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Live action remakes dim the impact of original animation

Live action remakes dim the impact of original animation

Live action remakes dim the impact of original animation
April 30
13:00 2023

It’s easy to see why live-action remakes have caught on. The concept is simple — take a beloved animated movie or show, remake it with physical actors and use the recognizable intellectual property to make a massive profit.

Disney has become the biggest and most successful producer of these. Remakes of Aladdin” and “Beauty and the Beast” each grossed over $1 billion. Animated shows, like “Avatar: The Last Airbender” and “Cowboy Bebop,” and other recent films, like “How to Train Your Dragon,” all have live-action remakes that have been released or are currently in development.

Sadly, these remakes are almost always terrible. They may be successful, but they frequently suffer from monumental flaws and represent Hollywood at its very worst.

For some remakes, the main issue is obvious: what works in one medium doesn’t always work in another. While live-action stories have to be at least slightly realistic because of their use of physical actors, animated stories can be as grand, fantastic or surreal as the animation team wants.

One recent comparative example would be the original 1994 version of “The Lion King” and its 2019 live-action remake. On paper, a film about talking lions in a brutal power struggle sounds too strange to work, but the original animated version suspends disbelief because the designs are purposefully unrealistic. The characters are more emotive and human-like than real animals, so the film still conveys the right emotional beats.

In contrast, the live-action remake can’t pull this off. While the highly realistic animal characters can talk, the emotional impact of their dialogue is limited by their design. Most animals don’t make facial expressions recognizable to humans, and since the remake prioritizes realism, it lacks any emotional weight. Instead of recapturing the original’s magic, the 2019 version feels like a bizarre mashup of “Hamlet” and “Beverly Hills Chihuahua.”

This issue may not matter depending on the property that’s being remade. Take “Death Note,” a beloved anime thriller, for example. The setting is modern-day Japan. Almost all the characters are ordinary humans. The few fantastical elements could work in live-action with some CGI. In theory, the show is a prime candidate for a live-action remake.

However, when Netflix debuted a live-action “Death Note” film in 2017, it suffered from another common flaw with these remakes: low effort. Any potential quality was squandered by an abysmal screenplay, messy production, a dumbed-down story and the bizarre decision to Americanize the Japanese story with a Western setting and whitewashed characters. Like many remakes, the film isn’t just bad — it’s poorly made. 

“Death Note”’s remake also shows what is perhaps the biggest hallmark of these films: a lack of originality. Ideally, a live-action remake will put a unique spin on its source material, but that’s seldom the case. 

More often, one of two things happens: either no major changes are made or, like with “Death Note,” changes are only made to dilute the story. These remakes can’t justify their own existence because they’re just copies of far better projects.

That creative bankruptcy also reinforces animation’s lack of respect. The medium is often viewed as a disposable gimmick solely enjoyed by children, particularly in Hollywood. Because of this, truly great animated projects often struggle to get taken seriously. Countless animators, alongside acclaimed live-action filmmakers, like Guillermo del Toro, have fought against the medium’s unfair stigma — but their pleas have largely fallen on deaf ears.

Bad live-action remakes perpetuate the stigma by treating animation as a flawed craft rather than a celebrated art. Multiple actresses from Disney’s remakes even echoed this stereotype during the 2022 Oscars, presenting animation as something kids enjoy and parents begrudgingly tolerate.

This matters because it slanders a medium with nearly limitless artistic potential. While projects like “WALL-E,” “Into the Spider-Verse” and “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” were made with kids in mind, their maturity and raw creativity show that animation is far more than disposable, childish garbage. These animated projects would be substantially bigger if they weren’t held back by the baseless stigma that most live-action remakes tacitly support. 

To be fair, not all animation remakes are bad. “The Lion King” was remade into a critically acclaimed Broadway musical and “Death Note” spawned a Japanese live-action film franchise that far outshines Netflix’s disaster. Another Disney film, “One Hundred and One Dalmatians,” inspired the studio’s best live-action remake, the delightfully mean-spirited “Cruella.”

These remakes all take their beloved source material in unique directions, and the results are highly entertaining. 

But sadly, those are the exceptions, not the rule. Too often, live-action remakes are lazy, unoriginal and overwhelmingly hollow. Their mere existence is cynical and greedy, and they’re only successful because they’re standing in the shadows of far better media.

The next time you’re tempted to see a new remake of your favorite animated movie or show, just watch the original instead. You’ll get more enjoyment out of a timeless classic than you ever will out of its soulless live-action copy. 

Featured Illustration by Felicia Tshimanga

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Ian Cropper

Ian Cropper

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