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Whether or not shows like Aqua Teen Hunger Force or The Simpsons succeeded in translating their television dynamics to the big screen depends on your point of view, but the release of Speed Racer this weekend raises a more specific question about the viability of turning an animated series into a live action spectacle on the big screen. The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and Underdog both suggest how this goal can go wrong -- namely, by imploding on its absurd conceits. You may disagree with the inclusion of some of the following titles, all of which culled their material from animation, but it's fair to say that each of them takes its subject matter at face value, allowing the natural ingredients of the original sources to remain intact. Well, maybe not Super Mario Bros., but that one is a special case (fire away, if you must). Until somebody makes an Animaniacs movie with real actors, I'm sticking to this list.
1. Popeye (1980)
Robert Altman's offbeat ode to the famous Fleisher cartoon starring the spinach-eating strongman and his darling Olive Oil is the great misunderstood work of the director's career. Robin Williams and Shelley Duvall manage to bring utterly ridiculous characters into a realm of believability that you could never imagine when watching the show. Suddenly, Popeye made sense -- goofy, almost surreal sense, but sense nonetheless -- in the real world. Thanks to veteran adult cartoonist Jules Feiffer's screenplay and a soundtrack so catchy Paul Thomas Anderson borrowed from it twenty years later in Punch-Drunk Love, the classic status of Popeye can't be denied.
2. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)
If you consider that director Steve Baron made the quiet, eerily contemplative independent film Choking Man just last year, it's actually not hard to understand how this truly creative man put a real effort into turning TMNT into exactly the serious-minded kind of action film you would see in a world where talking mutant animals converse and fight crime. Although it does pit a couple martial art-trained turtles against an urban warlord with a giant rat as the main funnel for the underlying morality play, TMNT has a totally natural feel to it -- so that you could almost imagine running into one of these hip green dudes on the city streets and act natural. Almost.
3. Transformers (2007)
All you haters bite your tongues. Sure, Transformers hardly works as anything more than war porn -- "a boy and his car," as Steven Spielberg initially described the film, didn't end up feeling as innocuous as it sounded -- but holy god, yes, this is precisely what it felt like to indulge in the joy of watching a bunch of extraterrestrial robots pummel each other to pieces as they rambled on about intergalactic responsibilities in mechanical baritone. Michael Bay truly did justice to the franchise, and yet he managed to escape the 1980's vibe with unabashed product placement that actually works (thanks, eBay).
4. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze (1991)
With a subtitle that sounds like a Troma production, you'd think Ooze was basically a mindless studio attempt to capitalize on the success of the first movie. Maybe that was the case, but the end result still manages to deliver a lot of fun, maintaining the momentum of the first film by picking up right where it left off. It's a tad sillier, but only to the extent that it feels like the good-time yin to the original movie's darker yang.
5. Scooby-Doo (2002)
It looks like Scooby. It talks like Scooby. But wait ... why is Scooby the only animated creature in a live action movie? Because the warbling, hyperactive investigative canine isn't really a dog in the proper sense. He's more like a superhero, able to reverse the natural order of things and drag along poor Freddie Shaggy as his best friend. The movie was written off by many people unwilling to give it a chance, which is too bad, because Scooby truly replicates the unhinged style of this great cartoon, a sort of Sam Spade for Saturday morning cartoon junkies. The sequel is another story.
6. George of the Jungle (1997)
I'm guessing the song is already stuck in your head. You don't have to be a Tarzan aficionado to enjoy this wacky jungle spoof, which is a much better showcase of Brendan Frasier's ability to let his over-the-top personality take charge than, say, The Mummy. Don't get me wrong: Mummy isn't all bad, but Jungle allows Frasier to truly go bananas (sorry) and the movie's all the better as a result, retaining the cartoon's cheerful vibe.
7. Super Mario Bros.
Now here's a single instance where camp wins out. What do you expect from an adaptation of a 2-D run-and-jump game with the most redundant tune in twenty years? OK, maybe a Koopa that actually looks like Koopa, a less cumbersome back story and some sort of action-oriented dynamics that revisit the thrill of the original Nintendo franchise. Mario doesn't offer that, but it's so strangely absurd (a parallel universe where dinosaurs turned into humans?) that it does manage to recreate the thrill of discovering the Mario games for the first time, since they, too, are pretty out there. Disagree? Go for it.