Cage Fight: Animated TV vs. Live-action Movies

One of the saddest things about growing up is the impact it has on your Saturday morning rituals. Saturday mornings were sacrosanct in my youth; they were my sabbath. Even if I had to attend a 7 a.m. practice (the swimming world is intense in Florida), I would eschew crawling back into bed in favor of planting myself in front of the TV with a bowl of some cereal that was basically a sugar delivery system, watching my favorite cartoons. Recess was a particular favorite, along with Animaniacs, which gave me my first taste of off-the-wall humor. We didn’t have cable, but on vacations my siblings and I would sit, captivated, before Nickelodeon shows like Angry Beavers, Rugrats, and The Wild Thornberrys. (Plus about a hundred I’ve neglected to mention.) These were shows I could relate to and enjoy, with interesting (if occasionally simplistic) animation.

I’m not sure why, but my parents allowed me to watch the brilliant Batman: The Animated Series, despite the fact that I was all of five years old when it started.

DC Comics

This is an incredible show: dark but still humorous, with an arrestingly elegant visual style that all the same didn’t seem too sophisticated for a, uh, five-year-old. (Jesus, was I really only five when this series started?) It told stories that I could easily grasp and relate to, emotionally, but it also contained a lot of subtleties I can only now appreciate. I know the movies weren’t based on the TV show, but, just for fun, compare this to some of the Batman movies before Christopher Nolan stepped in– specifically, the Joel Schumacher ones. Go on. I’ll wait.

Not even George Clooney could salvage those hot messes.

(I won’t get into non-Batman comic book movies, because those are an entirely different kettle of fish, though they do share some similarities with the animated-show-vs.-live-action-movie conundrum. Let’s just say audience expectations for comic book movies are different and leave it at that. This also brings up another interesting Cage Fight: Print vs. Live-action, but that’s practically enough information for a dissertation.)

When rumors of M. Night Shamalamadingdong’s live-action The Last Airbender‘s awfulness started cropping up, I decided I needed to give its animated predecessor a try before attempting to watch the movie. The recommendations for the show were right on the nose, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed what I’ve seen so far (most of season one).

The movie, though, is a total disaster, despite having some pretty good source material. You can’t even argue that the movie is being made for a different audience. The difference between audiences isn’t that big: You still want kids in those seats. And the studio succeeded– it made a decent amount of money (around $319 million in total with an estimated budget of $150 million)….Yet there was a high level of general audience disgruntlement, for many reasons. There’s the shitty post-production 3D conversion, true, and the weird race-bending thing, but that’s not even half the problem. In their brilliant takedown, the How Did This Get Made? guys lay out the myriad things wrong with the film: horrible dialogue that at times is just a little too anachronistically modern; terrible fight scenes; actors who aren’t really actors so much as stunt people. And even though some of the lines and shots were lifted wholesale, as you can see in the YouTube clip below, and the concepts are still the same, they’re right: It just doesn’t work.

There are even more examples that don’t really need to be discussed, because they speak for themselves, so I’ll just point them out: The Addams Family. Rocky & Bullwinkle. Scooby Doo.

But…why? Why can you get away with some of these things in animation, but not live-action? There are plenty of lines in all of the animated shows I’ve referenced that are…less than insightful, let’s say; not to mention the occasional plot missteps and healthy doses of mawkishness. With the advent of CGI, you can pretty much believably do all the awesome physics-defying things that used to be the domain of 2D. And yet the words and plotlines– and even images, at times –don’t transfer. It’s like running them through Babelfish: Select desired translation: TV –> Movie; insert Avatar: The Last Airbender in space below; press “Translate”; result: The Last Airbender.

It could just be that this is a problem inherent in translating any TV show into a movie (see: the Sex & the City movies). In a movie, you have to shove as much as you can into two hours. With a TV show, you have much more time to create a bond between character and viewer. Plotlines and character arcs can be stretched out over entire seasons.

Even so, 2D Movies to Traditional Live-action wouldn’t really work, either. Disney movies from the golden age of 2D animation are near-perfect. The songs, the gorgeous animation that was clearly executed with utmost love and care, the delightfully simple stories– all of these elements combine to create classic cinematic experiences that still stand the test of time. But can you imagine these movies with flesh-and-blood actors? It just seems…wrong.

As far as Animated Anything to the Stage goes: Look at what happened when some money-minded douchebag decided Shrek would make a great, lucrative Broadway show. (I don’t care how many Tonys it was nominated for. It had this song in it, which for me results in an automatic “ugh.”) Or The Addams Family, which may be a money-maker, but was almost universally panned. Even the rare successful leaps (The Lion King, etc.) have one thing in common: They’re big, shiny musicals to start with, and so the transfer isn’t so jarring. We tend to section off musicals from reality– we expect Broadway shows to be inherently ridiculous, because people who randomly burst into song in real life are weird. (Sorry, musical theater people.)

Then you have 2D Animation Bleeding Into Live-action. This is one of the reasons Pete’s Dragon, as far as I’m concerned, is not included in the pantheon of Awesome Disney Movies. I remember people raving about Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, but that movie is the exception to the rule. Plus, personally, I’m not too chuffed about it. I know: sacrilege. But I was pretty genuinely creeped out when I saw it. (I’m easily creeped out, though. See: Sesame Street’s Wet Paint.) Mixing the disparate worlds triggers some serious cognitive dissonance: Wait, why is this happening? Why are the laws of physics different for different characters? I don’t see my imaginary friends in 2D! My suspension of disbelief can’t handle this! I understand that the crossover is the whole point of both movies, but that doesn’t make it a good point.

So, really, I just wish people would stop this 2D-to-live-action nonsense.

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One response to “Cage Fight: Animated TV vs. Live-action Movies

  1. Pingback: Ryan Murphy’s Treehouse of Horrible Shows | Supervenous

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