Carlo's Corner: Live-Action Cartoons
It's interesting how when we talk about “animation” we're ultimately talking about a mere illusion of being alive. A defining aspect, beyond what's happening on a technical level, is the surreality inherent in that illusion. I love traditional hand-drawn animation but there are also some live-action movies, featuring actual people, that manage to be so out there and cartoon-ish that they’re more true to the spirit of animation than some of the stilted, lifeless Chinese anime y’all kids are watching these days. And I don’t mean simply injecting cartoon-animated characters the way that Who Framed Roger Rabbit? did. No, what I’m talking about is otherworldly logic, tonal distortions, or even a higher sense of movement.
One such example is the Wachowskis’ Speed Racer (2008). Speed Racer is about a kid called Speed Racer (not even kidding), who RACES in a SPEEDy fashion to save the family business. Look, if you want me to sell you some high art perspective on it you’re at the wrong address because that is pretty much the gist of it. Admittedly Speed Racer actually is like 90% animated, in an extremely gaudy, and blinding way even. But its sense of speed, use of colors, and cartoon-like spirit are simply unreal and not guaranteed simply by choosing animation as a medium. Speed Racer isn't trying to make excuses for what it inherently is – a live-action cartoon. Which is exactly where its roots lie: a '60s anime called Mach GoGoGo that got localized in North-America as Speed Racer and became far more popular than it ever was in Japan. Even if this movie adaptation took its share of liberties in adapting a fifty-year old, static cartoon, I call that good judgement on the Wachowskis’ account. Wait what, it flopped? You people...
It doesn’t always have to be about motion, though. Some people just make movies without being bothered by the logistics of reality. Take for example Mannequin (1987), or better yet its sequel: Mannequin: on the Move (1991). The conceit of these movies is that an ancient princess awakens in the body of a department store mannequin, acting as wish fulfilment for some goober who can’t get a date. How else would you classify that if not as surreal? The reason I wanted to mention the sequel in particular, though, is because of its director: Stewart Raffill. The guy behind infamous E.T. rip-off Mac and Me, Raffill is just one of those people who won’t (or can’t) adhere to common sense. Everyone in his movies acts like they were beamed down from an alien planet; whether it’s about a guy who falls in love with a doll, a Coca Cola-addicted martian, or the stiff from Weekend at Bernie’s implanting Paul Walker’s brain in the body of a T-Rex. Raffill is the kind of guy who’d probably say things like “Don’t think about it, it’s just a movie!”. And I’m there with him, man. Some concepts are just so far removed from reality that it doesn’t make sense to be holding them to more grounded standards.
Do you know that Marlon Brando movie, The Island of Dr. Moreau? Well, Tom Stern and Alex Winter (best known for his role as Bill from the Bill & Ted movies) created what is basically The Island of Dr. MTV with Freaked (1993). Originally titled “Hideous Mutant Freekz,” Freaked simply screams '90s KOOL – featuring original tracks by the Butthole Surfers and Henry Rollins, special effects by Screaming Mad George, and a WILD psychedelic, clay-animated intro by David Daniels that will blow your mind. It’s about this faux-celebrity called Ricky Coogin, who signs a deal with the EES (Everything Except Shoes) Company to promote their fertilizing product “Zygrot 24” in South America. As soon as Ricky and his friends arrive, they’re captured by self-proclaimed mad scientist Elijah C. Skuggs, who turns them into Hideous Mutant Freekz™, using company issued Zygrot 24. Other notable on-screen mutants are: Mr. T as The Bearded Lady, Bobcat Goldthwait as Sockhead, a hammer that gets its own heartbreaking origin story, and who can forget good old Frogman: the French scuba-diver.
Freaked is an exhausting movie if you don’t know what you’re getting yourself into; it’s infested with visual gags, and the script feels like someone had to explain the plot of every Ren & Stimpy episode in less than a minute. As a kid I always gravitated towards everything bizarre and cartoony, so it’s too bad I only recently discovered Freaked because that’s exactly what 10-year old me would have done upon seeing it. A quick Wikipedia detour left me shocked to learn that it only saw a $30,000 box office return on a budget of 13 MILLION, which actually isn’t that surprising when you consider Fox cut its advertising budget almost completely and nixed a nationwide release after poor test screenings. No wonder I never even heard about it! I really could go on and on about Freaked, it’s absolutely bonkers, looks great, and there are more dumb gags than you can shake a stick at. One of my favorite, time-stricken references is when freshly mutated Ricky Coogin wonders if they’re still casting Gremlins 3.
Now I don’t know if that was just paying lip-service to Joe Dante’s Gremlins movies, or a mere throw-away joke, but the reason I’m so tickled by that reference is because Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990) in particular is one of my all-time favorites. I don’t know any other movie more occupied with the notion of delivering just pure entertainment. Out with studio notes, in with Looney Tunes sensibilities! Fact of the matter is that Joe Dante wasn’t too eager to follow up Gremlins, which might explain the six year long break between them, but when he finally did agree to do it, it was very clear from the end result that he had gotten full control (and triple the budget).
Not content with simply making an indistinct successor, and aware of the diminished popularity of the Gremlins brand, Dante basically ended up giving audiences a perfect slice of unpretentious dark comedy; a parody of the success of the first movie, the concept of sequels, and consumer-culture in general. Narratively it follows pretty much the exact same beats as Gremlins, but with an uncanny sense of self-awareness and disdain for the rules. Gremlins 2 is anarchy. Gremlins 2 is a scientifically modded hyper-intelligent Gremlin with a British accent, shooting another Gremlin in the head and saying “Now, was that civilized? No, clearly not. Fun, but in no sense civilized.” I mean for crying out loud, this live-action cartoon ends on Porky Pig going “Th-th-th-that's all folks!”
Other highly recommended live-action cartoons: Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky (1991), Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988), Frankenhooker (1990), Blood Diner (1987), Con Air (1997), Earth Girls Are Easy (1988), Dr. Giggles (1992), Pee-wee's Big Adventure (1985), Rocky IV (1985), Shocker (1988), The Last Dragon (1985), The Return of the Living Dead (1985), Problem Child 2 (1991), and Rumble in the Bronx (1995).