It’s been done a bunch – some might say too much a bunch: transforming a beloved animated TV series into a live action feature film. I’m not sure why they keep doing it; for every Transformers there are several Dudley Do-Rights (what were they thinking – or drinking or smoking?), Rocky and Bullwinkles (the less said about that movie the better) or Underdogs (this one we shall never speak of again).
With Mr. Peabody and Sherman in the pipeline, let’s hope the movie studios do right by Jay Ward this time, not to mention all the other TV toons waiting for their shot at the big screen. Now that integrating CGI (Computer Generated Indivduals) with live actors is commonplace, even the cartooniest cartoon character can take on a physical reality. With that thought in mind, here’s a personal-preference rundown of a few other Saturday morning superstars Hollywood should think about bringing to life:
1. Top Cat
There’s already a Top Cat feature film out there: Don Gato Y Su Pandilla, a Mexican-produced CGI/Flash-animated movie that, in its dubbed British release received scathingly negative reviews. (T.C. and his pandilla enjoy a popularity south of the border that has eluded them in the U.S.) Curious Hanna Barbera fans can view it in its entirety courtesy of YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QMcOSrTsiWI 
The dubbed voices do a respectable job of matching the original 1962 talents (particularly Jason Harris doing Arnold Stang doing Phil Silvers) and the new characters have that old-school H-B style. Still, the Flash animation often looks tacky and doesn’t sit all that well above the low budget CGI backgrounds (which more resemble Cleveland than Manhattan).
With a good script, updated character designs and actual New York City location shooting, a live-action/CGI combo Top Cat might be a lot of fun. (There is the slight problem of the absence of actual alleys in NYC, but that can easily be written around.) Of course they’ll find an A-list star to do T.C.’s voice and an up and coming comedy actor to play his nemesis Officer Dibble. (Who knows, someone’s probably screening Saturday Night Live episodes even as we speak.) Our Mayor Bloomberg could even make a cameo appearance – and since the felines in that particular cartoon universe are about half the height of humans, the diminutive Bloomberg would feel right at home.
2. The Jetsons
A big budget sci-fi comedy is long overdue; judging from Futurama’s success there’s already an audience out there waiting for one. In fact, according to IMDB a live-action Jetsons is currently in development and scheduled for a last day of 2014 release.
Then again they’ve been trying to get this one off the ground as far back as 1985 when Paramount plugged the project in a to-the-industry sizzle reel. (The film would have been produced by Gary Nardino of Star Trek III and Time Trax fame.) In 2007 Robert Rodriguez briefly considered but passed on making the film.
To date The Jetsons have returned only in animated form in a mid-80s series revival and an off-key 1990 feature. (George’s boss Mr. Spacely has outsourced sprocket production to an alien planet where they can be produced for 1/10 their Earth cost – and doesn’t care if he kills the planet’s inhabitants in the process. “But they’re useless,” he protests when discovered, a jaw-dropping confession of attempted genocide the film almost immediately shrugs off.) Let’s hope this one gets made, and made right – The Jetsons’ 1960’s retro-future production design (high-rise buildings on stilts, space platform drive-ins and George’s flying car) would be a CGI treat for the eyes.
The Jetsons, the first modern animated family.
3. Samurai Jack
This visually explosive Cartoon Network series is fondly remembered by almost all who’ve seen it. Genndy Tartakovsky’s story of a master samurai flung thousands of years into the future and finds the world controlled by the demon he sought to defeat in the past is sui generis – there was literally nothing like it before and very little like it since. (Tartakovsky’s 2003 2D Star Wars: Clone Wars series picked up some of Jack’s style but had nowhere near that show’s impact.) The highly stylized animation and production design, editing sharper than Jack’s sword and extended, dialog-free sequences occasionally took the show into the realm of experimental, non-narrative filmmaking – without once losing its ability to tell a coherent story.
Tartakovsky’s been trying for years to make an animated feature that will bring Jack’s story to a close; a live-action version might not have the same eye-dazzling power as the TV series or travel to as many magical realms, but the combination of samurai action, sci-fi settings and fantasy story-telling would be hard to beat in any medium.
4. Bobby’s World
Howie Mandel created an imaginary, nasally-voiced kid version of himself for his raunchy stand-up routines, but when the newly-launched Fox Kids Saturday morning block was looking for programming, two of Mandel’s pals convinced the comic to lend his pre-school persona to an animated series.
Irrepressible four year-old Bobby Generic (pronounced GEN-eric and voiced by Mandel himself) had a curiosity and imagination that took him into one scrape and fantasy world after another, not unlike Chuck Jones’ Ralph Phillips. The show regularly composited a live-action Mandel over animation, conversing with his cartoon counterpart in brief episode intros or wrap-ups.
The show was a major success, lasting seven seasons on Fox Kids. A feature version could center on a live-action child, aged up a bit from Bobby’s four years to appeal to older kids. Unlike the TV series’ non-sequitur blackouts, Bobby’s animated flights of fancy would last substantially longer and counterpoint the film’s live-action narrative. And like any good Hollywood movie, Bobby’s character arc would find him facing and triumphing over a vexing problem that leaves him a better person at film’s end.
5. Lupin III
The international outlaw and adventurer has been around since 1967 when he was created by manga writer/artist “Monkey Punch.” The supposed grandson of turn of the century gentleman thief Arsène Lupin, Lupin III’s starred in four separate TV series, five animated features and yes, a 1974 live-action film, Strange Psychokinetic Strategy. (An exceedingly strange clip from this strange movie can be found on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZjuIui0LV9M )
The third of those animated features was Castle Cagliostro, Hayao Miyazaki’s first full length film after years of toiling on anime TV series. The film was reportedly praised by Steven Spielberg himself, who knows from great adventure films as “one of the great adventure films of all time.”
Perhaps it’s time for a westernized, live-action version of Lupin III to infiltrate that castle. Were this 15 or so years ago, Jim Carrey would’ve been perfect as the lanky, dark-haired character but he’s since aged out of contention. Let’s go with someone younger, say Jason Lee. He knows his way around physical comedy, and after years of playing straight man to the Chipmunks it’s time for him to kick some ass.
It’s a lot harder than it looks to translate cartoon physics and energy to live action. (Just ask John Goodman the next time he tries to slide down the back of an imaginary dinosaur.) It’ll be a challenge for the right director – or directors – to give Tex Avery his due, but here’s my suggestion: if there’s anyone who can breathe life into a CGI version of Avery’s laconic bloodhound, it would be the brothers who brought The Three Stooges into the 21st-century: Bobby and Peter Farrelly, your next laff riot awaits!
Jon Stewart once grumped to Steve Carrel that while Carrel’s voice work highlighted Despicable Me, Stewart’s only shot at animation was a villain “who shoots icicles out of his moustache” in a dubbed U.S. version of Doogal. Jon does a pretty good Droopy while riffing on Senator Joe Lieberman; this might be his chance to get top billing. And since we’re bringing Droopy into the real world, let’s replace that miscreant wolf Droop’s always several steps ahead of with an actual human being. My suggestion: a comedian who seems to specialize in masochistic characters – Ben Stiller.
7. Dexter’s Laboratory
Like Samurai Jack, Dexter’s Laboratory was also the creation of Genndy Tartakovsky and was Cartoon Network’s first original series. This animated Dexter, as far as one can tell bore no relation to Showtime’s good-guy serial killer.
There are similarities to a different a character on a different TV show, however: a child genius with a secret lab in his home right under the nose of his clueless parents – Dexter, meet Family Guy’s Stewie Griffin. (The fact that Seth MacFarlane was a writer on the Cartoon Network show might have something to do with this coincidence…)
Dexter’s advanced, high-tech lab and its creations would look great on the big screen rendered in photorealistic CGI; in fact, a live-action Dexter’s Laboratory practically screams to be made in 3D. (Then again, just about every sci-fi/fantasy/animated film seems be 3D these days.) The story could center on the ultimate showdown between Dexter and his evil arch rival, fellow child genius Mandark. The prize: Dexter’s older sister Dee Dee. (Dexter would be glad to be rid of his annoying sibling, but family loyalty would require him to come to her aid.) By the way, why are there so many annoying older sisters on kids’ animated series? (Phineas and Ferb’s older sister Candace, for one.) Can someone with an older sister, or maybe an older sister herself enlighten me?
8. Cool McCool
Spies are always cool (you’ll find Phineas and Ferb’s ‘Agent P’ on quite a few t-shirts these days) and none came cooler than Cool McCool. This mid 1960’s cartoon was co-created by the Dark Knight’s father Bob Kane and Al Brodax (who at the time was also producing the Beatles’ Saturday morning cartoon series). Quality and humor-wise it was several notches above Kane’s previous TV toon, Courageous Cat and Minute Mouse – and had one of the best TV cartoon theme songs ever. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ait8WKjryGI  – if they ever put together a second Saturday Morning Fever compilation of cartoon theme covers, this one is at the top of my list.)
Mustachioed and sporting a trench, Cool was a screw-up who made Maxwell Smart look like 007. In spite of his disastrous mishaps Cool always managed to nab his supervillain, a rogues’ gallery of take-offs on Kane’s Batman baddies all voiced by Chuck McCann. (The Owl in place of the Penguin, Madcap instead of the Joker and so on.) Cool was brought to life by longtime voice artist Bob McFadden (also responsible for Thundercats’ terminally annoying Snarf) as a Jack Benny sound-alike. Like Agent 86, Cool had his own catchphrases: “that will never happen again” and “when you’re right Number One [Cool’s exasperated boss, also voiced by McCann], you’re right.”
A slapstick spy comedy? Only one man could possibly bring Cool to life (not to mention write the script and produce the movie); somebody call Seth Rogen, quick!
9. The Powerpuff Girls
Craig McCracken’s superpowered preschool crimefighters were the stars of one of Cartoon Network’s earliest success stories. Its original viewers are now in their 20’s and 30’s – an audience of ‘millennials’ just waiting for the girls to make it to the big screen. And admit it – isn’t Mojo Jojo one of the greatest cartoon villains ever? (If they make this movie I can add him to a future Ten Best Funny Villains list.) The only caveat: they’d better come up with a good CGI redesign for the girls. Their big-eyed 2D look is kind of creepy to begin with; one that sticks too closely to it would be major Uncanny Valley.
10. Every Hanna-Barbera wiseguy character vs. a stuffy authority figure
I admit it – I stole this idea from an issue of DC Comics’ Cartoon Network All-Stars.
Hanna-Barbera were notorious self-plagiarizers. Before there were infinite Scooby Doo clones, Yogi Bear was the template for any number of uppity animals who couldn’t help but give their owners, keepers or any nearby big shot a hard time. Yogi may have had his Ranger Smith, but Magilla Gorilla was the bane of Mr. Peebles’ pet shop, Zookeeper Twiddle couldn’t keep Wally Gator from exploring the outside world, Top Cat was forever causing Office Dibble grief, Squiddly Diddly drove Chief Winchley nuts every time he escaped Bubbleland and Breezly Bruin (aided by Boo-Boo Bear, I mean Sneezly Seal) was forever raiding Colonel Fuzzby’s army base…
The comic book story in question had these various trod-upon humans in a support group helping them cope with their mutual problem. When they try the group leader’s suggestion to let their nemeses get away with their hijinks, it completely throws their malefactors off their stride. (“Do watcha gotta do, T.C.,’ Officer Dibble tells a mystified Top Cat.)
I’ll let someone else decide which celebrity actor would pair up best with which character. This could be an episodic movie following the resolution of each duo’s basic conflict, or a super team-up with all the characters joining forces to defeat a common enemy – the cartoon equivalent of The Avengers! Just think of it: never before have so many Hanna-Barbera characters have been on the same screen at the same time! (Except of course for Yogi’s Space Race or Scooby’s All-Star Laff-A-Lympics.)
Joe Strike is a regular contributor to AWN. He has written about animation, sci-fi and fantasy entertainment for the New York Daily News, Newsday and the New York Press. Joe has scripted the Nick Jr. series Wow! Wow! Wubbzy! and taught Mass Communications at New York's St. John's University. He is currently hosting “Interview with an Animator” [animator.interviews.com], a series of audience-attended conversations with noted figures in the animation community at a variety of New York City venues, including the Paley Center for the Media, The Society of Illustrators and the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art. Joe can be reached via email@example.com.