Can you hear that? The rumbling in the distance? That’s the sound of Disney’s accountants furiously reporting just how much money the studio can make by digging into its considerable collection of animated classics and converting them into live-action movies. It not only sounds like the war drums of an army of Uruk-hai, but it’s about as imposing as that impending horde. While there is hope that some of these films might end up being interesting movies in their own right, there’s also that ever-present remake fear that Disney is preparing to milk their former most lucrative cash cow.
Even if you accept the inevitability that animated films are next in line for a short trip through the remake machine, that doesn’t mean that you have to accept that every beloved animated movie will inevitably be remade. Putting aside the unfortunately unreasonable argument that every animated classic should be left alone, there is a select group of animated movies that should be left alone for the simple fact that a live-action version just wouldn’t work for some fundamental reason. Maybe our pleas aren’t enough to drown out the imposing sound off in the distance, but they help serve as a talking point for why certain animated movies are best left as classics.
These are 15 Great Animated Movies That Would Be Terrible In Live-Action.
15 The Iron Giant
1999’s The Iron Giant was a certified box office bomb - it made about $31 million on a $70+ million budget - but time has been kind to director Brad Bird’s first big-budget animated feature. In fact, The Iron Giant is regularly cited as one of the greatest animated films ever made. Its tongue in cheek Cold War commentary combined with the heartwarming (and heartbreaking) relationship between a boy and a giant robot stands as a fantastic testament to why films aimed at a younger audience should still treat their viewers as intelligent fans.
Part of the reason why this movie shouldn’t be remade, live-action or otherwise, is that people are still discovering it. The Iron Giant wasn’t so much ahead of its time as it was a gem too bright to fully take in upon first glance. Besides that, much of the film’s propaganda-esque commentary is meant to work within the confines of an animated setting. Designing a CG giant as emotionally expressive as the animated version could also present problems.
14 South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut
It’s hard to believe that South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut was released way back in 1999. Of course, that was arguably the peak of South Park’s stranglehold on the rebellious youth subculture that was fueling a raunchy revolution in popular entertainment. While many scoffed at the very idea of South Park, those who took a chance on the movie found that it was a biting social satire with a fantastic soundtrack.
Now, you might be thinking that there is no way anyone would ever dream of making a live-action South Park movie. If that’s the case, then you haven’t been paying attention these last couple of decades. While such a production may be a bit of a stretch, the fact remains that in terms of truly awful live-action adaptation ideas, this is certainly one of the top contenders. The absurd and intentionally poorly drawn world of South Park only really works because it is animated. Actual cursing kids participating in CG-fueled ranch adventures wouldn’t pack enough entertainment to justify even a fan-made trailer.
13 Lady and the Tramp
Lady and the Tramp occupies a strange section of Disney’s animated film hierarchy. It’s beloved in a way and is generally thought of as something of a classic, but it doesn’t regularly appear near the top of any “greatest animated Disney films” lists. Still, the movie feels remarkably fresh considering that it was released in 1955. Its Romeo and Juliet love story as told through the perspective of two dogs is the kind of timeless plot that always finds a way to entertain new generations.
The reason Lady and the Tramp should be rescued from the ever-widening jaws of live-action remakes has less to do with its timeless nature and more to do with how awkward movies with animal stars can be when anything but animation is utilized to render cinematic critters. Live-action animals with voiceovers trigger a form of uncanny valley effect that makes it hard to pay attention to anything else but the technology.
12 The Secret of NIMH
The Secret of NIMH is another movie that was largely overlooked during its time and has since attracted something of a cult following. Simply put, Don Bluth’s story about a mouse trying to save her son by embarking upon a great journey failed to attract the slightly older audience that its surprisingly intelligent plot would have certainly appealed to. The movie’s resurgence can be traced back to a younger generation with fond memories revisiting it and finding that the movie works on more levels than they initially appreciated.
From a production standpoint, The Secret of NIMH’s animation is a somewhat intentionally odd. The movie’s animation team was experimenting with several new design techniques that lend the film its somewhat unique look. That look goes a long way to selling the dark and unnerving world of the movie without the script needing to force the film’s mature elements. We only hope that those rumors about a Smurfs-like reboot don't' actually become a full-length feature.
11 Ninja Scroll
Ninja Scroll is one of those movies that you’ll certainly always remember if you so happened to stumble upon it as a child. The film’s many instances of nudity, violence, and sexual assault no doubt caught a few unaware young viewers off-guard. Despite being relentlessly brutal, Ninja Scroll is considered to be one of the most revolutionary adult animated films of all-time. Its approach to animated action is not only still used as a genre template, but has inspired several live-action action film directors as well.
While Ninja Scroll may have influenced a generation of live-action film directors, that doesn’t mean the movie itself should ever receive the live-action treatment. Besides the fact that Ninja Scroll’s brutality wouldn’t really translate well to CG (no one needs to see a digital rock monster molesting a young ninja, for instance) there is no way a live-action adaptation of this movie could ever recreate the film’s most dazzling sequences.
10 Perfect Blue
Perfect Blue is one of the more obscure entries on this list. It made the film circuit rounds back in 1997 and generated a little buzz before slipping through the cracks of time. Those who saw the film back then or since know that its the type of movie that you can’t properly explain through words alone. This tale of a former pop idol turned actress whose ability to distinguish life from hallucinations is as bizarre a piece of psychological filmmaking as you’ll ever find.
Perfect Blue is another movie that has influenced many live-action films (most notably Requiem for a Dream), but its creator has long maintained that the movie really only works as an animated feature. He’s absolutely right. The film’s use of symbolic color palettes, dream sequences, and unsettling emptiness all rely on a traditional animated style to achieve their full effect. A live-action adaptation is technically possible, but it would have to work twice as hard to achieve half as much.
9 The Emperor’s New Groove
The Emperor’s New Groove was released at the tail end of the Disney animated film Renaissance period. While nobody - not even young viewers - put it alongside the likes of The Little Mermaid and The Lion King, there’s no denying that the film’s lovably lighthearted comedic style harkens back to a simpler time when animated movies were primarily designed to make the audience laugh. So far as that goes, it truly is one of the funniest films of that particular era of Disney animation.
While there are many human characters that ultimately steal the show from the talking llama that all the kids love, the idea of a live-action/CG adaptation of this film is a tough one to get behind. If you stop looking at this film from a technical perspective and view it from a style and structural standpoint, you’ll likely find that there are too many instances of little jokes and world-building moments that can only be achieved when every inch of the frame is being dictated by an artist's hand.
8 Inside Out
Looking back, the weeks leading up to the debut of Inside Out weren’t really filled with the kind of overwhelming anticipation that typically serves as the launchpad for a new Pixar movie. There was excitement, but there was also a feeling that we’d seen the best the studio could do. As many of you no doubt know, this story of the emotional development of a young girl taught us that Pixar still very much holds the key to the locks we use to cage our inner child.
It’s hard to imagine how a studio would make a live-action adaption of a movie like Inside Out without having to apply a painfully heavy coat of CG to nearly every scene. Actually, it’s the movie’s more intimate moments that present the real problem. Rendering sets like the control room or even the emotion’s costumes would be difficult to do without everything looking cheap, regardless of what the movie’s budget may be.
Is Wall-E Pixar’s greatest achievement? That’s a matter worthy of a great debate, but there’s no denying that it’s certainly one of the studio’s most ambitious endeavors. Wall-E’s infamous dialog-free opening and dark musings on the future of humanity were the kinds of things that really made you question whether or not Pixar intended for this movie to appeal to a younger audience. In typical Pixar fashion, of course, it did end up appealing to viewers of all ages.
Recent technological innovations such as the brilliant work done to make BB-8 come to life in The Force Awakens suggest that a live-action Wall-E movie may be technically possible, but we’ve never really seen a mechanical creation that is capable of expressing the wide range of emotions that Wall-E expresses. That means that the vast majority of the film would be CG which...well, given the animation style Pixar used for this movie, such a thing would ultimately contribute nothing new or interesting to the world of film.
Pinocchio was far from a box office disaster when it was released in 1940, but that whole World War going on in Europe and Asia really put a dent in the movie’s reach. Of course, those who saw the film at the time of its release, as well as those who found it in the years since, came to the same conclusion: Pinocchio is the crowning achievement of that golden era of Disney animation, and arguably the finest animated movie ever made.
There’s certainly a “leave the memories alone” element to our plea for no live-action adaptation of this film, but since that has never stopped anyone from remaking a film, we won’t stop there. Actually, one of the best reasons why a live-action Pinocchio should be avoided at all costs is the 1996 live-action movie, The Adventures of Pinocchio. While technology has improved since then, and an eventual live-action remake may be made by more talented people, that movie shows that there is a strange disconnect that occurs when this story receives the live-action treatment.
5 The Little Mermaid
Speaking of Disney movies that are reportedly set to receive the live-action treatment, let’s all fondly reminisce about The Little Mermaid. When The Little Mermaid was released, Disney’s animation department wasn’t quite as highly regarded as it once was. Of course, once viewers laid eyes on the movie’s revolutionary visuals and allowed its soundtrack to forever invade their subconscious, the fabled Disney Renaissance was officially kickstarted.
Beyond its role as one of the most historically significant animated movies ever made, what makes The Little Mermaid truly special? While it may seem painfully convenient to this particular argument to suggest that the answer is the quality of the animation, there is an undeniable element of truth to that statement. The Little Mermaid is an expertly choreographed fairy tale that often relies on the freedom of animation to convey the full impact of the film’s most memorable beats. The idea of getting as emotionally invested in a half-CG protagonist feels like a bit of a stretch, and heavily computer rendered underwater segments still look kind of unpolished.
4 Spirited Away
Spirited Away is less of a movie you watch and more of one that you discover. No, that’s not our bid to get a pull quote on the movie’s next Blu-Ray release (although….) but rather an attempt to convey the magic in nearly every frame of what many consider to be Hayao Miyazaki’s masterpiece. Now, if you want to, you can spend years dissecting the film’s themes and messages. Most of us, though, are too busy trying to wrap our heads around how a human mind can envision such a horrifying, lovely, and dreamlike world populated by characters that only previously existed in childish imaginations.
Richard Roeper once said that you can’t do Spirited Away as a live-action film because the production budget for the sets would make the final project cost somewhere around $1 billion. Even if a studio were able to come in under that budget, such an estimate speaks to how painfully difficult it would be to recreate this world through any technique other than the pen, brush, and vision of Hayao Miyazaki.
Much like Pinnochio, Fantasia’s 1940 release date meant that many viewers in war-torn parts of the world were unable to view the film during its initial theatrical run. What a challenge it must have been for someone who had seen the movie to describe it to someone who had not. Fantasia was Disney’s attempt to see just how far they could push the perceived technological limits of animation and film sound design. Fantasia was a pure spectacle, the likes of which audiences weren’t quite prepared for.
As significant as Fantasia is, it’s hard to deny that the movie doesn’t have much to offer once you look beyond its technical majesty. The movie’s segments are thin on plot (intentionally so) and don’t come close to approaching the other memorable adventures of Disney’s golden age. It wouldn’t be that tall of a task to replicate Fantasia’s achievements through CG and set pieces, and that’s kind of the point. Fantasia should inspire filmmakers to push modern technology, not inspire them to dig up the innovations of the past and dress them up for another viewing.
2 The Nightmare Before Christmas
The Nightmare Before Christmas is the product of several visions. It was Tim Burton who first dreamed up the initial concept of a story focused on the magic of various holidays while he was still working at Disney, Rick Heinrichs who provided the first design models, and Henry Selick who helped Burton flesh out his initial vision. Disney originally rejected the movie in the ‘80s because they felt it was too weird (which really makes you wonder why they hired Burton), but eventually agreed to produce the film through its Touchstone Pictures subsidiary after Burton had left the company.
The reason you need to know all of this is so that you can appreciate what an explosion of combined creativity this movie really was. It was a dream project for several visionaries who had to fight for it to come into existence. Yes, a live-action version of the movie might technically be able to replicate the film’s visuals (although that’s not as much of a given as you might suspect) but the magic of this movie is irreplaceable and timeless.
At the time of Akira’s release in 1988, many casual Western film fans associated Japanese animation with bizarre half-hour cartoons. Of course, that’s if they even thought of the style at all. Anyone who did possess that mentality that so happened to take a chance on Akira must have been in for quite the shock. Yes, that has something to do with Akira’s generous levels of gore and horror, but that statement speaks more to the movie’s rich blend of surrealism, action, sci-fi, and social commentary. Akira triggered the imaginations of an upcoming generation of filmmakers and may just be the most influential film of the ‘80s.
All this is to say that there might be a reason why a live-action version of Akira has been stuck in development hell for years now, and why directors like Jordan Peele have passed on it. If Akira goes live-action, many of its conventions will be interpreted as clichés by audiences unfamiliar with the original movie’s influence. However, the spellbinding animation of the original movie ensures that every new viewer will recognize Akira as the remarkable and irreplicable piece of filmmaking that it is. Let's thank our lucky stars that the original creator has final say over the prospects of a remake.
What animated classics do you think would be downright awful in live-action? Let us know in the comments.