The biggest benefit that animation has over live action is its ability to commit literally anything to the silver screen, with the depth of any given filmmaker’s imagination the only real limitation possessed by the genre. But sometimes certain movies just feel like they would’ve been better off within the live-action realm. Here are our picks for five animated films that should have been live action:
Though Robert Zemeckis’ use of motion-capture technology in movies like 2004’s The Polar Express and 2007’s Beowulf has been rather iffy (at best), Disney’s A Christmas Carol, released in 2009, stands as the absolute worst that mocap has to offer and the film remains the most misguided effort of Zemeckis’ otherwise impressive career. Zemeckis has transformed Charles Dickens’ beloved novel into a mess of frenetic action sequences and over-the-top instances of comedy, with Jim Carrey’s painfully broad performance draining all traces of humanity from the proceedings. The dead-eyed animation style ultimately adds nothing to Dickens’ surprisingly relevant tale, and it’s clear that a live-action approach would have been far more appropriate.
2. 'The Black Cauldron' (1985)
Based on a series of books by Lloyd Alexander, The Black Cauldron follows a young hero as he and an eclectic band of misfits attempt to prevent a vicious lord from possessing the powerful title object (which would allow him to create an army of undead soldiers). The Black Cauldron, the first animated Disney film to receive a PG rating, remains one of Disney’s biggest bombs, with the movie’s failure generally attributed to its sinister themes and emphasis on frightening images. The film’s pervasively dark atmosphere certainly doesn’t do the dated animation any favors (as in, the movie looks like a product of the 1980s), and it does seem likely that The Black Cauldron would’ve benefited from a live-action, Lord of the Rings-type presentation.
3. 'The Road to El Dorado' (2000)
This rare flop from DreamWorks Animation, which follows a pair of con men as they set out to find a legendary city of gold called El Dorado, primarily comes off as a bland and thoroughly underwhelming piece of work, with the film’s many problems heightened by the interchangeable nature of its two heroes (which is surprising, given the stellar voice work from stars Kenneth Branagh and Kevin Kline). It gets to a point where it becomes impossible not to wish that the whole thing had just been done in live action, as the chemistry between Branagh and Kline is ultimately the one thing that finally saves The Road to El Dorado from becoming a complete disaster.
4. 'Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within' (2001)
As the first computer-animated film to attempt photo realism (rather than cartoonish exaggeration), Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within certainly deserves a place in the history books. By that same token, however, the technology simply wasn’t in place to attempt such an ambitious project back in 2001 and the majority of Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within bears an uncomfortable resemblance to the cinematic sequences that sometimes appear within high-end video games (which is rather ironic, given that the movie is based on a long-running video game series). The film’s futuristic landscape would have fared much better in the live-action realm, although as James Cameron’s Avatar has proved, the technology has come a long way in a few short years.
Filmmaker Richard Linklater made an impressive splash on the animated scene with his first foray into the genre, 2001’s Waking Life, as the director employed a menthod called “rotoscoping” to essentially animate live action footage. The technique, which beautifully complemented the philosophical nature of Waking Life’s narrative, was used to less-than-impressive effect in A Scanner Darkly, with the movie’s science-fiction-oriented storyline ultimately crushed beneath the weight of Linklater’s experimental visual sensibilities. (As Variety critic Justin Chang aptly noted in his review, the movie “feels almost self-consciously geared toward cult status.”)