Turning cartoons into live-action movies: Rarely has a concept sounded so much better in theory than it usually works out in execution. The thought of what animation might look like recreated with sets and actors is enough to light up the mind’s eye — but the trouble is, it almost never ends up looking that way. Instead, it looks like “Inspector Gadget” or “Mr. Magoo,” or the “Alvin” and “Scooby-Doo” movies or that epiphany of live-cartoon awfulness, “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” It looks chintzy and broad and fake. On rare occasions, though, you see a picture like Robert Altman’s “Popeye” or the 2016 version of “Pete’s Dragon,” and it reminds you that turning a cartoon into a live-action feature can be an act of alchemy. With Disney’s live-action “Beauty and the Beast” hitting theaters this weekend, and with “Ghost in the Shell” (starring Scarlett Johansson) around the corner, we thought we’d look at six cartoons — from movies or television — that feel as if they’d be the most promising candidates for a real live makeover.
Courtesy of Disney
The Iron Giant
It’s one of the most lyrical animated features of the last 30 years, with an Atomic Age mechanical-man wonder and a stately poetic hush that recalls the early films of Steven Spielberg. But Brad Bird’s marvel of a movie also has a touching neo-‘50s straightforwardness that would translate beautifully into live action. Seen now, it might also have a piercing relevance: With its mysterious high-tower swivel-socket robot who is perfectly nice until provoked, it’s like a junior version of “The Day the Earth Stood Still” — a parable of the unfamiliar just waiting to be understood.
Courtesy of Warner Bros.
Did you ever see the fake trailer for the live-action version of the cultishly popular MTV cartoon? Produced by College Humor (you can still catch it on YouTube), it showed up in the summer of 2013 and featured Aubrey Plaza, at the moment her career was shooting into orbit, as the peerlessly affectless teenage cynic who stares out at the world like a blasé owl from behind her big round spectacles. Plaza’s deviously spot-on turn was enough to demonstrate the big-screen viability of a “Daria” movie; in just two minutes, she turned fatally flat affect into comic style (“We haven’t seen each other in 10 years. For all I know, you’re a serial killer — or worse, married”). The conceit of the trailer is that Daria goes back to Lawndale for her high-school reunion, but at this point the story hardly matters. What does is the character’s of-its-moment yet timeless ‘tude. I suggest sending Daria to college, the perfect place for her anti-social tendencies to confront social media and trigger warnings.
Courtesy of MTV
Okay, we know that the live-action version of “The Flintstones” (1994) didn’t work out so well, packing all the comic wallop of a Styrofoam boulder. But “The Jetsons,” which in the ’60s played futuristic yin to “The Flintstones'” Stone Age yang, was always a sci-fi burlesque of fussy technology, and in the hands of an audacious filmmaker — Paul Feig (“Bridesmaids”), say, or maybe Alex Garland (“Ex Machina”) — it could be an absurdist take-off on our time. A “Jetsons” animated feature came out in 1990, and a second one is in the works now. But why? Do we really need another literal dose of boomer cartoon nostalgia? Better to see this space-age family brought into the shiny and tactile live-action Futurama future.
Courtesy of Universal Studios
In polite company (or even impolite company), you’re not allowed to say, “I think ‘Family Guy’ is a more inspired work of satire than ‘South Park.'” But I totally do! Its creator and costar, Seth MacFarlane, is a fast-break paragon of ripped-from-the-id naughtiness, but thus far on the big screen (the “Ted” films, “A Million Ways to Die in the West”), MacFarlane has proved a scattershot pottymouth prankster. What he needs is a movie that lets him up the ante of outrageousness on his most brilliant creation, and a live-action “Family Guy” could be more than a walking cartoon — it could be a surreal comedy of suburban idiocracy. I see John C. Reilly as the proudly clueless patriarch-boob Peter Griffin, Lena Dunham as the level-headed and neurotically charitable Lois, and — shrunken by digital technology — Jim Parsons as Stewie, the hilariously conniving baby misanthrope.
Courtesy of Fox
Sofia the First
If you think that the world needs less, and not more, princess culture, you’re probably right. Yet the more you watch the ingenious Disney Channel cartoon about a so-ordinary-she’s-extraordinary girl named Sofia, who is plucked from the village of Enchancia and turned — overnight! — into a princess when her widowed mother marries King Roland II, the richer and more moving it becomes. The show is “Cinderella” meets “The Brady Bunch” for first-graders, and the beauty of it is that it’s half sparkly tiara fantasy, half “Princess and the Pauper” morality tale. It’s about the challenge of what it is to be truly royal, and it would make a smashing live-action movie for kids. Bonus: You could keep Tim Gunn in his supporting role as Baileywick, the castle steward!
Courtesy of Disney Junior
It’s no fluke that the first two animated features ever produced by Walt Disney — “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” (1937) and, three years later, “Pinocchio” — are two of his most incandescent achievements. They have a storybook simplicity about them, a quality that rises out of the feeling that they were inventing and discovering the animated medium with the lush sincerity of every frame. Translating that spirit to live action wouldn’t be easy, yet the tale of “Pinocchio” remains unique in its yearning melancholy, even as it requires an emotional delicacy that has become all too rare. I say: Get Kenneth Branagh, who did such a splendid job two years ago directing “Cinderella,” to make us wish once again upon a star. (Disney and Warner Bros. announced plans in 2015 for live-action “Pinocchio” reboots, but both are still in early stages of development.)