Cel Out: 10 Cartoons That Worked Better As Live-Action (And 10 That Worked Better Animated)

Live-action adaptations drive the movie industry today. Whether it is adapting a story from a novel, comic book, cartoon or even video game, transforming source material to the big screen is one of the few remaining ways to make money at the box office. Studios have embraced this and pumped billions of dollars into such adaptations. Disney has even gone to the extent of remaking their own animated movies as live-action films. Hoping to carry on the success of The Jungle Book and Beauty and the Beast remakes, Disney has plans for Dumbo, The Lion King and Aladdin to be released in 2019.

On occasion, the adaptation takes place in reverse; a live-action property transformed into an animated version. This version usually takes the form of an animated series and instead of remaking the live-action material often extends it. It is typically less successful, but for die-hard fans it can be a way to satisfy the craving generated from the live-action feature. Adapting any source material to a different media can be a risky because a large portion of the audience will view it with preconceived notions and expectations. This is why any adaptation must be handled with care. The key to success for any type of re-imagination is knowing the strengths of the desired media and the characteristics of the source material that can play to those strengths. In this list we take a look at 20 properties that exist as both live-action and animation. We choose 10 properties that work better as live-action and 10 that work better as animation.

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Richie Rich Movie
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Richie Rich Movie

What started as a comic book about a lovable rich kid in 1953 was eventually adapted into a cartoon series in 1980. The Richie Rich cartoon made a few changes from the comic, most notably aging the character from elementary-school age to middle-school age. In 1994, a live-action movie adaptation was made and in keeping with the age upgrade the cartoon had provided the character, Macaulay Culkin was cast as the titular character.

The movie received poor reviews but was a big success in the home video rental market. It successfully portrays the early adolescent dream of having anything at your disposal. From ATVs to a personalized McDonald's; this movie makes that fantasy a reality in a way the cartoon never could.


A Street Fighter cartoon was released in South Korea and Japan prior to the American release of the live-action movie in 1994. Following the live-action movie, the USA Network released a cartoon that loosely borrowed plot points from the film. Although both American adaptations were bad, the cartoon was much better than the film.

The source material is a one-on-one fighting video game with little storyline. It is difficult to take this source material and build a plot that can support a two-hour movie. This is why the animation triumphs over the live-action; because it is composed of short episodes that can be focused on one fight at a time, expanding the game’s plot without losing its essence.


Transformers Movie

The live-action Transformer movies have yet to reach the global love of the '80s cartoon, but we have to give credit where it is due -- the adaptation of the robots was magnificent. A story about a giant robot war is much easier to pull off in animation than in live-action with CGI, which is what makes the movie so impressive. It conveys the magnitude of these machines and the complex system that each robot must have to actually make the transformation.

The cartoon cannot match the visual of a truck driving down the highway at 80 miles an hour while transforming and engaging in battle, all in the same fluid motion. The movies may have other weaknesses, but the robots definitely look amazing.


Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Cartoon

There have been a couple of live-action adaptations of the popular cartoon Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Both attempts failed in the same area --  the look of the turtles. The first round of movies are loved by ‘90s kids, but the costumes were bulky and restricted movement a little too much.

In 2014, the franchise was rebooted and they went with a fully CGI version of the turtles. Unfortunately, this doesn’t work either. The translation from 2D cartoon to 3D live-action results in a disturbing, severe, alienesque turtle. While the adaptations can be used as an excuse to watch a popcorn flick, nothing has reached the level of the original cartoon series.


Josie and the Pussycats Movie

Josie and the Pussycats is one of the most misunderstood live-action adaptations on this list; it was a huge box office bomb, making back less than half of its budget. At the time of its release, the adaptation of the Archie Comics characters was seen as mindless fun and the product placement was ridiculed as hypocritical. A number of the critics had missed the point completely.

The “mindless fun” kept the tone of the cartoon series while the “product placement” is a satire of modern consumerism. The movie was seen as a dumb money grab, but was actually the exact opposite; a smart and refreshing take on the source material.


Jem and the Holograms Cartoon

In 2014, Universal Pictures announced that Jem and the Holograms would be the next Hasbro cartoon adaptation. Jem (as the cartoon is called) was one of the most popular ‘80s cartoons and appeared to be a great choice for live-action.

However, inexplicably the movie opened to only $1.4 million in its first weekend, which is the worst opening ever for a major studio movie that opened in more than 2,000 theaters. The film ignores the witty charm of the source material and turns it into a boring teen drama, which ended any hopes of a bounce-back second week at the theaters.


Napoleon Dynamite Movie

In 2012, eight years after Napoleon Dynamite had shocked the world by making over 100 times its budget, Fox released a Napoleon Dynamite cartoon by the same writing duo. The writing team said they had always wanted to continue the story and with the large gap in time, animation was the only way to keep the characters in high school.

However, the magic of the movie is in the awkwardness of each teenaged character, the nuances of which are better portrayed through live-action than cartoon. The show only lasted six episodes before Fox announced its cancelation. The style of comedy may have had a better reception during Adult Swim on the Cartoon Network, but unfortunately it still did not recreate the magnetism of the movie.


Inspector Gadget Cartoon

In 1999, Matthew Broderick donned the Inspector’s fedora in Inspector Gadget. The movie adapted the popular '80s show of the same name, featuring a cyborg police inspector who is quite incompetent.

Although the movie had a fairly large budget, the amount of gadgets the inspector can have will always be limited in a live-action adaptation. The cartoon was constantly coming up with new gadgets while also bringing back fan favorites every week. we would not be surprised if Disney took another shot at Inspector Gadget sometime in the future, but we don’t think it can ever work as well as it did in the cartoon.


Ghostbusters Movie

Following the favorable reception the 1984 movie Ghostbusters received, ABC aired a cartoon two years later. The cartoon was called The Real Ghostbusters, due to another cartoon by the name Ghostbusters premiering that same year. The show had a healthy seven season run, producing 140 episodes.

However, we think the live-action movie is still the better representation of the Ghostbusters. Despite the PG-rating of the movie, it was surprisingly scary. The ghosts of the movie ranged from goofy to disturbing, and nothing gives us chills quite like Sigourney Weaver’s character possessed by the demon Zuul. The movie was able to mix horror with comedy effectively, which is something the cartoon did not do. We ain't afraid of no ghosts in the cartoon.


G.I. Joe Animated Series

Both the G.I. Joe cartoon and movie are based off of a line of toys created by Hasbro. The original cartoon looked exactly like the toys had come to life. It added character traits to the little plastic men, which made each toy more interesting and in turn increased toy sales as every child needed to buy their favorite new characters.

The live-action movie did not have this same effect. It did not feel like the toys we played with as kids were coming to life and it definitely didn’t make us want to go and purchase movie character action figures. Perhaps it is because we are older and wiser now, but it is more likely the cartoon was just better.


Jumanji Movie

Doesn’t it sound fun to be sucked into a board game? In 1995, audiences thought it would be, as they flocked to the theater to see Jumanji. The following year, UPN launched a cartoon by the same name, which ran for 40 episodes over three seasons.

Although the concept of the movie does port over to cartoon quite well, the best aspect of the live-action version was lost on the animation: the horror. The movie is scary, especially for a child, which is what makes it superior. It perfectly conveys the weight of the phrase “be careful what you wish for”.


Beauty and the Beast Animated 1991

In 2017, Disney added Beauty and the Beast to their expanding catalogue of live-action reimaginations of classic animated properties. The movie soared at the box office, making over a billion dollars worldwide. It stuck close to the storyline of the 1991 animated film and made only a few minor adjustments to both the plot and songs. The movie proved to be a solid adaptation, but it pales in comparison to the original.

The 1991 movie is the only animated film to ever be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar with the category containing five nominee -- the movie is a masterpiece. Altering a masterpiece rarely results in improvement, which is the case here, leaving the viewer to only pick out its flaws.


Men In Black Movie

After Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones turned a six-issue comic into a blockbuster hit, the WB turned it into a cartoon series called Men in Black: The Series. While the series lasted four seasons, Men in Black is far better as a live-action than an animation.

The cartoon cannot replicate the characteristics that made the movie such a successes. Men in Black is a movie driven by its star power, with interesting looking aliens and sci-fi styled action sequences. It is difficult to create new and interesting aliens in the cartoon series when the live-action did such a solid job of using CGI and practical effects to create them. Also, the cartoon doesn’t have Will Smith, enough said.


Scooby Doo Cartoon

Scooby-Doo, the television show that once held the record for most episodes of an animated series ever produced, was bound to get a live-action adaptation. In 2002, on an $84 million budget, Scooby and the gang hit the big screen.

The original cartoon usually stuck to its simple formula of “a group of teens solves a mystery”, which sounds like an easy adaptation for a film. However, the live-action film was flat and boring, chock-full of cheesy jokes and annoying characters. Aside from Matthew Lillard as Shaggy, there is not much to save this movie. The true mystery is how this movie got a sequel.


Back To The Future Movie

Back to the Future was such a mammoth success in 1985 that Universal Pictures gave the green light for the next two installments in the franchise. The sequels were scheduled to be filmed at the same time and released six months apart. The movies did well, but no subsequent sequels were lined up.

In 1991, following the third film, CBS released a Back to the Future cartoon show which took place after part three of the movies. Through animation they could do anything and go anywhere using the Delorean -- it was a solid idea. However, something was lacking. The show mostly followed Dr. Emmett Brown and did not have enough Marty McFly, who we believe truly is the heart and sole of the franchise.



He-Man and the Masters of the Universe was one of the most popular cartoons of the ‘80s. It was another cartoon show that had a successful toy line associated with it. The Castle Grayskull playset remains one of the most iconic toys of its time and is sure to evoke fond memories for children of the ‘80s.

In 1987, a live-action movie adaptation hit theaters called Masters of the Universe, starring Dolph Lundgren as He-Man. We know, it sounds great, unfortunately the film was oddly campy and as a result completely missed its target audience. The film later received a following when the target audience had grown up enough to appreciate the high camp, but it is still no comparison to the animated series.


Speed Racer Movie

It is always exciting to see what the Wachowskis will create next, because they swing for the fences with every film project. This is especially true with the movie Speed Racer, which is their adaptation of the popular '60s cartoon. The movie bombed at the box office and was ripped by critics, but has since grown its following, which makes us wonder if the movie was just ahead of its time.

The movie is an incredible adaptation of the cartoon, while as a film, it is completely unique. The Wachowskis were breaking visual ground with the racing effects, once again defining a new visual style. If you passed on this movie the first time around, it's totally worth another look.


Aeon Flux Animated Series

It is well-known that the Paramount Pictures adaptation of the avant-garde, science fiction television series Aeon Flux was a complete failure. Everything that makes the animated show stand out was abandoned in the loosely based live-action adaptation. The filmmakers were so focused on the story making sense, they forgot to make it interesting.

The creator of the of the animated show, Peter Chung, has publicly expressed his disapproval of the film, stating that watching it in a theater full of people had him feeling helpless and humiliated. The risque show may not be for everyone, but it is definitely more inventive than the lacklustre adaptation.


Robocop Movie

In 1988, Marvel Productions created a Robocop cartoon, which seemed like an odd idea due to the extremely violent nature of the movie. The cartoon toned down the violence, replacing bullets with lasers, and removed all the satirical elements of the film.

With all this stripped away, there is literally no point to Robocop. The movie is significant because of the disgusting world Alex Murphy lives in; a world that will reconstruct a man to be a weapon without worry about any human emotions that might bleed through the machinery. When Murphy loses the visor in the movie audiences never want him to put it back on, which is the whole point of the movie. A cartoon directed at children just does not work.


Avatar The Last Airbender Animated Series

Avatar: The Last Airbender is one of the greatest animated series of all time and it was adapted into a live-action film by director M. Night Shyamalan in 2010. The movie was terrible; it suffered from an incomprehensible plot and poor acting. Shyamalan, a big fan of the show, attempted to fit the show’s first 20 episode season into a 90-minute movie.

The movie makes no sense and feels like it is dragging for the entire runtime. It sounds like more care and detail will be taken in the newly announced live-action Netflix series with input from the original show’s creators.

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