Dr. Toon asks, “Hey, hey, hey… why make Fat Albert into a LAAF?”
Another holiday season, another live-action film adapted from an animated series, another bomb. Sad thing is, it didnt have to happen. In a column written for this estimable Website dated January 2002 I virtually begged FOX not to let Fat Albert happen, but who is concerned in the least with the entreaties of a lowly journalist in the pasturelands of Indiana? Once again, in the hopes that some suit in Hollywood pays some modicum of heed: No matter how many times live-action animated films (LAAFs) are attempted; they will fail critically and commercially.
To be sure, the first Scooby-Doo film, unabashed twaddle that it was, did gross nearly $160 million. This is an impressive, if not overwhelming sum. Still, Scooby rode a wave of considerable popularity helped, no doubt, by the Cartoon Networks crusade to resurrect and heavily promote every wretched episode of the series. That the film was a freak success is underscored by the fact that its sequel made only half as much despite heavy promotion and a surfeit of special effects. Most of these LAAFs (an ironic acronym if ever there was) suffer a far worse fate. A question, dear readers: How did you enjoy the live-action adaptation of Thunderbirds? Yes, the one that made $7 million at the few theaters it wasnt laughed out of.
Oh yes, they did it again. Producer John Davis, who had been hot for a live-action Fat Albert since 1996, announced production on Feb. 27, 2001. Scriptwriter Charles Kipps went to work with the honorary Dr. Bill Cosby, the cartoons creator. Kipps has one feature film to his credit, and that non-animated, but he at least did some writing for Cosbys animated series Little Bill. Davis hired Forest Whitaker (no credits in animation work at all) to direct. Davis fired said director over creative differences after a few months along with his choice for Fat Albert, a portly young actor by the name of Omar Benson Miller.
The film went into the deepest cantos of Production Hell for a year before Davis tabbed Joel Zwick as director. Zwick is best known for directing Nia Vardalos indie vanity project My Big Fat Greek Wedding, which made a tidy sum before becoming a TV sitcom that lasted for 18 minutes. Must I really add that Mr. Zwick has never directed an animated film in his career? Nah, didnt think so. Its true (with the exclusion of 12 animated minutes) that Fat Albert is a live-action film, but to make that film, one has to understand the original source material. With the exception of Cosby, it is difficult to believe that the brain trust of this bomb ever came close. Not that it mattered much.
Im not even sure that it mattered to Cosby. After a series of controversial public statements over the past year that challenged the failings Cosby perceived in black street culture, the often sage comedian turned out a film that addresses none of these issues. Why didnt Cosby use Fat Albert as a forum for his widely stated beliefs? Instead of being bemused by consumerist effluvia like shopping malls and compact discs, F.A. and the junkyard crew could have experienced Cosbys numbing despair. They could have met promising young humans (with those outlandish names that Coz mentioned) destroyed by black-on-black crime, deliberately spurning education and strutting to nasty rap tunes in which bitches and hos serve as despised punching bags. Now that might have been interesting.
The gangs fading colors could have been a metaphor for the death of a generation of gangstas who wear tha red or blue, but this script doesnt really give a Crip. Instead of struggling to serve as a moral compass to da gangbangaz as he might have done in the original series, Fat Albert opts to assuage the angst of one teenage girl by passing off messages about self-esteem and self-belief, as if todays animated shows arent awash in such lessons already. Cosby, where is thy sting?
In past rantings on the subject I have specified why these foolish products are nearly foredoomed to fail. Anyone interested can flash back to the aforementioned thesis done in January of 2002; I have no intention of running down the dreary list in this current analysis. This time around I am more interested in discussing why anyone in control of a motion picture studio even greenlights these abominations. I have come to believe that these pictures are made because there are mass delusions in the industry.
The strongest of these thought disorders is that certain past animated series and todays live-action films are essentially the same thing. Execs seem to believe that animated source material is infinitely malleable in its conventions and narratives and that violation of these conventions is acceptable and easy. An intertextual approach is no more problematic than setting a thermostat. Apparently any cartoon extant may be considered to be live-action film, and the writing for both is essentially the same. An animated cartoon may be hand-drawn and look funny, but in the end it is nothing more than a collaboration between actors and writers putting gags across.
This is a ridiculous notion on many levels: The sort of plotting and scriptwriting that informs seven-to-13 minute cartoons cannot support 90-minute scripts, nor is it meant to. Would one expect, say, Butch Hartman to make a 13-minute animated version of Reservoir Dogs? The end result of these Procrustean pyrotechnics is simply to make Fat Albert even less like its animated predecessor.
More delusions: There is no appreciable gap between the world Fat Albert (or any older cartoon) inhabited during its original airdates and the present. Fat Albert existed in a certain cultural context in which animation, television programming, and children both black and white occupied a different consciousness, one that defies replication. The solution? Attempt to contemporize by weighing Fat Albert down with self-reflexive conceits. The Say Hey Hey Hey Kid meets his creator. Fish-out-of-water gags. The bizarre, somber ending in which Cosby all but admits the inescapable influences of a past he cannot recreate.
There is also the madness of creative bankruptcy amongst the studios. As I write this article, remakes have been announced for King Kong, Willy Wonka (now Charlie) and the Chocolate Factory, The Amityville Horror, Assault on Precinct 13, Guess Who(s Coming For Dinner), The Honeymooners, War of the Worlds, The Longest Yard, The Bad News Bears and Fun With Dick and Jane. It seems that in an industry littered with remakes and sequels, theres no harm in digging up animated series for the remake mills, this time as despicable LAAFs that do little but insult the sensibilities of movie audiences outside of mall rat clans and do grave injustice to the source cartoons. But this too is a delusion; just because a live-action film or an animated series was once made, that does not mean that it deserves (or, in the case of Fat Albert) even needs to be remade. Besides, no LAAF ever produced has actually been a remake of an animated film, only an attempt at distilling the essence of a series into a 90-minute script. LAAFs then, havent even worked as remakes.
Yet another delusion is willful ignorance on the part of studio execs, even in the face of repeated failures. The moviegoing public has figured all of this out on some conscious or subconscious level and they genuinely hate these LAAFs. The critics vote with their PCs, the public votes with their wallets, and the vote is generally thumbs down. I am reminded of a particular Ren & Stimpy cartoon in which Stimpys daily appointment consists of getting his head kicked in by a horse. Not only is the cat left more organically impaired than before, he even pays for the pleasure. So it goes with the filmmakers and studios that continue to waste lavish budgets on LAAFs, sending them down the line to local theaters like ordure through waste pipes only to suffer critical lambasting and skimpy returns.
The best, and perhaps the only way to enjoy Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids is to purchase the original animated series that has recently (coincidentally?) been released on DVD. There it remains a product of its times, flawed but honest in its blemishes and noble in its homely intentions. One of the first (and least offensive) pro-social cartoons, Fat Albert possessed a generous belief in its mission to make society a nicer place while providing funny entertainment to kids. As is Cosbys way, it did not talk down or condescend to its audience. The junkyard songs that reinforced the moral were often forgettable and sometimes embarrassing, but when the body of work (or even several episodes in succession) is seen, the overall impression is that of an earnest, caring cartoon that was still entertaining enough to merit a wide audience. It is in every way superior to the LAAF.
I fully agree with the recent assessment by Scott Shaw! Animation director Bert Klein, character designer Jaimie Lopez and other creative stars such as Tony De Rosa and Eric Goldberg more than held up the short animated segment of the film, but for all their admitted talent they are as hamstrung as Cosby in resurrecting the original. Approximating it yes, but that is all a LAAF can, or will, ever do. In the meantime, I expect the attempts shall go on.
Maybe some producer trying to remember a childhood before power lunches, lowballing, cocaine paranoia and divorce will attempt a LAAF of Wacky Races. Perhaps some aspiring young person destined for that Life In The Fast Lane will roll the dice on a Danny Phantom LAAF years from now. Indeed, there are no shortages of horses that will kick one in the head for the mere price of a multimillion-dollar budget. NOTE: As this piece went to bed, I noticed that Fat Albert miraculously broke even. It finished, in fact, about $9 million better than the incredibly bad LAAF The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas. This, I suppose, is cause for wild celebrations at Fox.
IN OTHER NEWS: Lets end on a lighter note. Old Doc Toon recently came across a newspaper article detailing a cultural battle in China. It appears that Beijing prefers standard Mandarin as the only acceptable dialect for television broadcasting. China, however, is rich with a multiplicity of regional dialects, and it is rather difficult to get 1.3 billion people on the same page. Speakers of the Shainghainese (and other dialects) beg to differ, and the issue of China having a dominant dialect came to a head over, of all things, episodes of Tom and Jerry. The Shanghai Peoples Comedy Troupe does Tom and Jerry in their preferred dialect, and this often changes the meaning of the dialogue for those who speak Mandarin. Thus, Cat and Mouse (as the series is prosaically known in China) is at the center of a controversy.
The only puzzling part of this is that I seemed to recall Tom and Jerry as a virtually silent cartoon set to Scott Bradleys inventive scores. Even the crummy Gene Deitch and misguided Chuck Jones versions were mostly silent, though there were a couple that broke convention. What was being translated into Shanghainese, the sound effects? Does a lamp breaking over Toms noggin sound more or less agonizing in Mandarin? I later learned that the Shanghai Peoples Comedy Troupe was actually dubbing these toons on the fly.
Cool! I, for one would give 8,300,000 yuan (about a million bucks) if the Peoples Republic of China would close the loop and export the dubbed cartoons right back here. I am willing to bet theyre a scream. Hey, funny animation and great cartoons constitute a universal language. Let the good citizens of China go on enjoying Cat and Mouse in whatever dialect(s) it is finally dubbed into. Shanghai Peoples Comedy Troupe, you truly rock. Do it your way.
Martin Dr. Toon Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.