It’s common knowledge in the golden age of comic book movies that Hollywood is scavenging all the best source material for their next blockbuster. Before comics ever drove cinema, though, directors and screenwriters turned to beloved and groundbreaking cartoons. More often than not, the Saturday morning children’s fare would be converted into a more adult or all-ages live-action spectacle, attempting to capitalize on name recognition while simultaneously expanding the potential of the short-form story.
While there are excellent examples of cartoons living on as high quality movies, proportionally Hollywood has done wrong by more cartoons than not. Much like comics, cartoons have engendered years of goodwill from fans growing up, and it puts a tremendous pressure on the film adapters to do them right. Frequently, though, it feels like the movies have to try and put their own spin on cartoons in order to bring them to the live action arena, and much can be lost in translation. Too many times beloved cartoons bring excitement to fans everywhere with movie announcements only to have those films dash their joy against the rocks of abysmal Rotten Tomatoes scores. Below you’ll find the cartoons most thoroughly desecrated by feature film adaptations, but hey, at least we’ll always have the original animated series!
15. TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES
Ironically, Hollywood actually got Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles right the first time, with two fun live-action renderings during the early ’90s. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze managed to insert walking talking turtle ninjas into the middle of New York City and retain the joy and heart of the cartoon.
The franchise then sat dormant until 2007 (yes, we’re conveniently ignoring Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III), at which point the hip young TMNT promptly fell straight down a manhole. Sure the effects have improved since the early ’90s, but Michelangelo’s witty gags and Raphael’s angsty antics were never reliant on sleek design. The 2014 re-reboot of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, produced by Michael Bay with April O’Neil played by Megan Fox, feels like an even further step away from the quality of the comics and cartoons that launched in the ’80s.
14. G.I. JOE
While the “Real American Heroes” can lay claim to one of the most beloved cartoons of the ’80s and perhaps the single funniest overdub YouTube series of all time, live-action movie adaptations have been a bust. Through two late ’00s movies, Rise of Cobra and Retaliation, the franchise has turned star talent (Channing Tatum, Bruce Willis, Dwyane Johnson) into a pile of mundane mush.
Hollywood and the powers that be are well aware of G.I. Joe’s failure on the silver screen, and are planning to reboot the franchise with a focus on younger audiences moving forward. While any direction that includes the phrase “millennial approach” gives well-deserved reason to pause, there’s no denying the G.I. Joe franchise needs a kick in the military issue pants.
13. SCOOBY DOO
Apart from the titular Scooby, the good old fashioned detective stories of Scooby Doo seem like they should translate pretty easily to movies. After all, at its core, Scooby Doo is teenagers solving crimes, about as time-tested a screenwriting formula as you can find. Fred, Daphne, Velma, Shaggy and Scooby have been solving crimes for Hanna-Barbera since 1969; surely they could continue the trend in 2002?
Mix in a horribly CGI’d puppy and some alien monsters, and suddenly the whole formula goes right out the window. 2002’s Scooby Doo was harmless if insipid, but Scooby Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed really ended any momentum the movie franchise might have built. Given the success of DC Comics’ recent Scooby Apocalypse perhaps there’s a rebooted future for movie Scooby to achieve redemption.
12. GHOST IN THE SHELL
Few films embody the arrogance and tone-deaf flaws of Hollywood at large quite like 2017’s Ghost in the Shell. The casting of our once and future Black Widow, Scarlett Johansson, led to Paramount pictures inviting early and vocal indignation targeting the film’s whitewashing. The controversy was so well documented that few will remember much about the live-action Ghost in the Shell apart from its role in shining a light on Hollywood’s whitewashing practices.
The impact has already been felt across comic book related media, with Ed Skrein stepping down from his role in the planned Hellboy reboot. The fact that Ghost in the Shell is a mess of a film and pales in comparison to both the manga, anime, and animated series that fans across the world love certainly doesn’t help matters.
There are few enormous movie franchises as maligned as Transformers. The big-budget, all spectacle blockbusters miss so much about what made the cartoon and comics beloved, it’s a wonder they share intellectual property. The series launch in 2007, directed by Michael Bay starring Shia LaBeouf and Megan Fox, began innocently enough, but has delivered diminishing returns ever since.
Now five films deep with no signs of abating, it’s nearly impossible to map the incongruous machine mashing of the movies with the heart and soul of a cartoon-inspired comic book like Transformers: More Than Meets The Eye. Like so many of these beloved TV shows, there remains endless optimism that the financial success of the franchise will allow it the opportunity to right the proverbial autobot.
10. AEON FLUX
The 2005 action movie starring Charlize Theron achieves the rare status of a standing 9% on critical film score aggregate Rotten Tomatoes, or essentially the entertainment equivalent of a blank screen covered in dust. Aeon Flux is actually an ambitious selection for an animated translation, and there’s no denying the futuristic (alleged) Utopia run by a totalitarian government could have plenty of legs under the right creative direction.
Really the best that can be said for the film is that Charlize Theron looks the part and simply by offering a movie version more fans are likely to discover the Aeon Flux animated series. For anyone turned off by the movie, the animated series is one of the more interesting takes on the spy genre, with an inventive, mature series airing late on MTV during the early 90’s.
9. THE FLINTSTONES
A live-action Flintstones movie was always going to be a tall order, but the 1994 interpretation made things even harder than they needed to be. To its credit, casting Kyle MacLachlan as an executive named Cliff Vandercave and Halle Berry as the seductive Miss Stone leads to some excellent trivia night answers, but there’s not much else to pull away from this live rendering of Bedrock.
Despite the sinking feeling that a live-action Flintstones feels destined for failure, Mark Russell and Steve Pugh’s recent Flintstones comic for DC has shown just how truly eye-opening these characters can be in the right creative hands. Russell and Pugh’s Flintstones tackles the dawn of civilization with an eye towards modern parallels, while the live-action version took 35 screenwriting credits to tackle bowling jokes.
8. JEM AND THE HOLOGRAMS
To be honest, we’re still confused how 2015’s Jem bombed quite as hard as it did. The recent Jem and the Holograms comic book series showed that the concept is still very much at the peak of its powers, but for whatever reason, this failed to translate onto movie screens rocking across the free world. The filmmakers inexcusably eschewed the silly wit of the source material for more familiar – and banal – teenage drama.
It’s unlikely to happen now, but it still unquestionably feels like Jem and the Holograms is deserving of a worthy translation to the big screen. An attempt truer to the feel of the original could absolutely do wonders at the box office. Instead, fans will have to look back at Jem, Kimber, Shana and Aja’s adventures on the excellent animated series.
7. THE SMURFS
Who could have ever guessed there wouldn’t be tremendous appetite for a Smurfs movie in 2016? The little blue village’s first feature joins the ranks of Garfield and Alvin and the Chipmunks as some of the most contemptible recent fare designed to distract children. There’s very little telling what gets into the mind of Hollywood producers, but Smurfs also joins 2016’s Trolls in a strange wave of “tiny cute things” momentum for the year.
Much like Flintstones it could be very interesting to see the right creative hands take the Smurfs in a more modern direction. It would seem that there’s just as much potential to position the classic cartoon as insightful all-ages media, particularly given the literal giant angry white man who hunts their kind. In the interim, you’ll always have this depressing version of the Smurfs to unflinchingly skip over.
6. SPEED RACER
We’re still mildly excited about the possibilities of a Wachowski family directed Speed Racer and it’s been nearly a decade since the feature film came and went to little aplomb. Just imagine, the directors who reinvented the action genre taking on ultrafast death Nascar! Instead, Speed Racer simply fills the curious gap between The Matrix trilogy and the bonkers and inspiring story of Sense8.
Somewhat unsurprisingly, Speed Racer is all flash and no substance, with an arcade-like special effects glow more likely to result in migraines than thrills. To its credit, Speed Racer makes no bones about its aggressively flashy desire to bludgeon your sensory receptacles into oblivion, but that doesn’t make it any more enjoyable. There may well be an acceptable Speed Racer adaptation in the wings, but we have to wonder if this doesn’t mean Racer X missed his shot.
Underdog deserved better. Everyone’s mom’s favorite cartoon succumbed to Hollywood’s recurring disastrous impulse to place special effects dogs among real people. 2007’s Underdog had potential, with Game of Thrones own Peter Dinklage playing the nefariously named Dr. Simon Barsinister, but instead Underdog walks the mushy line of playing to middle-of-the-road family sensibilities.
Released a year prior to Marvel’s Iron Man, there’s an argument to be made that a film like Underdog — but not this version of Underdog specifically — could do very well in the modern era of superhero cinema. Genuinely affecting all ages superhero fare is uncommon these days, and characters like Underdog are in line for surprise success. Hollywood is ready for an all ages creation that can start a phrase with “Have no fear!” and not find audiences everywhere cringing.
4. THE SUPER MARIO BROS
Yes, of course, technically all Mario media is based on the Nintendo video games. Nonetheless, it frequently goes overlooked that the trainwreck of a Super Mario Bros movie was preceded by an enjoyable cartoon. Whereas the cartoon is a sensible interpretation of the gameplay from creators who had seemingly been in the room with a Nintendo before, the Super Mario Bros movie is bewildering beyond words.
Of all the cartoon adaptations that went awry, Super Mario Bros is certainly the most fascinating. Bob Hoskins and John Leguizamo give life to Mario and Luigi, living in Manhattan and plumbing the daylights out of New York’s clogged sewage. It’s not exactly a movie you ever want to rewatch — or watch for that matter — but the sheer volume of curious, inexplicable decisions make Super Mario Bros hard to turn away from.
3. YOGI BEAR
To be fair, Yogi Bear the movie lives up to its “Smarter than the average bear!” promise. Unfortunately, the average bear is an absolute nincompoop. Cash-grab is too generous to Yogi, a film that simply grabs a well known character license in the hopes that confused parents will try to stun their children into silence for nearly two hours in front of the movie.
We don’t envy the creative forces attempting to liven up source material that spends an awful lot of time concentrated on picnic baskets, but certainly there were better approaches than this. The current DC Comics and Hanna-Barbera partnership has elevated the status and intelligence of several long-dormant cartoons (see: The Flintstones, Space Ghost), so ideally Yogi Bear sees a similar revision for another chance at Hollywood stardom.
2. AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER
Cartoon Network’s Avatar: The Last Airbender is a stunningly strong cartoon series, and without the question the reigning leader in all Avatar power rankings (nobody tell James Cameron). Renowned master of the horror twist M. Night Shyamalan took on Avatar as a feature film in 2010 and unfortunately the epic source material was muted into a joyless mess that makes you wonder why the film was made in the first place.
In many ways The Last Airbender helps fans appreciate just how good Avatar was, and why it made more sense in the realm of cartoons. The movie version has to hem and haw around plot exposition so frequently that it occasionally plays like a Wikipedia entry for the poor souls who haven’t watched the full cartoon before. Avatar deserves a proper movie adaptation at some point, but sadly this wasn’t it.
1. MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE
It’s a little bit harder to hate on 1987’s Masters of the Universe because it doesn’t reek as strongly of corporate greed as much of the CGI-laden 2000’s movie fare. Sure, it’s still objectively terrible, but Masters of the Universe at least feels like a film crew trying their darndest with the source material of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. Unfortunately, they have approximately no idea how to get there with the technology at their disposal.
It’s no surprise that He-Man and the Masters of the Universe is due for a late 2010’s reboot, given the ardent fanbase and rich ground for story. Also, if we’re being honest, you can really only go up from the 1987 attempt at telling the He-Man story. We’re not necessarily opposed to casting Dolph Lundgren as the titular He-Man again, but perhaps there are other options this time around.
Which beloved cartoon has Hollywood butchered the worst? Let us know in the comments!
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