yet earnest Canadian Mountie. And Alfred Molina did a good job as the villainous Snidely Whiplash. To the filmmakers' credit, they did try to capture the wit and zaniness of the original cartoon. And there are a few moments where they succeed. Unfortunately, the movie falls short of that goal. There are more comedic misfires than laughs to be found in the film. While the live-action version of Dudley Do-Right may be acceptable as a family film, it is not a very good adaptation of the cartoon.

Hollywood already having made three movies based on the works of Jay Ward, it was only a matter of time before they made a film featuring his most famous characters. Released in 2000, The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle was based on the TV series called either Rocky and His Friends or The Bullwinkle Show. The film used CGI to create its two main characters, with the roles of Boris and Natasha being played by Jason Alexander and Rene Russo respectively. I have to say I have no objections to the film's cast. And like Dudley Do-Right, the movie tried to capture the sort of intelligent humour for which Jay Ward's cartoons were known. And the movie does have its share of funny moments. Sadly, however, as in the case of the film version of Dudley Do-Right, it also falls short of the original. In fact, there are many times the filmmakers seem as if they are trying to be witty, zany, and funny, only to come off as a bit silly. Fortunately, The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle was the last of the Jay Ward cartoon movie adaptations--I would hate to see what Hollywood would do to Super Chicken...

Two thousand also saw another adaptation of The Flinstones, in this case The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas. The movie is sort of a prequel to both the first film and the animated series, portraying Fred and Wilma before they were married. The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas has a much better cast than the first film, with Mark Addy as Fred, Stephen Baldwin as Barney, Kristen Johnston as Wilma, and Jane Krakowski as Betty. Unfortunately, despite a good cast who actually looked like the characters they were playing, The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas is not a very good movie (although it is at least better than the first film). In fact, the movie commits the worst possible sin for any film--it is exceedingly dull and unfunny. The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas seems less like the adaptation of a TV cartoon than a mediocre sitcom stretched to the length of a feature film.

I must confess that so far this overview of live-action films based on TV cartoons had been a bit depressing. Out of the seven films I have discussed so far, not a one of them can I actually say is good (although some are worse than others). While I cannot say that Scooby-Doo, released in 2002, is necessarily a good film, it is certainly an entertaining one. And that is saying a lot for someone who has always thought that Scooby Doo, Where Are You was one of the worst things to happen to Saturday morning cartoons. I must admit that I do have some caveats with the movie. Like many adaptations of animated TV shows, some of the roles are miscast. While I have always loved Sarah Michelle Gellar, she looks nothing like Daphne (I personally think Katie Holmes would have been better in the role). The same holds true for Freddie Prinze Jr. (any number of pretty boys from the WB's teen series of the time would have been better) as Fred. That having been said, Matthew Lillard and Linda Cardellini (who would have made a better Daphne than Gellar) are perfect as Shaggy and Velma respectively. What is more. for me at least, Scooby Doo succeeds where other cartoon adaptations have failed in that it is actually funny. The reason Scooby Doo works is that rather than doing a straight adaptation of what, in my humble opinion, was not a very good cartoon, it satirises the whole thing. To me this movie is not so much an adaptation of Scooby Doo, Where Are You, much less an homage to it, as it is a send up of the cartoon. In fact, I've often thought that many fans of the old TV show must hate the movie.

Two thousand four saw the release of a live-action adaptation of another Saturday morning cartoon for which I have little love, Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids. Fat Albert has Albert and his gang leaving their cartoon universe for the real world, to help a troubled teen. They may have been better off remaining in the cartoon world. Fat Albert moves at a snail's pace, with a plot that simply cannot remain focused. Of course, the movie's biggest flaw is one shared by the original cartoon. Like Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, Fat Albert is overly preachy and tends to bang the viewer over the head with its message.

Two thousand four would also see a sequel to Scooby-Doo, Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed. Made by the same filmmakers, Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed is not nearly as good as the first movie. Part of the problem is changes made to the premise of the both the original cartoon and the first movie. Scooby and the gang no longer ride around in the Mystery Machine (their van, for anyone not familiar with the show), but work out of a posh office suite. Furthermore, the gang have become celebrities in their hometown. In doing this the filmmakers removed much of the off kilter charm that was in the first movie and what very little charm there was in the original cartoon. And while the first movie was in its own respect a satire of the original cartoon, the second film plays it straight as a rather unfunny comedy. Of course, I have to admit, it may not have been the fault of the filmmakers. After all, I was surprised that Scooby Doo, Where Are You had material enough in it for even one movie...

Until 2005 nearly every TV cartoon adapted into a live-action film was a comedy. It was in 2005 that an action/adventure cartoon was finally adapted as a live-action movie. Æon Flux was based on the cartoon of the same name that aired on MTV in the Nineties. The series focused on a tall, blonde superspy in a dystopian future and is notable for having almost no dialogue. The movie, featuring Charlize Theron in the title role, was a loose adaptation of the series (unlike the animated series, it does have dialogue). The film received decidedly mixed reviews on its release. Among the complaints were that while the film looked good, it was also a bit on the dull side.

As atrocious as many of these live-action adaptations of TV cartoons are, I rather suspect none have been as reviled as Disney's live-action adaptation of Underdog. The original cartoon was essentially a funny animal parody of Superman, set in a world where humans existed along animals who could walk upright and talk (like Underdog and his girlfriend Sweet Polly Purebred). Unfortunately, the movie would not be a straight adaptation of the TV series. In fact, Disney made such changes that it seems as if they only took the names of the characters for Disney's Underdog (as I call it to differentiate it from the original show). To say this outraged the show's fans is an understatement (indeed, this is probably the fourth time I've complained about it...). Of course, while we fans may have objected to the changes in Underdog's mythos, there was still the possibility that it could have been a good family film. Sadly, that was not the case. Disney's Underdog was raked over the coals by critics. Indeed, it was described as lacklustre and even lame. Audiences seemed to agree, as it died a quiet death at the box office.

Live action movies based on animated TV series have had a rather ignominious history thus far. Sadly, this is not simply because so many of them depart from the original cartoons in some way, although many of them do (Disney's Underdog is simply a more extreme example). It is because they are more often than not poorly conceived. I have to wonder that the studios are not simply depending on the name recognition of a particular cartoon to draw audiences into theatres. It seems to be the only way to explain how little work they put into these films, from poor scripts to some of the worst casting ever seen in Hollywood. That having been said, I think there could be reason for hope. Fat Albert, Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed,and Disney's Underdog bombed at the box office. It seems clear to me that audiences have caught onto the fact that so many live-action adaptations of TV cartoons are just plain bad. As a result I rather suspect that from here on out filmmakers will not be able to depend upon name recognition to draw audiences into theatres. They will have to put some real work and some real quality into any future projects based on cartoons. Of course, the sad fact is that I could well be wrong. Hollywood has a history of not learning from its past mistakes. Worse yet, the desire to make a quick buck in Hollywood often outweighs the desire to make good films. While I hope that the next round of live-action adaptations of animated TV series are better than the past one, I can't say that I have any real faith that it will be.


Bobby D. said...

I haven't seen any of the live action movies--well, I have surfed past the John Goodman Flintstones movie a few times but never watched it.
feeling a bit better today, hello to Max.

Terence Towles Canote said...

Glad to hear you're feeling better. Max says, "Hi."

Toby O'B said...

Actually, Rocky and Bullwinkle do appear throughout "Boris And Natasha", but not as we know them.....

I'd say more but I don't want to ruin it for others. Let them watch the whole thing like I did. That'll larn 'em! LOL