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Dr. Toon: Of Heroes and Zeros

In this month's column marking his ninth anniversary as a columnist, Martin Goodman timidly suggests that turning animated properties into live-action films IS A REALLY BAD IDEA.

Martin Goodman.

Martin Goodman.

It should be evident by now (except in certain executive suites in Hollywood) that some things in this world work, while others do not. Making a major motion picture with established and bankable stars works. Making one with the cast of a community theater company does not. Hiring experienced and literate scriptwriters with proven track records works. Hiring undergrads from Screenwriting 101 does not. Bringing on a director with extensive understanding of technique, cinematic conventions, and unerring skill at handling a diverse cast of talents works. Bringing on the director of the local elementary school's Christmas pageant does not.

Turning comic book properties into live-action films works.

Turning animated properties into live-action films does not. Not. Not. Not.

Oh, this isn't something I decided yesterday; anyone who has been a regular reader knows how much I loathe and despise live-action adaptations of animated features (LAAFs) and so, it appears, does everyone else. I warn the studio heads in vain, a cinematic Cassandra doomed to watch irredeemable miseries such as Underdog euthanized by audiences everywhere. It isn't long, however, before someone green-lights the next LAAF to the eventual sounds of Dolby Digital echoing in near-empty theaters across Multiplex Nation. "Now available on DVD" is the dreary epitaph for most of them within a month or two following wide release, but movie executives never seem to believe that Hell is full.

On the other hand, live-action movies adapted from comic books seem to be spectacular successes. They are met, on the whole, with a tsunami of ticket sales, enthusiastic reviews, and repeat business at the box office. One need only look at the statistics in order to be duly convinced. If the box office is indeed indicative of audience response, I offer the following: five of the top 25 top-grossing films of all time are comic book adaptations. So are 13 of the top 100. Only two LAAFs are in the top 100. The premier spot among them is held by Transformers (which technically began as an animated commercial for Hasbro toys aired during Mark Fowler's golden days of FCC deregulation).

Not impressed by box office rankings? Let's talk cold, hard cash, and I'll even throw in the disputed Transformers. Five LAAFs have broken the $100 million mark. Thirty-one films that originated in comic books have achieved this feat. In fact, of the 23 identifiable LAAFs produced to date, only nine of them have broken the $50 million mark. Forty-seven movies adapted from comic books somehow managed to do this. Twelve different movies with comic books as source material have generated sequels. Three LAAFs have done so at this time. This is not simply a case of one genre outclassing another; in a statistical comparison of attendance and profit figures, this is the Boston Celtics stepping on the court against Riverdale High.

We all know, either from bitter experience, wasted ticket money, or abysmal reviews, that LAAFs are mostly cinematic landfills. The best of them do little more than shame and despoil their animated origins. Live-action films that originate in comic books, as noted, seem to fare differently. Why, indeed, should this be? On the surface, it doesn't appear to make sense. After all, the comic book (and graphic novel) is a static art form, presented in pages and panels. It can be constructed, through use of perspective and color, to mimic cinematic form, but as Robert Crumb once said, it's only lines on paper, folks. Animated cartoons are kinetic and more freely make use of the motion picture medium. Shouldn't they have a leg up on comic books when the time comes to put them on screen? Actually, no, and for a number of reasons. What follows is an analysis of why LAAFs are trumped by comic book adaptations just about every time out.

Turning comic book properties into live-action films works. Witness the wild success of Iron Man. © 2008 MVLFFLLC. ™ & © 2008 Marvel Ent. All rights reserved. Courtesy of ILM.

Turning comic book properties into live-action films works. Witness the wild success of Iron Man. © 2008 MVLFFLLC. ™ & © 2008 Marvel Ent. All rights reserved. Courtesy of ILM.

The noted film reviewer Brandon Gray recently took a look at the contrast between Iron Man ($317 million gross) and Speed Racer ($44 million gross). Gray concluded that Speed Racer wasn't as "culturally prominent as Scooby-Doo or The Flintstones" and noted that LAAFs in general "have typically translated into box office failure" (Box Office Mojo, 5/14/08). I have to disagree with the first statement, although I heartily agree with the second. Speed Racer actually has lots of cultural capital and is a bona fide icon of Saturday Morning animation.

As one of the first anime imports, Speed Racer is easily more memorable among the American public than contemporary Japanese series Prince Planet, Marine Boy, or Kimba the White Lion. Speed Racer has spawned three animated series and a LAAF, and many of us can name the characters on sight. Most people cannot tell you what planet Prince Planet is from or the name of that mermaid in Marine Boy. Anyone can sing at least the first few lines of the Speed Racer theme song. Anyone know the lyrics to Prince Planet? No, Speed Racer did not lose a cultural popularity contest with Ol' Shellhead; both are iconic in our culture. The reasons for the failure of LAAFs go deeper.

One big strike that LAAFs have against them is that their source material dictates an insurmountable degree of rigidity, both in narrative structure and visual presentation.

For example, the characters in, say, Scooby-Doo are tied to model sheets that set a standard appearance for the characters. Oh, they can be modernized, as in the 1990s animated version of Scooby-Doo or Alvin and his chipmunk bros, but never to a radical degree. Cartoon characters also rarely change clothing from one episode to another, and they tend to have the same voices over time. When a voice artist moves on, another one usually replicates the previous voice. Animated characters tend to have distinct vocal signatures, and anyone who wishes to portray Fat Albert, Inspector Gadget, or Dudley Do-Right in live-action had better well sound exactly like them.

In general, LAAFs have translated into box office failure. Speed Racer posted only $44 million in gross ticket sales. Courtesy of Warner Bros.

In general, LAAFs have translated into box office failure. Speed Racer posted only $44 million in gross ticket sales. Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Case in point: When Billy West stepped in for John Kricfalusi as the voice of Ren after Kricfalusi's split with Nickelodeon, West did an imitation of John K. It was impossible to conceive of Ren speaking any other way. As far as the caped crusaders of the comics go, it was years after they first appeared that anyone heard the voices of superheroes. Aside from the old Batman movie serials and the 1952 TV series in which George Reeves portrayed Superman, readers were left to imagine what comic book superheroes sounded like. When played by live actors, the variations can therefore be endless. In the case of LAAFs, the rules are vastly more stringent.

Live actors who play specific cartoon characters are bound to the task of dressing, looking, talking and acting exactly like those characters if the performance is to be credible. They must engage in appropriate dialogue, use the right catchphrases, and wear the right costumes with as little variation as possible. This is why having Leslie Nielsen portray Mister Magoo was a very bad idea, and so was casting Sarah Michelle Gellar as Scooby-Doo's Daphne. All audiences saw was that guy from Airplane and that pert young vampire slayer. Variations on animated characters tend to ring false, but what can a poor human actor do? I suppose that their features can be unnaturally distorted to humanoid appearance by CGI FX, but then, why not just make the picture in CGI and forgo live-action?

In terms of their very appearance, comic book characters are simply more plastic than animated characters; they can undergo dramatic changes and still be accepted by fans as the genuine article. This occurs because over time there is considerable turnover among artists, and many talents try their hand at a character. Steve Ditko, Herb Trimpe and Ed McGuiness all produced Hulks that were drawn differently. There were stylistic changes in Iron Man as he moved from Jack Kirby and Don Heck to Gene Colan and later, Bob Layton. Jack Kirby, John Buscema, John Romita, Sr. and John Byrne all handled the Fantastic Four during their history. Frank Miller's Batman was nothing like Bob Kane's. These visual variations do not even begin to take into account the many changes of costume that comic book heroes adapted over the years. Fans are quite used to seeing characters change in appearance often, and thus seeing live-action incarnations is not a jarring experience.

The situations generally found in animated series such as Scooby-Doo lend themselves poorly to live-action adaptation. Things that work fine in a short format are labored and drawn out at 90 minutes. © Warner Bros.

The situations generally found in animated series such as Scooby-Doo lend themselves poorly to live-action adaptation. Things that work fine in a short format are labored and drawn out at 90 minutes. © Warner Bros.

Also, comic book heroes have far more extensive and complex adventures than animated characters, at times engaging in storylines that continue for months. Comic books may be likened to a self-contained mythology, and it is no exaggeration to say that there is a Marvel or a DC "universe." Comic books can bring in characters who were assumed dead long ago or resurrect storylines that were seemingly resolved months or years ago, with frequent references to these events for longtime readers. The fact that most comic books are ongoing epic sagas makes them far more adaptable to movies, due to the amount of time that a full-length script needs.

Conversely, animated episodes within a given series tend to be stand-alone affairs. There were exceptions, such as The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, but even this property did not adapt well to the LAAF format. The situations generally found in many animated series such as Scooby-Doo, Josie and the Pussycats, Speed Racer, or in any Mister Magoo cartoon are rather formulaic, somewhat predictable, and lend themselves poorly to live-action adaptation. Many things that are funny and work fine in a seven-, 12-, or 23-minute format are labored and drawn-out in a 90-minute format.

That does not make a good script impossible, but it does make things much more difficult. A full-length SpongeBob SquarePants, Simpsons, or South Park animated movie works because the cartoon characters are congruent with the appearances and behaviors they present in the shorter TV episodes; asking live actors to consistently mimic them over the long haul of a motion picture is asking a lot, especially if the transition is not all that believable to begin with.

In short, LAAFs are at terrible disadvantages when competing against comic book adaptations. Worse, they are at a disadvantage with the conventions of their own source material. At the time of this writing, Alan Moore's Watchmen is generating buzz at an apocalyptic level. Thor, The Flash, Shazam, The Spirit, Captain America, and, of course, Iron Man 2 are preparing to descend on audiences across America. Time and audience reaction will tell whether these live-action comic book films will succeed at the level of The Dark Knight, but one thing is certain: Any and all of them will outperform any LAAF unfortunate enough to be in the pipeline or planning stages today.

This column marks the end of nine years as a monthly commentator at Animation World Network. Dr. Toon would like to humbly acknowledge all those who have been involved in posting my work over the years: Thanks to Heather Kenyon, Dan Sarto, Sarah Baisley, Darlene Chan, Jon Hofferman, Joan Kim, Rick DeMott, and Ron Diamond. Thanks most of all to my readership, who more than anyone else has kept the old doc rolling along on AWN.

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