Storytelling: The Fine Art of Cartoon Live-Action Remakes

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the nature of storytelling in Hollywood and how it affects a film’s success or failure. As promised (though a little late), I’m going to pontificate on big budget storytelling with particular reference to cartoon adaptations and Thundercats. It turns out I have a lot to say about cartoon remakes and Thundercats, so I’ve split this discussion up into two parts.

This particular essay revolves around the HOW of storytelling, and especially around big-budget Hollywood films and cartoon live-action remakes. Have you ever read the blurbs for straight-to-DVD films? They often sound amazing, and thus you know they are probably rubbish. The blub is the best bit of the film. How you tell the story is so very important and with blockbuster/genre films, it is consistently ignored. Quite often, the ‘how’ is the last thing on the film maker’s mind, which is why many films end up tedious and dry, exciting very few people.

It is also a dangerous thing to re-watch cartoons from your youth. What lived in your mind as a work of genius often turns out to be clunky, slow and boring. The greatness was all in your head, built upon from years of thinking about the blurb of the cartoon as opposed to what the stories were about.

Between the blurb and the final film there sits a vast chasm of story that frightens many filmmakers. Many find the chasm so terrifying that they rush to fill it with anything, quite often what they expect to be there, and hope that the blurb is good enough to carry them across. It rarely is. Good storytelling, no matter what story you are telling, is important. With live-action cartoon remakes, this is no different.

StorytellingCartoonRemakesPartOneClareYoung2012

So, why Thundercats? Well, why not. Particularly, why haven’t they already done it? (I believe that some form of CGI film was considered and abandoned a few years ago). Cartoons, especially cartoons from the 80’s and early 90’s are either too peculiar or too lacking in plot to safely negotiate that tricky canyon to a live-action film.

As I said before, many adaptations focus on a hook that no longer matters to audiences (seeing their childhood nostalgia in live-action form, even with the advances in CGI) and try and make the hook the entire film. The hook is the thing that draws the audience into the film, Transformers is obviously the joy of seeing robots turn into cars. But really, you do need a good story to keep the joy of robot/cars alive for an entire movie (let alone three).

Though there are many kinds of cartoon remakes, this particular essay focuses on the more action-orientated kind. It’s difficult, for me at least, to find a particular storytelling thesis around The Flinstones, Alvin and the Chipmunks or Garfield, which all share a more child-like / slapstick approach. There’s only so many ways you can sufficiently showcase the thrill and excitement of live-action musical chipmunks or Smurfs, and there’s only so many places you can go with it.

Far fewer cartoon adaptations are of the action kind, which is odd as I think these offer the biggest storytelling possibilities. The pull and excitement of brute cartoon violence, coupled with heroes, villains and bonkers characters is Hollywood gold.

Currently Michael Bay is currently producing Ninja Turtles, which is good or bad depending on your feelings towards Michael Bay. I cannot fault him for being a high-budget blockbuster film maker because I enjoy those films. However, Pearl Harbour is unforgivable. The furore over Michael making the turtles alien beings is a little over the top – as if having talking anthropomorphic pizza-eating turtles born from toxic slime is the most important aspect of the franchise. It will not matter if the story is well told. If it isn’t, then it won’t be because of this minor change.

And, Michael Bay did Transformers. I found it both good and bad. It’s fun and entertaining enough. Its origin story is well played, and I was utterly transfixed with the robot/car transformations (even though they were too fast to be enjoyed properly). It was as good as it could be, considering, and it could have been worse. Could it have been made any differently? Yes of course it could. Did they run out of ideas for the second and third movies? Of course they did, who could possibly be surprised by that?

80’s cartoons are bonkers, even if they were not the best. Many were based on comic books, toys or previously popular films/cartoons. Their translations into TV cartoon series provided a goldmine of alternative storytelling that burned into the minds of its susceptible viewers. They were mutant creations, often heavily anthropomorphic, with theme tunes that owe heavy thanks to the hair metal of the time. Many of them were made outside of America, the English dubbing and alternate culture influences adding to the overall vibrancy.

Can cartoon live-action remakes ever be any good? Well, let us consider Masters of the Universe. Come on, I know you want to. It feels a little like cheating to talk about this film, 80’s films are often crazy which makes them so enjoyable. I’ve not seen this film for many years, and the most I can remember is there’s a big plot about synthesisers. However, it’s an important film in the world of 80’s cartoon live-action adaptations because it fits its source material closely. Another stand-out example would be the 1990 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film. Both these films are bonkers.

It’s this fact that has such an important influence when translating these into live-action films. Something that is severely missing in Hollywood at the moment is the ability to make ridiculous high-octane action films. There is something about a good ‘bad’ film; they take you along for a ride so enjoyable that you forgive them for their many silly faults. They are also very engaging, and if you look hard enough you will often find a reasonably solid storytelling structure. Hollywood may assume that their films fail because people aren’t into that kind of stuff anymore, when really it’s because Hollywood can’t make these kind of films interesting anymore. How much do they consider that the difficulty lies in being brave enough to tell a good story with a ridiculous premise?

Some cartoons would probably be beyond film adaptation – there’s a medium for all stories and stories about bull terriers called Rude Dog or sharks that solve crime should remain where they are. However, there are many cartoons simply aching to be made into live-action films. But, you need to do it properly. Big budget action is no excuse for lazy storytelling. In fact, it damages the film reprehensibly. There is nothing so anaemic for an action film (made to create feelings of adrenalin and excitement) then resorting to tired clichés and predictable behaviour.

So what do you need to make a good cartoon live-action remake? Consider its source. The film should be a gloriously orchestrated cacophony of light, sound, noise and colour – the more bonkers the original cartoon, the more bonkers the film remake. Things exist in the cartoon world as they are, rarely offering a decent explanation other than the rule of cool. Why does Marshall Brave Starr have the eyes of a hawk or the ears of the wolf? Because it’s cool, that’s why. Trying to decipher the plot to Mighty Max is futile; he has a baseball cap that activates a vortex and his friend is a chicken (or fowl), OK?!

And obviously, story. You need a good one. There are usually stories and plot galore if you look hard enough at the original cartoon. There are characters and situations that are full of possibilities, strong enough to explore in a full-length film. And, avoidance of cliché is a must. Resorting to tired action scenes you’ve seen a million times before is bad, as are stock bad-guys doing stock bad-guy things. You need to develop the characters beyond their original creations, to see the possibilities in the stories already available, to change them from more than just cardboard cut-outs to something more three-dimensional. As strange as it sounds, the most enjoyable cartoon remake, as well as any action film, comes out of taking things very seriously.

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