There is something magical about seeing something from one media translate to another. While the first to jump to mind might be film adaptations of books, comic book superheroes coming to life on the big screen, or even a big Broadway musical getting made into a feature-length film, there is something special about an animated property leaping live-action. Sure, we love the animated projects as is. Yet it is hard to deny the magic of seeing something only seen in 2D on a cartoon realized in live-action as something real that can be touched.
While the practice has certainly gotten a bad rap as of late, thanks to Disney overdoing it on the live-action remakes of their animated films, there were still plenty of moments when audiences’ jaws dropped when they saw a cartoon come to life in live-action. Hollywood is filled with it, and while there certainly are some stinkers in the bunch, like Garfield or Dragonball Evolution, there are plenty of other great ones, ranging from Pokemon to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Here are the best movies based on animated properties, in order of release to see how the history of the format has played out.
Update January 6, 2024: This article has been updated by Amanda Minchin with even more films that managed to awe us by bringing classic animated projects to life.
- Release Date
- September 18, 2014
Popeye The Sailor Man has been a pop culture institution since he was first introduced in 1929, just one year after Mickey Mouse. He has been the star of movie serials, comic stripes, and his own cartoon. Each iteration features the title character, Popeye, a sailor with a penchant for spinach and a mean right hook. His early voice work was completed by William Costello before moving on to the incomparable Frank Mercer. In 1980, legendary filmmaker Robert Altman, who was best known for New Hollywood masterpieces like M*A*S*H, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, and Nashville, looked to bring the legendary character to the silver screen in a manner similar to Superman: The Movie two years prior. Popeye film was released as a musical starring Robin Williams as the titular sailor, Shelley Duvall as his main squeeze Olive Oyl, and Paul L. Smith as his main enemy, Bluto. Its credits pay homage to the original 1930s films, popping up with the Paramount logo in black and white before being hauled off by an animated Popeye.
What Made It Great
The enlightened casting of Williams and Duvall in the main roles was nothing short of perfect. Studios would be hard-pressed to find a similar pairing today. It’s also one of Williams’ most underrated performances because he embodies this character to a tee. While the comic strip and cartoon were extremely popular, the movie/musical failed both at the box office and with critics. In retrospect, the film is viewed under a much lighter lens and is considered a cult classic (something you will find with many entries on this list). Its supporters have since held it in much respect, especially given a serious director like Altman taking on a cartoon adaptation. Rent on AppleTV+
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)
Second to none are The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Originally a comic book series self-published by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was kick-started into fandom through a toy licensing agreement that later produced a cartoon television series. The show ran for nearly a decade, from 1987-1996. The pizza-loving, karate-chopping brothers soon evolved from their grittier graphic novel roots into iconic 90s kids. As the fanfare for the turtles continued to rise, the cartoon was eventually turned into its first live-action feature film. Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo, and Raphael were outfitted with molds by Jim Henson. They were made to cast the whole bodies of the turtles in rubber latex so that they were more posable and movable.
What Made It Great
At the height of the toys and cartoon popularity, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie was a huge box office success, cementing the story of the totally rad turtle bros into legend. The film was the most successful independent film at the time and kickstarted a new wave of Turtle-mania. Two more live-action films were created soon after, with less success. Further iterations were scrapped until 2014 when the live-action series was rebooted by producer Michael Bay and director Jonathan Liebesman for Nickelodeon. This version featured some heavy CGI effects alongside a grittier story. This story has perhaps the most adaptations of this entire list, including animated and live-action. Its ability to maintain this popularity in such a short period of time while still staying true to the original concepts is why the franchise has endured for so long. Stream on Paramount+
The Flintstones (1994)
Probably the most famous cartoon in the Hanna-Barbara cartoon line-up, The Flintstones originally ran as a Primetime television series for six years from 1960-1966 before going into syndication. Featuring two main couples, Fred & Wilma Flintstone, and Barney and Betty Rubble, as well as their children, Pebbles, and Bamm-Bamm, the series was set in the Stone Age town of Bedrock, which looked suspiciously 1950s-esque. The show also saw dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures in domesticated roles for their human neighbors.
The live-action adaptation, also named The Flintstones, was directed by Brian Levant and saw John Goodman in the starring role of Fred Flintstone, Rick Moranis as Barney Rubble, Elizabeth Perkins as Wilma Flintstone, and Rosie O’Donnell as Betty Rubble. New characters introduced included Cliff Vandercave (Kyle MacLachlan) as Fred’s boss, his secretary Sharon Stone (Halle Berry), and Wilma’s mother, Pearl Slaghoople (Elizabeth Taylor).
What Made It Great
The story itself is a prehistoric wink at the 1950s sitcom The Honeymooners, with a little bit of screwball comedy thrown in. The story reads like a hilarious whodunnit, with all of its gags and puns alongside its more adult themes. Much like several of the other films on this list, critics were not pleased. However, one could not deny the impressive work put into the sets, as the production team truly went above and beyond to recreate the iconic lived-in Bedrock that audiences had seen for years on television visualized like they always dreamed of. The film was a box office hit and generated a prequel, The Flinstones: Viva Rock Vegas, years later. Rent on AppleTV+
- Release Date
- May 26, 1995
- Brad Silberling
Casper The Friendly Ghost first made his mark as the protagonist of the Famous Studios venture (an early animated branch of Paramount) in the form of a theatrical animated cartoon series. The character was featured in over 50 theatrical cartoons from 1945-1959. After a brief stint in comics, the ghostly child appeared in several TV series, from Matty’s Funday Funnies (1959–1961), to The New Casper Cartoon Show (1963–1970), mostly during the Golden Age of Animation on television. In 1995 (just one year after The Flinstones), Casper made his first live-action appearance on the big screen alongside Bill Pullman and a young Christina Ricci with the help of some heavy CGI. The film blended the animated ghosts alongside the live-action characters, becoming one of the first to feature a fully CGI character in the lead role.
What Made It Great
Slightly more light-hearted and kid-friendly than comps like The Addams Family, there is an easy blend between live-action and animation throughout this film. A slightly grittier interpretation by comparison, it is also the first time Casper’s status as a deceased person is actually addressed. Dark humor aside, it was otherwise quite faithful to the source material, including a visit from his uncles, known as the Ghostly Trio. The state-of-the-art CGI allowed the filmmakers to realize Caspear in a way that audiences had always dreamed of, and the sight of seeing the iconic character for real was a major draw for audiences as the film was a major box office hit. Universal positioned it as their big Memorial Day weekend film to kick off the summer movie season, and it paid off as it was the eighth highest-grossing film of 1995. Rent on AppleTV+
How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000)
Inspired by the story by Dr. Seuss, How the Grinch Stole Christmas (otherwise known as Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas!), was first introduced as a cartoon movie in 1966. The TV Special’s less than 30-minute runtime told the tale of the Grinch, a misunderstood monster who vows to steal everything Christmas-related from the Whoville Whos. The incomparable Boris Karloff plays both the Narrator and the Grinch. Its earworm-worthy song, “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” was written by Dr. Seuss, composed by Albert Hague, and performed by Thurl Ravenscroft. Its popularity has grown over the years as it has subsequently returned for just about every Christmas season since. It was only a matter of time before this beloved animated Christmas classic was turned into a live adaptation. 2000’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas starred Jim Carrey as the Grinch and directed by Ron Howard.
What Made It Great
Made at the height of nostalgic adaptations of older cartoons, what this live-action film did in capturing the atmosphere and the mood of the original cartoon while expanding upon the world and its characters was very accomplished. Jim Carrey was absolutely perfect for the role, fully embodying the titular character. The movie’s biggest strength lies in the incredible makeup, costuming, and production design that truly looked to bring the cartoon to life in a massive spectacle with the film featuring some of the biggest sets in Universal Pictures history. The movie was nominated for three Academy Awards: Best Art Direction for Michael Corenblith and Merideth Boswell, Best Costume Design for Rita Ryack, and winning Best Makeup for Rick Baker and Gail Rowell-Ryan. The movie also was the highest-grossing film of 2000, as audiences turned out in droves to see the animated series they had watched for years come to life. Rent on AppleTV+
The original Scooby-Doo cartoon ran from 1969 to 1970, but the franchise continued on with various spin-offs. It followed the titular talking dog alongside a group of teenagers, Shaggy, Velma, Fred, and Daphne. Together, they drove around to different destinations, solving spooky mysteries along the way. The cartoon series was full of gags and unmasking a villain who was always trying to get away with some crime. The 2002 movie Scooby-Doo was a live-action film starring Freddie Prinze, Jr., Sarah Michelle Gellar, and Matthew Lillard, but it also contained computer animation for Scooby-Doo himself and other characters. The film played right into the trope that there’s always a man in a mask, begging the question – what if there is something more mysterious at play?
What Made It Great
The ensemble cast is pitch-perfect in their roles, and it feels as if the characters jumped off the cartoon into the film. While the CGI has not aged well, it is hard to deny at the time; the sight of Scooby-Doo himself in live-action was one of the great movie moments that felt like a dream come true. The film leaned by and large into the groovy camp of the original while placing it obviously in early 2000s territory. They also successfully played around with the series’ existing fan theories and tropes. While not all of them stuck (including Velma being a part of the LGBTQA+ community and a deleted scene with her and Daphne), this did prove fruitful in their continuing success. The movie was a box office smash hit that to this day still delights fans and for many was their introduction to Scooby-Doo, while for others it was a moments years in the making. Stream on Max
Transformers is yet another movie based on a string of popular intellectual property. What started as a takeover by toy giant Hasbro of Japanese toy company Takara’s Diaclone and Microman toy lines soon became the toys that led to far too many toy store squabbles. This led to a Marvel Comics series before morphing into the iconic animated series known simply as The Transformers. Based on robots that could transform into various real-life things, like cars, trucks and airplanes, the series became an 80s staple. The original animated series ran from 1984 to 1987 and was eventually turned into a slew of animated offshoots.
In 2007, the robots in disguise were given the big screen summer blockbuster treatment from director Michael Bay. The movie looked to retell the classic story of the conflict between the Autobots and Decepticons while also bringing the famous characters to life like never before using the best CGI at the time.
What Made It Great
Of all the animated projects turned into live-action films, Transformers might be the best example of selling the hype out of taking what you loved in animated form and the thrill of seeing it in live-action. The film’s trailers did a great job hiding the design of the machines, drawing audiences into the theater to see what they would look like and how they would transform. The iconic teaser trailer, released a full year before the movie, sold the idea that this is not a cartoon anymore.
While the first film might have had some issues, it is hard to deny that the movie worked so well because it sold the awe-inspiring scale and impressive technical wizardry to bring the Transformers to life. When Optimus Prime first transforms on screen, it is a moment audiences will never forget. Later films in the franchise directed by Bay would certainly see a law of diminishing returns take place, but recent reboots/prequels of Bumblebee and Transformers: Rise of the Beasts have gotten the series back on track. Rent on AppleTV+
Speed Racer (2008)
The film Speed Racer is based on the 1960s Japanese animated series about a kid who loves to race cars. His name is, of course, Speed Racer, or just “Speed” for short. Known for the over-the-top exaggerated reactions of its characters and the ever-increasing challenges for its hero on the track, it was only a matter of time before the series jumped from the small screen to the mainstream. The 2008 film took a darker, deep-dive approach to its characters while also transplanting them into a highly colorized, CGI word that was as far removed from reality as possible and instead wanted to bring to life the feeling of watching a real cartoon.
What Made It Great
While Speed Racer was heavily done in CGI, much of the style of this movie called back to the animation style of the original series, as well as more modern Japanese architecture. Directed by the Wachowski of Matrix fame, there were high hopes for the future of the franchise when it was first released, but it quickly became a box office flop, partially due to opening one week after Iron Man. Yet the rightful colored futuristic cartoon world might not have been what audiences wanted at the time. Since then, the movie has gained a cult following. Today, it is still cemented by many as one of the best live-action anime film adaptations around. Stream on Max.
Pokémon Detective Pikachu (2019)
- Release Date
- May 3, 2019
- Rob Letterman
If there were a version of Transformers or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for millennials, it would be Pokémon. Originally a video game, the series quickly grew into one of the most popular animes of all time that kids were waking up every Saturday morning to watch, along with a profitable trading card game that is still going strong. The central premise of pocket-size monsters that do battle with one another has inspired generations of fans for over 30 years. Every kid who grew up playing Pokémon or even had a passing knowledge of the material likely imagined what a live-action movie would look like. That finally came true in 2019 with Pokémon Detective Pikachu, an adaptation of a lesser-known video game.
What Makes It Great
Pokémon Detective Pikachu drops audiences into the Pokémon franchise through a classic detective story. This framework allows audiences who are unfamiliar with the franchise to get the gist of it thanks to the genre conventions and allows them to focus more on the unique world. While for hardcore fans they get to see an entire world filled with iconic Pokémon and see them realized with realistic textures while maintaining their signature appearance. Also, putting the emphasis on Pikachu, the franchise’s signature character, but not having it be connected to Ash but instead a talking one voiced by Ryan Reynolds, was a good way to bring in a new audience. While the film was a hit, and a sequel is on the way, many were expecting it to be as big a hit as the first Transformers was. For those who did watch it, seeing characters like Pikachu, Psyduck, Mewtwo, and Charzard realized in live-action was a dream come true. Stream on Max.
Clifford the Big Red Dog (2021)
Clifford the Big Red Dog
- Release Date
- November 10, 2021
- Walt Becker
The latest one, and maybe the most slept-on, is Clifford the Big Red Dog. Originally a series of children’s books, the story was later adapted into an animated series. The premise is simple: a young girl named Emily Elizabeth has a giant red dog named Clifford. The stories tend to feature small adventures for a big dog, where Clifford’s size becomes an obstacle for the story. With so many books published and the characters being part of many childhood reading lists, it is surprising how long it took them to adapt the character into a film, but in 2021, he finally got a feature film.
What Makes It Great
Clifford the Big Red Dog takes the approach that other live-action adaptations like Alvin and the Chipmunks and Garfield take, looking to tell an origin story for how the main story happens. Here is a simple setup featuring how Clifford not only got to be with Emily Elizabeth, but how he got to be so big and how the world reacted to him. Putting him in a New York City apartment only enhances the comedy, as anyone will laugh and also be anxious about a dog the size of Clifford in an apartment that small. Clifford the Big Red Dog succeded by being simple: it does not over-design the character but instead just makes an adorable big red dog that feels like the character people grew up reading. He jumped off the page onto the screen and into the audience’s hearts. Stream on Paramount+.
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