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No LAAF-ing Matter

Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman takes on LAAFs, or Live-Action Animated Features, with a vengeance. How come Hollywood insists on making these flops!?

Making the transition from cartoon to live-action can leave an unsavory smell: Josie and the Pussycats. © and TM 2002 Cartoon Network and Hanna-Barbera Productions.

Making the transition from cartoon to live-action can leave an unsavory smell: Josie and the Pussycats. © and TM 2002 Cartoon Network and Hanna-Barbera Productions.

An oft-quoted phrase from George Santayana warns that: "Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it." That venerable philosopher might have gone a step further and generated a memorable bromide about what happens when one -- willfully and with full cognizance of past disasters -- chooses to spit in the face of the past while simultaneously extending both middle digits. While such a quote might have taxed Santayana's inherent grace and sagacity, it would have applied perfectly to the motion picture executives who continue to stain the nation's screens with live-action versions of animated properties. It matters little that virtually all of these films have been resounding bombs, and even less that most animation fans despise these misguided mutations and decry them in droves. The perverse and self-destructive urge to waste time, talent and treasure on these abominations seems to be as endemic to Hollywood as personal trainers and tiny silver spoons.

Enough is Enough!

This is not my first rant against LAAFs (my acronym for Live-Action Animated Features); I explored the phenomenon in November of 1997 on the now-defunct Animation Nerd's Paradise Website. My unfortunate conclusion was that LAAFs would continue to be made, as they were an inevitable result of the tendency to market a successful property in all of its possible permutations. This is quite a different matter than having LAAFs produced because they are entertaining experiences or novel interpretations of their animated forebearers. LAAFs have proved to be encumbrances, rather than tributes, to the memories of the original animated properties; the only legacies they leave behind are their own videos and DVDs (as well as the consensus among moviegoers that they reeked). This has done nothing to stop the corporate machines from inflicting two more of these egregious indignities upon us; live-action desecrations of Scooby Doo and Fat Albert are up next. This, with the stench of Josie and the Pussycats still lingering in theaters.

The live-action trio. Photo by Shane Harvey. © 2001 Universal Studios. All rights reserved.

The live-action trio. Photo by Shane Harvey. © 2001 Universal Studios. All rights reserved.

It Just Doesn't Work

I am going to attempt to explain why these things don't work and why they are such economic calamities for the studios that produce them (God knows nobody will listen anyway). Let's begin with a tenet held dear by Tex Avery: If it can be filmed in live-action, why bother to make a cartoon? Avery's observation went deeper than simply depicting funny-looking characters doing impossible things. The immortal director was referring to the fact that live-action and animated films operate by different conventions. Timing, pacing, action and flow of narrative are vastly different in animation; this is what gives cartoons their unique appeal. Cartoon characters do not walk, speak, act or even occupy physical space in the same way that flesh-and-blood actors do; this is one of the first concepts animators discovered when they attempted to animate entirely by rotoscoping.

Then there is the fact that animation can be effective at even sixteen frames per second. Great animators such as Art Babbit would take advantage of this fact in order to turn Goofy's feet 360 degrees for a frame or two, subliminally reinforcing the character's ungainly gait. Rod Scribner could portray a character as a loose tangle of gangly lines so fast that the eye could not catch it, then snap back into the original physiognomy. At Terrytoons, a madcap animator named Jim Tyer would (intentionally or otherwise) distort his characters from one pose to the next, model sheets be damned. The aforementioned Mr. Avery experimented with cutting individual frames in order to create action that defied the boundaries of "real time." Doing the same things to actors and timing in a live-action film would certainly produce jarring distortions. No amount of special effects can compensate; when metamorphosis takes place in a cartoon, for example, it simply follows the conventions of animated surrealism. When the same thing is done in live-action, the special effects are what command our attention. Thus, simply by the fact that live-action is being used, the experience of animated characters "coming to life" through human actors is unexciting and slow in comparison.

Human actors: That is my next point. Why do cartoon characters have funny and amusing appearances, even when they are animated in human form? Why are they proportioned the way they are? Why should any animator care about how many "heads high" any character ought to be, and why are some characters modified in design after their original appearances? This is done, of course, to create effective and endearing actors and comedians. Friz Freleng, for example, constructed Sylvester Cat with a low-slung crotch in order to give him the physical appearance of a baggy-pants clown; ditto the big red nose. Sylvester doesn't actually look like a human clown, but neither does he resemble a real cat. Sylvester does, however, strongly suggest both. That's the whole point of his singular design.

Separated at birth? The real Barney and Rick Moranis as the character's alter ego.

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© and TM 2002 Cartoon Network and Hanna-Barbera Productions. Photo by Ron Batzdorff. © 2001 Universal Studios. All rights reserved.

Every cartoon character we know and love has some sort of defining feature or visual signature that is simply not replicable by a human actor, at least not without making that actor look hideous and malformed. Because of their unique appearance, these are the primary pictures we carry around in our minds when we think about a given character or cartoon. Try this: Close your eyes and visualize Barney Rubble. How many of you saw a mental picture of Rick Moranis? Sure you did. To make matters worse, the human actors called upon to portray animated characters are typically well-known to us, removing them even a step further from credibility. Take, for example, the upcoming Scooby Doo movie: The part of Daphne will be played by Sarah Michelle Gellar, whom, I believe, has a rather popular role elsewhere in the entertainment world. When she shows up on screen she looks only like herself, and thus we are deprived of the fantasy (if not recognition of the "way kewl!" casting coup).

Scooby Doo the Movie: The Classic Cartoon Slayer?

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© Warner Bros. All Rights Reserved. © Warner Bros. No other uses are permitted without the prior written consent of owner. Use of the material in violation of the foregoing may result in civil and/or criminal penalties.

Integrity?

Few of the writers and directors involved in LAAFs are (or ever have been) involved in animation. Most of them have experience in the typical, formulaic Hollywood product and either write their scripts or direct accordingly. Case in point: Bill Cosby is working on the Fat Albert script, but the co-author is a telefilm writer named Charles Kipps. Directing this farce is Forest Whitaker, who at present has two films to his credit: Waiting to Exhale and Hope Floats (two lightweight romantic comedies which would have played better on Lifetime television had there not been a fortune spent on the stars). His animation credits: Zero. Doubtless we shall soon discover another substance that floats even better than Hope, though considerably less fragrant.

Finally, I am beginning to doubt that any studio executive truly cares about bringing animated cartoons to life. What they do know is that animation, especially retro animation, is hot right now and that means massive profits through merchandising and tie-ins. The goofy Great Dane and crew have never been more popular than they are now, nor have as many licensed items bearing their likenesses been available. The movie is a natural consequence of this popularity. How else to explain the Scooby Doo movie? It is irrelevant, I suppose, that Freddie Prinze Jr., a Latino, has been cast as Alan and sports a bleached-blond do over his swarthy features. Who cares that Matthew Lillard has been cast as pal Shaggy? Anyone following the record knows that these lads of limited talents had major roles in sinking at least two of the wretched films they co-starred in (bombing in Wing Commander and booting the ball in Summer Catch). Did anyone in casting notice that the film's publicity stills show Linda Cardellini's Velma to be taller than Sarah Michelle Gellar's Daphne? Or that the film sports a CGI Scooby that resembles a failed experiment by Rick Baker? Does it matter that the script was reportedly a slipshod mess? I probably need not mention that director Raja Gosnell and writers James Gunn and Craig Titley have as much experience with animation as they do designing nuclear submarines. Why must studios continue to do this when there are so many experienced animation writers and directors available? Seemingly half of Disney has been laid off, and this is the best talent that Warner could hire?

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I didn't want this to happen to Fat Albert either; perhaps millions of others feel the same, but the movie is in production anyway. Despite reused animation, forgettable junkyard tunes and rushed storylines, the original Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids had considerable sincerity. The show employed a dozen psychologists and educators from UCLA, then performed the astonishing feat of producing a cartoon that was pro-social without being preachy. Most admirably, Filmation Studios deliberately held back on licensing and merchandising the characters, so as not to commercialize the animated role models who appeared on the show. In the same spirit, we shall soon see an updated live-action version with hip-hop music that will probably end up on the soundtrack CD when not being played in the background during promotions and tie-in ads. Is this a bad time to mention that Fox is also considering the property for a franchise, with several more sequels planned? It's not that I don't trust Bill Cosby; the former Dr. Huxtable will likely do his best to pit his voice against that of the gangbangers, and more power to him. I simply don't understand why he chose do it in this manner. Perhaps the Brown Hornet can inform Mr. Cosby as to the fate of Mister Magoo, Inspector Gadget and The Flintstones In Viva Rock Vegas.

Or perhaps not. Someday in the distant future, students and historians from another world may study these human artifacts and construct elaborate theories about their place in art and civilization. One school may hold that they are the completion of a ritual; after so many episodes of a given animated series, a LAAF must be made. Theorists of a more abstract bent may argue that LAAFS are an unconscious replication of evolutionary theory, in which crude artistic representations develop into actual human forms. Some may believe that animated series are some sort of training exercise for LAAFs, and so forth. Our legacy would be far better off if they never learn the truth.

Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.

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