This week, Jem and the Holograms hits movie theaters – yet another example of a live action remake of a beloved 1980’s cartoons. Of course, the truly, truly outrageous female band isn’t the first cartoon of the era to make the leap into live action. However, the resoundingly negative fan reaction to the trailer and negative critical reviews make it seem like it’ll meet the fate of most of its brethren – another cinematic feature unable to orchestrate this dimensional shift.
But before digging into why these movies tend to fail, it’s important to understand why the cartoons originally worked. The first thing that needs to be made clear is that, looking back, our favorite cartoons of youth were actually shamelessly cynical. After all, they were essentially toy commercials masquerading as entertainment (the power of Synergy, so it were) – but entertainment is the key component. During the heyday of the mid-1980’s, this then-underserved demographic had little in the way of shows or movies dedicated to them. New cartoons such as Transformers, He-Man, Voltron, etc. became the definitive stories for that generation, and they served their primary purpose. Sure, they might have thrown in a PSA here or there (“And knowing is half the battle,” “if I’m a chicken, then you’re a turkey“), but they primarily gave children something fun and thrilling to look forward to after school. Even the actual commercials with their continuing storylines set among the latest addition to play sets were exciting.
While all of this might seem manipulative to our jaded eyes now, it’s important to remember how little that mattered. This was the 1980’s, the Me Generation. It was appropriate, if not outright encouraged, to be so blatant about this type of marketing … as long as it was enjoyable. And these shows were. There was no sense of irony, no need to appeal to all audiences, no need to go meta or get deep (though some of these shows apparently had quite intensive mythologies that most of us probably forgot/never cared about)– just throw brightly colored stuff on screen to distract the kids and encourage them to buy the toys so they can make up their own adventures at the expense of their parents’ bank account.
Most importantly though, these shows were for kids when there was nothing shameful about creating something exclusively for kids. The necessities of the 2010s have created an entirely different breed of animal, one that makes it severely difficult to tap into what made 1980’s so … 80’s. With rare exception (Guardians of the Galaxy being the most recent notable one), it’s uncouth to be so blindly fun. You have to appear to be smarter than the crowd, even if you’re making something incredibly stupid. Meta-style self awareness went from being something cool and clever to a form of ‘damage control.’ A way to let the adults in the crowd know that the filmmakers aren’t taking their childish work seriously, even if they should.
This inability to accept ‘what’ something is and be the best what it can possibly be has lead to a lot of ‘problem’ movies- films that should be for children but feel the need to play towards a mid-PG-13 crowd and thus suffers from significant tonal inconsistencies and inability to truly find its audience. (2014’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles being an obvious example.) Some movies have taken this need to be ‘adult’ even further to their detriment, such as The Smurfs. The Smurfs, which is for toddlers, used taglines such as “Smurf Happens” or “Get SUBAR (Smurfed Up Beyond All Recognition)!” Could there be a single actual adolescent or adult who’d be suckered in because the marketing team replaced a curse word with ‘Smurf’? That technique doesn’t make the movie seem more adult; it’s probably more likely to turn off parents who don’t want to introduce their children to films that would so casually use/imply foul language.
Yet this live action jump has always been notoriously difficult, regardless of the era. Two of the earliest examples were 1987’s Masters of the Universe, which has become a notoriously bad movie (though it’s not overly bad for the 1980’s) and 1990’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which coasts primarily on nostalgia power. However, these two movies actually catered their audience – these are kids movies first and foremost. And it’s to a fault with Masters of the Universe, which trapped its cartoon characters on Earth and shoehorned in two humans (Courtney “Cougar Town” Cox and Robert Duncan “Tom Paris” McNeill) as the actual leads. To be fair, one should also take into account the technical/effects limitations of the time, and how none of these movies really could bring their extensive universes to life then without the backing vision of one of the era’s bigger names such as Zemeckis, Spielberg, or Lucas.
The mid-2000s ushered in a banner time for this sort of movie. Not only did halfway decent CGI become more readily available, but Generation X was prime for the taking yet again. The kids who grew up watching these films turned into adults with a) disposable cash, b) children to pitch to, and c) a desperate craving for nostalgia. And slowly but surely these half-remembered properties from one’s youths are making their way to the big screen (as well as back to the small screen with 2000s-era animated reboots of Transformers, TMNT, G.I. Joe, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, Voltron, etc.).
Surprisingly, Stephen Sommers’ much reviled G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra from 2009 best captured the spirit of a 1980’s cartoon. It’s not a good movie – it’s practically a live action version of Team America: World Police, complete with the destruction of the Eiffel Tower – (compare: G.I. Joe and Team America) without the sense of humor– yet more than any others of this genre, it knew what it was – a live action version of a 1980’s cartoon. Something like that shouldn’t be a good movie, thinking otherwise is nostalgia playing tricks on you. What the movie is, is bright and colorful with characters who present themselves as action figures brandishing items that could easily come in their plastic wrap. There’s underwater bases, crazy technology, betrayals and double betrayals, and fantastic levels of over-the-top and melodramatic acting (from a pretty decent ensemble cast). In short, it was the closest thing to G.I. Joe that a G.I. Joe movie could probably be. But the 2000s warranted a more serious time for action movies, and this approach was looked down upon wholesale rather than appreciated as a failed experiment. Disappointingly, the sequel, G.I. Joe: Retaliation, toned down its more fantastic abilities and made something more akin to a low-rent RED, complete with Bruce Willis. Maybe G.I. Joe: Retaliation is ‘technically’ a more adult movie, but that doesn’t make it better for the subject matter.
And of course, it’s impossible to discuss subgenre without considering Michael Bay’s Transformers series. Arguably the definitive toy/cartoon of the 1980’s, it’s also become one of the most definitive franchises of the past decade – there might be nothing that better shows the changes in filmmaking over the past 20 years than comparing 1987’s Masters of the Universe and 2007’s Transformers. Yet for their incredible worldwide financial success, Transformers probably best represents the disconnect between the original source material and the modern day adaptations.
The original show was fun with a vast array of characters (read: toys) that carried over from episode to episode and had actual personalities. The films aren’t fun, nor do they try to be fun. It’s certainly possible to have fun action sequences in modern times (e.g. Marvel and Star Trek), but the Transformers films have always come across as too self important to want the audience to have a good time watching them. The characters – robots and human alike – fail to make any impression beyond ‘soldier’ or ‘leader’ and lack any individualized skills beyond shooting massive guns and leg humping. (In Generation 1, there was an actual microscope Transformer – his name was Perceptor, and he turned into an actual microscope!) And the movies seemingly replace every Autobot other than Optimus and Bumblebee from movie to movie. Now doesn’t a regular Autobot army of tens of characters have more sales potential than one of five per movie?
Then again, from the 1980’s to today – and into the future (where 1990’s stalwart Mighty Morphin Power Rangers is getting the big screen reboot treatment), isn’t the point of all of these ventures is to sell other things? And if the Transformers franchise has proven one thing, it’s that the massive amounts of product placement has turned it into one of the biggest long-form commercials around today. After all, why buy a $30 toy when you can buy a $20,000 car, truck loads of Bud Light, and Chinese water? Plus a $30 toy.