There is a foolish notion among Hollywood executives that if it worked as a cartoon then it will work again in live action. Two examples from earlier this year, “Ghost in the Shell” and Disney’s ”Beauty and the Beast,” and have me personally convinced that there is very little that live action can authentically bring to something that was brought into this world animated.
In the case of Disney, the current trend of remaking old animated classics started with Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland,” which made over $1 billion in worldwide revenue. It showed that audiences were eager to revisit their childhoods in a way that felt more real and grounded than a classic cartoon. It also showed that audiences were willing to forgive weak storytelling to have their nostalgia tickled.
The most recent release from Disney, “Beauty and the Beast,” is only a few months old. This had completely slipped the mind of my editor, who confessed that she had “completely forgot they even made it.” (Note: She also wrote the review.)
I can’t blame her. There really isn’t much to remember, other than Emma Watson’s singing as Belle sounding so robotic that it puts Scarlett Johansson’s performance as cyborg Major Motoko Kusanagi to shame – but we’ll get to her later.
The point is, it made $1 billion based on the nostalgic love fans had for the original, but it didn’t add anything of real substance to the tale as old as 1991. I miss how you could tell what Belle was feeling just by the inflections in her voice, which was accompanied by some of the finest character animation for a female lead that Disney had managed up to that point.
I also missed the exaggerated storytelling in the 1991 “Beauty and the Beast.” Do you remember just how scary the Beast’s castle was in the cartoon? Everything felt gothic and larger than life, making Belle truly frightened when the Beast led her up to her room. Bits of the architecture looked downright demonic, which was symbolic of how appearances can be deceiving. As Belle and the Beast begin to fall in love, the castle showed its true beauty as Belle also discovered the beauty that is hidden within the Beast.
When the castle transforms in the 2017 adaptation of “Beauty,” it just looks cleaner and brighter. The sets don’t change much to reflect the current emotional states of the characters, which is something that is easily achievable with pen and ink.
There are no scary gargoyles turning into angels, and no sentient objects magically changing human again in puffs of candy sparks. Such details would have likely been too difficult to make look credible with computer graphics, but instead of finding creative alternatives, most of the characters just magically change off screen. The symbolic resonance of the ending is lost in order to accommodate a more grounded visual language.
Most of the remake’s storyline is the same as the cartoon, but without all of the bubbly animated touches to give it warmth and character. A realistic Lumière and Cogsworth, a talking candlestick and clock, respectively, are more creepy than they are charming. They are cursed by a lack of caricature, since they have to look like real objects that Watson must interact with.
It would be wrong to solely point the finger at Disney though. The controversial “Ghost in the Shell” adaptation, which also came out earlier this year, put its worst foot forward by casting white actress Johansson as Major Motoko Kusanagi. However, there was not only adaptation decay from moving the story from medium to medium, but also from culture to culture. Something that was once exotic and Japanese to English-speaking audiences turned into a shiny but clunky Hollywood product.
“Ghost in the Shell,” both the manga and the original anime film, took a lot of visual influence from sci-fi classics like “Blade Runner.” What made it truly stand out was the sexy futuristic trappings which the cyborg Motoko was drawn into. There was depth behind the sleek, somewhat erotic art style, something the American version just blanks on.
They put their emphasis in the wrong place.
The moment that you put a real person into one of Motoko’s tight sci-fi jumpsuits, the eroticism feels embarrassing. What was once sleek and sexy when drawn becomes dorky and uncomfortable. The scene where Motoko jumps off the top of a building in a flesh-colored leotard looks neat when animated, but induces giggles when Johansson appears to be plummeting into a computer-generated image of clashing neon colors.
Portrayals of women and technology from the source material are only made more questionable by the film’s insistence on recreating iconic costumes and fights that were never meant to be performed by a real actress. The overreliance on how great Johansson looks next to all the expensive tech wizardry drowns out what little of the story survived from the manga and anime.
Instead of it being a brainy sci-fi yarn with a “sex sells” attitude, “Ghost in the Shell” is a movie that is obsessed with the sex appeal of its heroine and forgets that she also has a cybernetically enhanced brain, which I suppose is easy to do when the primary concern of the production is capturing the material’s stylish shell without pondering the essence of its ghost.
For my non-nerds, I’m basically saying that director Rupert Sanders doesn’t actually understand what makes “Ghost in the Shell” work. I’m convinced that Bill Condon didn’t understand “Beauty and the Beast” either, otherwise he wouldn’t have copied the entire thing.
If I could travel back in time, I would have left this parting advice: Accept that you are going to make something that is inspired by a cartoon, but instead of trying to make a cartoon with actors, maybe try to understand what made people like the cartoon in the first place. Then, when you figure that out, really think about how you can capture that same feeling in your medium without pandering or imitating. Or the studios you both work for could stop taking things that people genuinely love in order to grab cash from them. That would be best for everyone!