Ah the video game inspired movie…let’s face it, video game movies have not really inspired much confidence in us over the years. From the utterly forgetful (Wing Commander, Hitman), to just bad (Double Dragon, Tomb Raider), to the just plain insane (Street Fighter and, of course, Super Mario Bros.), the translation from video game to movie has always just been turbulent to say the least, and it isn’t hard to see why. Treading the line between staying faithful to the source material (and let’s face it, next to comic book and Star Wars/Star Trek fans, video gamers are the most protective of their medium and its games) and making something new and exciting that EVERYONE in the theater will be entertained by is quite a tall order, especially when you try to translate them into live action. This is why the announcement that they were making both a Ratchet and Clank and a Heavenly Sword movie, and that they would both be fully animated, got me pretty darn excited! Animated television shows and movies have always found a home in a big soft spot in my heart, and I have to say, I can’t believe that Hollywood doesn’t try this more often with some of the great intellectual properties from video games.
Why it could work!
In some ways, it makes sense; animation is only a hop, skip, and a jump away from video games. Like video games, animated films/programs take place in a fully fabricated world, with trained voice actors playing all the roles, and both allow the audiences to work their imaginations and immerse themselves in the world of the game/program. The audience, with an animated film, doesn’t have to suspend their disbelief at what they are seeing as much, because you never have to worry about the audience looking at a live-action actor next to a CGI actor and thinking, “Well, that looks fake.” As well, with animated films, you can faithfully represent what it is you are trying to translate from the video game, and you rarely have those awkward moments in live-action video game movies where something just doesn’t translate as well to the big screen (*cough* goombas). If you want to animate Spyro from Spyro, you can animate a Spyro that is pretty darn faithful to its video game counterpart and not have some crazy CGI hybrid that is also trying to fit into a live-action world. Instead of trying to faithfully represent Midgard, The Mushroom Kingdom, or Dunwall with a mix of a live-action set and CGI, you could literally recreate the world in an animated setting in a way that feels alive instead of false.
Plus, I think that it is easier to toe the line between fan service and telling a new and interesting story via animation. A great BAD example of an unmade video game movie that was going to do anything but “toe that line” was David O. Russell’s (The Fighter) vision of Uncharted. I remember in press releases his statement that he was interested in the idea of an “art thief and his family/adopted thief family” hunting down artifacts across the globe. This alone should raise the eyebrows of anyone who has ever played the games, much less his pretty blunt statements that he really wasn’t familiar or concerned with the source material at all. An animated world, though, though being striking and imaginative, has to have a clear vision behind it in order to exist and stick in the audiences mind. Live-action forces you to veer away from the clear vision of the video game since you are forced to adapt to working in the physical plane in order to translate the material, but an animated would negate this problem and allow for a clear translation of the video game’s world.
The problem with video game movies…
Of course, even animated video game movies would still have the problem that they are video game movies: they are rough translations of the most generally unappreciated and underestimated of art forms. The problem with most video game adaptations is that most movie studios don’t take video games seriously or understand them as a storytelling medium, and instead think that fan service ends at making a movie with a game’s title, a game’s character(s), and enough of a game’s inside jokes/information to give it some of the game’s flavor. The reason J.J. Abrams has made such a great reboot of the Star Trek film franchise is because he truly understood what Star Trek meant for a fan at its most intrinsic level. Most studios or the people heading the films, though, don’t have that same love or passion for gaming or its wonderful worlds, characters, or stories.
The Ratchet and Clank movie, though, is being developed and written by the writer from the original series (who is also the Senior Writer still at Insomniac Games, the developers for the Ratchet and Clank series), so you know that this project is coming from someone who has a lot of love for the source material. Animated movies, as well, due to their reliance on voice actors, don’t HAVE to have big Hollywood names assigned to them to sell tickets, so you won’t have the personality or look of the movie star clashing with the gamer’s vision of what the main character should be (again, look at Mark Wahlberg being cast as Nathan Drake; most people really couldn’t see it). Again, the gulf between the audience’s disbelief and the willingness to sink into the world of the movie is lessened and lessened. The Ratchet and Clank movie is especially showing some signs of hope as it is being voiced mainly by the original cast from the games, including the big three of James Arnold Taylor as Ratchet, David Kaye as Clank, and Jim Ward as Captain Qwark. The synopsis, as well, shows that it is keeping pretty faithful to the first game, with the conflict being the two heroes stopping Councilman Drek (the villain from the first game) from destroying the galaxy. To be honest, with its light and comical tone, adorably designed characters, and a bit of an edge due to the focus on crazy yet destructive weapons, there is no way that Ratchet and Clank shouldn’t succeed, especially with younger audiences.
But on the other hand…
Oh, I bet some of you knew this had to come up sometime in this article. Yeah, there is a possible dark side to animated video game movies, and it is the exact opposite of what we talked about above. Sometimes, even when you have the staff from the game developing the movie (even a staff who knows how to make a great video game, i.e. Hironobu Sakaguchi, the father of Final Fantasy and arguably one of the best video game storytellers) writing the script and even directing the movie, those developers just don’t know how to translate an intellectual property into a good film. While I won’t spend the rest of the article discussing one of the most notorious video game movies ever (I mean, come on, it ended Sakaguchi’s career at Squaresoft!), this movie does serve as good a warning to those who wish to make a video game movie. Sakaguchi thought he could use an animated movie to translate the beautiful computer generated graphics from the Final Fantasy games (sorry, they looked realistic, but not realistic enough…uncanny valley and all that), the focus on spirituality from FF7, the complex and mind-bending story, and some other hidden Final Fantasy nuggets and it could translate into as big a hit as a movie; instead, it turned into a convoluted mess of a movie where you didn’t quite care about anything that happened to anyone. So really, while fan service is important, as we want to be able to recognize the piece that we are watching, telling a great story that is clear, impacts on us emotionally as an audience, and is an interesting story that we want to hear is just as important.
But the future is bright!
It has been 12 years since Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within cursed moviegoers everywhere with an awful, awful video game movie, and I think that both video game developers and movie studios have not only learned a lot about handling an intellectual property properly when translating it to the big screen, but also the world has become a lot more educated in the medium of video games itself. People no longer look at video games as a meaningless recreational activity, but a bonafide artistic medium for storytelling. And while some of these movies might be more suited for live-action (Gears of War, Halo), I think animation will bring countless video game worlds to the Silver Screen in a way that live-action never could. Pikmin, Mario Bros., Donkey Kong, the Tales series, God of War, Mega Man, Jak and Daxter, or Sly Cooper all scream for animated movies being made about them. The great thing, as well, is that since so many people are familiar with the source material of these games, in the future the stories could be unique tales set in the universes of the games rather than just retreads of the games, i.e. a tale about Luigi on his own adventure, trying to break out of the shadow of his older brother (calling it now!). In the end, animation may very well save the video game movie (Ratchet and Clank will be the barometer for that statement), and being a child of an age with many terrible, terrible video game movies, I really hope that the future is as bright as it looks.