A-List: Worst Live Action Movies based on Cartoons
By J. Don Birnam
April 14, 2016

Keep on rockin' in the free world.

Last week, we saw one of the new rites of movie spring - a funny Melissa McCarthy movie. This weekend, we face another: a Disney live action adaptation of one of its classic cartoons. From Cinderella to Maleficent and Alice in Wonderland, the House of Mouse has done well for itself in turning well-known stories into real-life depictions. Indeed, this weekend’s The Jungle Book is but the next step in a long list of upcoming such movies, from Dumbo to the beloved Beauty and the Beast.

But today, we will not dwell on these well-to-do and reliable movies that we have come expect from Disney & Co. Today, we look at some of the least fortunate adaptations of cartoons into live action movies. There is something about the movies that follow that makes them hard to swallow. It is not that they are meant to be kids’ movies - many live action adaptations of cartoons have done very well and deserve recognition as solid movies, from the first adaptation of The Flintstones and Scooby Doo, to even Jim Carrey’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

Sadly, there are many more adaptations on the other side of the ledger, which is why we are doing a “worst of” list today. The task was so daunting, in fact, that I’m going to exclude live action adaptations of comic strips superhero movies. That sound you heard was Catwoman fans everywhere breathing a sigh of relief. So, for that matter, did Ryan Reynolds fans (I was going to say Green Lantern fans, but there are no such people).

I could fill this column with dishonorable mentions so I’ll try to limit myself. Still, if you have hate for a live action ruination of a favorite cartoon of yours, you know where to find me on Twitter. Suffice it to say that the new adaptation of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles really has turned off even this diehard, lifelong fan, but I will forgive them out of the main list only because the original adaptations from the 1980s and 1990s were solid. I also have much disrespect for two pet-themed movies I wish I had skipped, Garfield and Marmaduke. But, both being technically comic strip movies, I’ll also give them a slight pass and leave them in seventh and sixth places.

The odious five this time around are:

5. Alvin and the Chipmunks (2007)

Sorry Jason Lee, but you ain’t Jason Segel. While the lumpy dope is a perfect sidekick to the not-too-serious Muppets, the scrawny nerd simply is not up to the task next to the uber-annoying Chipmunks.

It is hard to know where to begin with a movie like Alvin. Is it the annoying Alvin character and his voice? The ridiculous chipmunk gags or situations? I can take people treating talking animals like humans a la Ted if the entire premise of the movie is that one has to be literally high to understand it. But, if the premise is some sort of whimsical mix of seriousness with childishness, it does not fly - it becomes simply ridiculous.

Yeah, okay, the movie did well at the box office, but that is no measure of success. And though some of the gags do play good homage to the original - Alvin and his brothers running Dave’s dating and professional life - the movie too often resorts to potty humor instead of giving its audience a real chance.

Did I mention Jason Lee is nowhere near as funny as Jason Segel?

4. Inspector Gadget (1999)

Here one that I am including on the list mostly because of how much it ruined what used to be a beloved cartoon for me. Okay, first of all, I don’t care how classically handsome Rupert Everett is, you are not supposed to show Dr. Claw’s face. That is a signature of Gadget, and to ruin it in that way makes the film vomit-worthy from the beginning.

Indeed, it is rare to see Disney miss in one of its adaptations, but here it did so big time. Inspector Gadget is a cyborg police officer? He has a chip to activate him, but then, like Pinocchio, he is activated by love? There is an evil, apocryphal Gadget? I could go on forever - the list of ridiculous, hare-brained ideas in this adaptation are too many to list.

This is a classic example of producers getting way too cute with the source material - the cartoons offered solid shenanigans and interesting contraptions. They offered a beloved, silly and goofy character that Matthew Broderick, I suppose, could have easily portrayed. The convolution to which they resorted was just not necessary.

Need I say more than that, despite its huge box office success, the movie led only to the straight-to-video sequel Inspector Gadget 2?

3. Richie Rich (1994)

I guess one can forgive the 1990s for thinking Broderick was a star - he was. And, certainly, one cannot fault a filmmaker for banking on the pull of Macaulay Culkin’s star in 1994. He was the biggest thing since Elvis Presley, probably, back then.

But that still does not mean one can take a mostly tongue-in-cheek comic strip about a boy that no one really cares about and turns it into a successful adaptation.

Oh, I love Richie Rich the cartoon. But, as could be expected, the live action adaptation that a movie treatment entails is too fraught with temptation for the screenwriters to do exactly what they did here - overly dramatize and romanticize the character. Instead of adventures and conundrums, Richie faces questions of love and loyalty, and of the importance of valuing non-material things. Valuable lessons, to be sure, to teach your children, but not the right vehicle, so to speak.

That this film’s sequel also went straight-to-video proves my point. Have you ever heard of Richie Rich’s Christmas Wish? Hint: it started with “Dear Santa, let me not star in any more of these awful movies.”

2. Josie and the Pussyca…eh….Jem and the Holograms? (2001, 2015)

If it were not for the distinctly different sounds and sights that separate two movies made 14 years apart, it would be impossible to distinguish between these two bumbling messes of film adaptations.

Sure, I’m cheating by putting two here, but can you blame me? Girl bands are popular in our culture - in the 1990s we had the Spice Girls, and we have also had the Pussycat Dolls. But the teen angst that drowned these two adaptations is nowhere to be found in the much more lighthearted cartoons that spawned them.

What I am learning with this analysis, then, is that the inherent tendency of screenwriters to overly dramatize into trite and facile plot devices (girl meets boy, girl loses friend, rich kid learns lesson), simply ruins the more straightforward nature of the cartoons they come from. Mind you, those cartoons have those messages, but they do not hit you over the head with them. And Disney’s adaptations prove that you can reinvent and reimagine a known quantity - but you must do it sincerely and with some novelty.

Trite plot points do not work and these two absolutely horrendous movies are stark reminders of that. Jem, indeed, was the worst wide release opener of 2015 for good reason - they ruined a perfectly simple movie with its unnecessarily contrived drama. Never again.

1. Transformers (2007)

Sorry, Michael Bay fans, but there is a special place of hatred in my heart for the utter, repetitive, relentless ruination of one of the best cartoons from my childhood. Part of the hatred, of course, comes from the fact that I have paid top dollar, likely opening weekend, to see all four of the entries.

I have no one to blame but myself, I admit. I cannot stop watching the train wreck and yet every time I leave the movie, I immediately forget what I just saw. Did they just emulate a terrorist attack on Chicago? Was it the end of humanity? I do not recall the original cartoons being this unnecessarily dense.

The effects may save them, but the acting, the plot, and the continuity of these films is so atrocious as to have become utterly synonymous with Michael Bay-bad. Yeah, this one did not spawn a straight-to-video sequel. Instead, it gave us three (and counting) sequels that all made hundreds of millions of dollars, featured Marky Mark, and have guaranteed that we will have Transformers movies amongst us for years to come.

That, in my mind, only makes this movie even worse.