Do we need more live-action films? And other concerns

| Film Editor

Let’s whine about live-action features. It seems that Hollywood has really run out of ideas this time around and is now turning to classic animated films for inspiration. In this case, the definition of inspiration is more like “let’s hire humans to do the same as these animated characters.” The result of this inspiration is what is now being called “live-action” films, which are adaptations of animated material. We are full-on skinny-dipping the wave of live-action features, and it doesn’t seem to be crashing down anytime soon. And if there’s anything we’ve learned from superhero films: If it makes money, make 10 more of them. But, do we really need live-action?

Live-action is not a new concept but rather one that has gained prominence in recent years. We might owe this prominence to the reliable duo of Johnny Depp and Tim Burton. These two led the first Disney live-action remake of an animated film, “Alice in Wonderland.” Released in 2010, Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland” was a global juggernaut, surpassing $1 billion in the box office. Then came “Maleficent,” which took a revisionist approach to the “Sleeping Beauty” tale, starring Angelina Jolie. Like “Alice,” the film also gained Halloween costume iconic status. The following year, “Cinderella” became the next target of live-action. Directed by Kenneth Branagh, the film was a hit and even garnered an Academy Award nomination for costume design.

Disney didn’t stop there. Last year, the Mickey Mouse monopoly produced the live-action version of “The Jungle Book,” directed by Jon Favreau. The film was both a box office hit and a critical success. And since then, Disney has not stopped and will not stop. Next up is the release of “Beauty and the Beast” in less than a month, starring Emma Watson.

In fact, the company has begun to roll out a plethora of upcoming live-action productions for the next decade or so. Favreau himself seemed to have enjoyed the making of “The Jungle Book” so much that he has now signed up to direct the human retelling of “The Lion King,” despite the fact that there are no humans in the 1994 Disney classic. “Mulan,” “The Little Mermaid,” “Snow White,” “Dumbo,” “Winnie the Pooh” and “Aladdin” have all been confirmed to receive the human treatment, as I like to call it.

The outcome of these live-action films can vary in quality. At worst, they can result in an unfaithful and even disrespectful adaptation of the source material. At best, they are almost as good as their parent film. But, what’s the point of replicating films? Do we really need to see computer-generated image versions of Simba and Mufasa?

Of course, this is all about money. So far, all of Disney’s live-action features have been financial successes. But, in greenlighting so many of these productions, we are losing the prospect of seeing original ideas or even other forms of adaptations on the big screen. It took the entire history of Hollywood for Disney to finally give the reigns to a black female director, Ava DuVernay, to direct a big budget film, “A Wrinkle in Time,” set for release in 2018. In comparison, it only took a single successful live-action movie for Disney to back a number of these projects. It is a discouraging comparison that points to a move toward a more risk-safe, homogenous formula that gives audiences more of the same while steering away from potentially groundbreaking, culturally significant productions that could alter the course of film’s history.

If we were to analyze the quality of these live-action films, we would find that they do not provide any compelling reason as to why they would need the human treatment. “Alice in Wonderland” felt more like a diehard Hot Topic fan’s fantasy of what Wonderland would look like if 2006 Avril Lavigne were to live in it. In other words, it ignored the sensitive themes of the original version in favor of bombastic intricate set designs and costumes. “The Jungle Book,” while critically acclaimed, did not incorporate the music that made the original film so memorable.

So far, I’ve focused on Disney productions mainly become they are the most visible to general audiences. But, perhaps the most glaring example of live-action gone wrong is the unforgivable adaptation of “Avatar: The Last Airbender.” In this case, the source material was a masterpiece animated series that Nickelodeon then turned into a disrespectful film directed by the never-reliable M. Night Shyamalan. Not only did “The Last Airbender” cast all-white lead roles against the series’ racial and cultural importance, but it dismissed the series’ plot and charming characters in order to create a more dazzling, action-packed narrative that felt rushed and sloppy. No wonder the film was destroyed by film critics at the time of its release.

A more recent case is that of “Ghost in the Shell,” an upcoming American film based on the popular Japanese manga. For some reason, Hollywood decided to make a live-action feature of a Japanese story starring a white actress, Scarlett Johansson. Never mind that the manga has already been adapted into an appropriate animated film two decades ago, Johansson’s whitewashed casting has met harsh criticism from the moment it was announced, and rightfully so. In a recent interview, she explained that her decision to play a Japanese character was about feminism rather than race. Oh, boy. Nevertheless, the film will be released in a month against people’s wishes to see such a celebrated and treasured manga turned into a culturally insensitive adaptation.

With planned adaptations of animated films like “Aladdin” and “Mulan,” it is likely that Disney will disregard the importance of casting actors of the same race and ethnicity, which the source material explicitly states. It is yet another shortcoming of the mass production of this new subgenre of films, and it is one that I’m not looking forward to.

More significantly, this wave is subtly hurting the uniqueness of the animated genre. In greenlighting so many live-action productions, Hollywood is essentially implying that these stories are better told by humans than animation. I certainly can’t imagine what pitching “The Lion King” as a live-action film three decades ago would have sounded like. Just because we have the technology to accomplish this does not mean we should. However, it would not be surprising if, soon enough, film executives begin to ask themselves: “Why make it into an animated feature when we can do live-action?”

The beauty and significance of these stories is that they were meant to be animated. There is a special kind of magic that animation makes possible: Dumbo flying in the air with his enormous ears, the quirky, not-replicable face expressions made by each of the seven dwarves, the glowing grace of Cinderella’s dress. These are stories that deserve to be drawn because animation is the source of their greatness. Hollywood seems to be missing the point: We don’t want these stories to feel “realistic.” The reason we love them is because they are far removed from reality. Live-action breaks that spell and undermines their magic. No special effect will replicate the sensation that animated stories arouse within us.

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