Animation as a Fallback

By  · Published on April 7th, 2017

How ‘Smurfs,’ ‘Ghostbusters,’ ‘Ghost in the Shell’ and more are keeping their brands alive after live-action disappointments.

As the live-action Hollywood version of Ghost in the Shell looks to lose $60m after audiences ignored it at the box office last weekend, Japanese publisher Kodansha and anime studio Production I.G. have announced a new animated project based on Masamune Shirow’s classic manga with Kenji Kamiyama and Shinji Aramaki on board as co-directors.

There are no other details, not even clarification on whether the plan is for a new anime series or feature, and this is something that has been teased since before the new movie’s release, but the timing of the greenlight announcement comes across as damage control, reminding fans that Ghost in the Shell will live on as a property more properly once again.

It’s also interesting that this is happening as the animated feature Smurfs: The Lost Village opens in theaters. Sony decided to reboot the little blue creatures in this format after the disappointing box office of 2013’s live-action/CG-animation hybrid The Smurfs 2. The studio had been well into development on a third movie in that series but decided to shut it down.

Sony has done something slightly similar since then, too. Following its disappointment with the performance of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, soon after making a deal with Marvel for co-production of another live-action reboot of the superhero franchise, the studio also announced an animated Spider-Man feature in development that they are exclusively producing.

Also at Sony, Ivan Reitman is making an animated Ghostbusters feature, which has actually been in the works since 2015 but will seem like another franchise change of course when it’s finished and released. Last year’s live-action reboot was another letdown for the studio, which so far doesn’t appear to be interested in continuing the property in that format.

The cycle may seem like just a trend for one studio at the moment, plus the Ghost in the Shell project, which likely would have gone forward regardless of how the live-action movie did. Paramount, which released the Ghost in the Shell remake, didn’t decide to make an animated G.I. Joe feature after canceling G.I. Joe 3 — they’re going with a live-action reboot instead.

And Disney certainly isn’t going to need to circle back and make more animated Jungle Book and Beauty and the Beast movies. Maybe one day they’ll run out of classics to adapt to live-action and then remake those movies, at least the less-directly translated (such as Maleficent), as animated features. It’d be like the cyclical trend a while back where movies became stage musicals on Broadway and then became movies again, with the songs.

Animation will always be something to fall back on, though, particularly for properties originating in that format or some other related medium, like children’s books and comics. Sony has plans for an animated Popeye almost 40 years after the relatively unsuccessful live-action movie of the same name (which was released almost 50 years after the first theatrical Popeye cartoon). And Universal has an animated How the Grinch Stole Christmas in the works almost 20 years after the release of its live-action movie (which was released almost 40 years after the classic animated version). Animation also just has more box office potential because it’s more kid-friendly.

Of course, some properties can have live-action and animated incarnations running simultaneously, such as in the case of Disney and Marvel running Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy cartoons on television while also producing movies with the same characters. And Warner Bros. and DC keep making animated Batman movies separate from live-action features.

Those animated versions are able to be distinct in that they’re made for TV or directly for home video (excluding the one-day theatrical screenings for Batman: The Killing Joke). But linked-up series and movies can exist, too. Disney has the animated Star Wars Rebels cartoon, which is part of the same canon as the theatrical live-action movies.

We’ll soon see if audiences are fine with also having two formats on the big screen, whether canonically connected or not. In addition to Sony having separate Spider-Man universes heading to theaters, one live-action, one animated, Paramount has been developing an animated prequel to its live-action Transformers movie franchise, as part of its expansion plans.

More animated fallbacks need to happen to prove the idea is in fashion. It won’t be surprising if the next Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie is another animated feature (for now, the property still continues to produce animated TV series). Perhaps Bourne, Independence Day, and Zoolander can continue in animation, even though that’s not their original medium.

The Movie Franchises That Died in 2016

If certain creative fans had their way, there would be animated continuations of Indiana Jones (watch this), The Terminator (watch this), Firefly (watch this), and Lost in Space (watch this) – the first two properties are instead expected to continue with live-action movies, while the last one is actually being rebooted as another live-action TV series.

Not that this looks like a fad so much as a typical cycle. Like the animated TMNT being made between live-action Ninja Turtles movie series and Batman: The Animated Movie released between the Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher live-action Batman franchises. There’s a good chance that in the future we’ll see live-action reboots of Smurfs and Ghost in the Shell, too.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.