Sunday 19 August 2012

Editorial: Adapt to Survive

From 1937 to 2011: One can't help but think something went awry along the way for animated adaptations.

Animation is built on adaptation. Walt Disney started off with adaptation, from his early Alice Comedies, to short-films like The Three Little Pigs, to his first feature length animated film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, they're all based on existing stories. In fact, think of your favourite Disney films of all time; films like Snow WhitePinocchio, Aladdin, The Jungle Book, they're all based on existing, popular stories, books or folk-tales. Even The Lion King, arguably the jewel in the Disney crown, is based on Shakespeare's Hamlet.

It's a long and important tradition, fairy-tales are what (whether they like it not anymore) typifies Disney; nearly all the best Disney films are based on existing stories: Hans Christian Anderson ones, Brothers Grimm ones; the inspiration comes from the stories and - however faithful an adaptation they may be - the films, for better or worse, spin-off from there.

However, the problems occur when adaptations come at the expense of originality; when studios take well established, well loved characters and try to "reinvent" them, to save on marketing and pull high box-office receipts, often at the expense of quality. This is a subject that seems particularly relevant at the moment, with the colossal glut of animated films coming up that are foregoing originality in favour of established characters and stories. In a world where we're in 2012 and expecting a Woody Woodpecker film, a Popeye film, another Curious George film, and all the possible (and likely) adaptations coming out of DreamWorks' purchase of Classic Media, it's easy to feel like we're drowning in adaptations.

Just look at the upcoming slates from the major animation studios, and you'll get a sense of what I mean. DreamWorks have Mr. Peabody and Sherman, based on the Jay Ward Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons, and later an adaptation of Dav Pilkey's Captain Underpants books. Illumination Entertainment, following The Lorax, have - at least - one more Dr. Seuss adaptation and a biopic about his life coming up, a Woody Woodpecker film, a Flanimals film (based on the Ricky Gervais books), a Curious George film and a Clifford the Big Red Dog adaptation! Sony Pictures Animation released the dreadful live-action/CGI mash-up, The Smurfs, last year, and have a sequel on the way; they have a Popeye film on the way, an ALF adaptation, and even a Rollercoaster Tycoon film... yep, really. Disney have adaptations of Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen and even Marvel's Big Hero 6 comics on the horizon. So you'd be forgiven for thinking that it doesn't seem like there's a lot of originality left in animation; thank God that at least Pixar only develop original ideas!

However, as I previously stated, I don't have a problem with adaptation - in fact, I'm greatly looking forward to the mentioned adaptations coming out of DreamWorks and Disney. But, it seems that, more and more, nowadays studios are heading down the route of taking well loved, well known children's characters - like The Smurfs - and creating overly action-filled, flimsily written, unoriginal films, to try and rake in the money. Worse still is when the films do no justice to the original characters, and try and modernise them - a good character doesn't need reinventing. This isn't even just a problem limited to animation, in fact it's most grievous with live-action/CGI combo films - I'm looking at you, Yogi Bear and Scooby Doo (note of guilty pleasure: I quite liked Garfield) - where the characters become annoying and the film pumped with more Hollywood names than an awards ceremony.

Moreover, sequels are more and more prominent in animation, as more and more animation studios set up shop. DreamWorks have always produced a notoriously high output of sequels, 4 Shrek films and a spin-off, Puss in Boots, 3 Madagascar films at the moment and an upcoming spin-off, The Penguins of Madagascar, 2 Kung Fu Panda films and at least a third one on the way, and many more sequels on the horizon; and lots of adaptations, compared to relatively few original projects due in the immediate future. At least, now anyway, DreamWorks handle their sequels well, generally producing new ideas to explore each time around. And the original films they do have coming up, like Me and My Shadow and The Croods, sound great! Blue Sky Studios have also been quite eager to produce sequels, with four Ice Age films out and Rio 2 on the way, and their sequels are of more questionable quality. Sony and Illumination are beginning to take cues also, with several direct-to-video Open Season sequels, The Smurfs 2 and Cloudy 2 on the way, and a possible Hotel Transylvania 2 (with the first not even out yet!) due from Sony, and Despicable Me 2 and a Minion-themed spin-off from Illumination.

Up until recently Pixar haven't pursued sequels since 1999's Toy Story 2 - which still remains one of the best sequels of all time (my personal favourite film) and proof that animated sequels can be almost wholly original! In the last few years though, we've seen and heard about a lot of Pixar sequels (and prequels). Toy Story 3 was as good as it deserved to be, earning a Best Picture nomination, and whilst Cars 2 didn't receive a very warm response, I loved it and felt it was a very original film in itself - the spy theme is a world apart from the first Cars. They also have a Monsters, Inc. prequel, Monsters University, on the way and possibly Finding Nemo 2. Because, despite the cries of the naysayers about the sequel output from Pixar, they've never made a bad film, and their sequels are almost as originals as their non-sequels; just with characters we already know and love. And despite their notoriously high direct-to-video sequel output, Disney have only ever produce three canonical sequels (and only one traditional sequel), The Rescuers Down Under, Fantasia 2000 and Winnie the Pooh, and their adaptations are often so loosely adapted that they're practically original - see Tangled.

I don't remember much about frying pans, chameleons or teenage sass in the original Rapunzel. But it was a great film...

Sequels aren't a bad thing either; the amount of people clamouring for The Incredibles 2 from Pixar, and The Pirates! 2 from Aardman is testament to that. But the sequels have to be of good quality, and not just a rehashing of what worked well the first time round. Because that's the crux of my argument: whether original, adaptation, or sequel, you should do all you can to make it a good film, with good characters and a good story. A great film is a great film no matter where the story comes from. Tangled, as I've said before, was a fantastic film - Disney's strongest in years - and that was an adaptation, though admittedly not a very faithful one. Which also makes another one of my points: whilst it shouldn't do a disservice to the original characters or meaning, the adaptation shouldn't be faithful at the expense of making a good film. Tangled maybe wasn't all that faithful to the original story of Rapunzel, but it took the core ideas, and built on them to make a fantastic film, with great characters and a great story. Disney's 2013 release, Frozen, likewise, looks to be a loose adaptation of The Snow Queen, and will likely be all the better for it - remember, Pinocchio, arguably the pinnacle of Disney excellence, bore little resemblance to the original story. This is why adaptations of lesser-known stories (or at least not just of popular, existing animated characters) are usually more successful; Aardman's The Pirates! in an Adventure with Scientists was based on Gideon Defoe's series The Pirates! book series - they're popular, but hardly household names, and a perfect fit for Aardman's quirky sensibilities. DreamWorks' upcoming Rise of the Guardians, based on William Joyce's only recently published The Guardians of Childhood books, looks great; and I'm greatly anticipating Sony's The Familiars - not least because it's being directed by Doug Sweetland, the former Pixarian who directed the magnificent short-film Presto - which is based on the likewise titled book series.

As I've mentioned previously, the problems arise when studios take a character, or characters, from a TV show, or a comic, or a book, that those of us of whatever generation were exposed to growing up, in the hopes that nostalgia will kick in, and we'll go and see the film - meaning they save on advertising. The films, though, are often irritating, and not clever or funny; I guess you could call this fad the "pop-culture adaptation" stage of animation. There's also rarely enough material to substantiate a feature-film. Case in point, Illumination Entertainment's adaptation of Dr. Seuss' The Lorax, it was by no means a bad film, but it was grossly unoriginal. It was faithful to the original message and characters, and to the story for that matter, but the characters and plot added to pad it to 90 minutes felt rehashed from films like Despicable Me, Horton Hears a Who! and even The Incredibles in places. Compared to their first, and original, film, Despicable Me, The Lorax was pretty poor. It's a sign of a lazy animation studio when their adaptations and sequels outweigh their original features, even in the glaring face of the fact that they're not as good. And don't even get me started on films based on video-games (I'm thinking more Battleship here, than the wonderful-looking Wreck-It Ralph)!

Cooking rats, robots in love and septuagenarians' houses floating away: Pixar, the home of originality.

That's one of many things that makes Pixar so great, their sequels are never the same as the originals; I loved Kung Fu Panda 2, but it was very similar to the first film. Whereas, look at Toy Story 3: it's a prison-break film, where the first was a buddy film, and then the second was a rescue film! Then look at Cars 2, it's a fast-paced, spy film, where the first was a slow-paced, Route 66-set film. Monsters University is out next year, and where Monsters, Inc. was set in a huge scare factory, Monsters U is a prequel and a college film. If and when we get Finding Nemo 2, I'm sure it won't actually be a Finding Nemo 2, in that, I doubt they'll have lost him again; it'll be a whole 'nother kettle of fish (pardon the pun). And Pixar still have a huge slate of wonderful, original, films beyond that: Bob Peterson's quirky The Good Dinosaur, Pete Docter's clever Untitled Mind Film, and Lee Unkrich's, presumably, darker Día de los Muertoes Film. All this from the studio that brought us talking toys, suburban superheroes, cooking rats and more! This is the way to handle filmmaking, folks.

It, sadly, seems that more animation studios now are reliant on flimsy adaptations of popular stories and existing characters to make the funds to try bolder and braver films. But, that's not all bad I suppose. Adaptations, like it or not, aren't going anywhere, and if it means that for every The Smurfs, we get a Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, for every The Lorax, we get a Despicable Me, then maybe it's not that bad after all. This brings me back to the base of my argument: A great story is a great story, no matter where from, but a bad adaptation is a bad adaptation that tarnishes something great.


  1. Fantastic article, William! There several excellent points here, especially the argument that a classic character can be updated, as long as it's done right. I agree pretty much on everything here. I don't mind if a studio wants to revive a classic character, though I would love to see more original stories like Pixar's works, but the problem is, like you said, it's modernized for this generation. The fad is getting rather sickening, IMO.

    Again, a great article. Coincidentally, I'm working on an article that looks into how teenagers embrace animation, but only approach it if they are being nostalgic. Again, a fantastic read! :)

    1. Thank you, Kyle! Always appreciate your feedback and support on my editorials. :) Yeah, I have nothing against adaptation - as I said, animation is built on it! - the problem is modernising, and reinventing characters for a quick buck, at the expense of good storytelling.

      And that sounds like it'll be a great read! I understand completely, the amount of friends I have who take the attitude of "oh, animation's for kids", and then were at the front of the line for Toy Story 3, and keep asking me if I've "heard about the new Monsters, Inc. film" is ridiculous! Can't wait to read it!