Blurring the Line

Bob Hoskins and friend in Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988).
Bob Hoskins and friend in Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988).

As a new Space Jam film beams down to Earth, Kambole Campbell argues that a commitment to silliness and a sincere love for the medium is what it takes to make a great live-action/animation hybrid.

The live-action and animation hybrid movie is something of a dicey prospect. It’s tricky to create believable interaction between what’s real and what’s drawn, puppeteered or rendered—and blending the live and the animated has so far resulted in wild swings in quality. It is a highly specific and technically demanding niche, one with only a select few major hits, though plenty of cult oddities. So what makes a good live-action/animation hybrid?

To borrow words from Hayao Miyazaki, “live action is becoming part of that whole soup called animation”. Characters distinct from the humans they interact with, but rendered as though they were real creatures (or ghosts), are everywhere lately; in Paddington, in Scooby Doo, in David Lowery’s (wonderful) update of Pete’s Dragon.

The original Pete’s Dragon (1977) alongside the 2016 remake.
The original Pete’s Dragon (1977) alongside the 2016 remake.
The original Pete’s Dragon (1977) alongside the 2016 remake.

Lowery’s dragon is realized with highly realistic lighting and visual-effects work. By comparison, the cartoon-like characters in the 1977 Pete’s Dragon—along with other films listed in Louise’s handy compendium of Disney’s live-action animation—are far more exaggerated. That said, there’s still the occasional holdout for the classical version of these crossovers: this year’s Tom and Jerry replicating the look of 2D through 3D/CGI animation, specifically harkens back to the shorts of the 1940s and ’50s.

One type of live-action/animation hybrid focuses on seamless immersion, the other is interested in exploring the seams themselves. Elf (2003) uses the aberration of stop-motion animals to represent the eponymous character as a fish out of water. Ninjababy, a Letterboxd favorite from this year’s SXSW Festival, employs an animated doodle as a representation of the protagonist’s state of mind while she processes her unplanned pregnancy.

Meanwhile, every Muppets film ever literally tears at the seams until we’re in stitches, but, for the sake of simplicity, puppets are not invited to this particular party. What we are concerned with here is the overlap between hand-drawn animation and live-action scenes (with honorable mentions of equally valid stop-motion work), and the ways in which these hybrids have moved from whimsical confections to nod-and-wink blockbusters across a century of cinema.

Betty Boop and Koko the clown in a 1938 instalment of the Fleischer brothers’ Out of the Inkwell series.
Betty Boop and Koko the clown in a 1938 instalment of the Fleischer brothers’ Out of the Inkwell series.

Early crossovers often involve animators playing with their characters, in scenarios such as the inventive Out of the Inkwell series of shorts from Rotoscope inventor Max Fleischer and his director brother Dave. Things get even more interactive mid-century, when Gene Kelly holds hands with Jerry Mouse in Anchors Aweigh.

The 1960s and ’70s deliver ever more delightful family fare involving human actors entering cartoon worlds, notably in the Robert Stevenson-directed Mary Poppins and Bedknobs and Broomsticks, and Chuck Jones’ puntastic The Phantom Tollbooth.

Jerry and Gene dance off their worries in Anchors Aweigh (1945).
Jerry and Gene dance off their worries in Anchors Aweigh (1945).

Mary Poppins is one of the highest-rated live-action/animation hybrids on Letterboxd for good reason. Its sense of control in how it engages with its animated creations makes it—still!—an incredibly engaging watch. It is simply far less evil than the singin’, dancin’ glorification of slavery in Disney’s Song of the South (1946), and far more engaging than Victory Through Air Power (1943), a war-propaganda film about the benefits of long-range bombing in the fight against Hitler. The studio’s The Reluctant Dragon (1941) also serves a propagandistic function, as a behind-the-scenes studio tour made when the studio’s animators were striking.

By comparison, Mary Poppins’ excursions into the painted world—replicated in Rob Marshall’s belated, underrated 2018 sequel, Mary Poppins Returns—are full of magical whimsicality. “Films have added the gimmick of making animation and live characters interact countless times, but paradoxically none as pristine-looking as this creation,” writes Edgar in this review. “This is a visual landmark, a watershed… the effect of making everything float magically, to the detail of when a drawing should appear in front or the back of [Dick] Van Dyke is a creation beyond my comprehension.” (For Van Dyke, who played dual roles as Bert and Mr Dawes Senior, the experience sparked a lifelong love of animation and visual effects.)

Julie Andrews, Dick Van Dyke and penguins, in Mary Poppins (1964).
Julie Andrews, Dick Van Dyke and penguins, in Mary Poppins (1964).

Generally speaking, and the Mary Poppins sequel aside, more contemporary efforts seek to subvert this feeling of harmony and control, instead embracing the chaos of two worlds colliding, the cartoons there to shock rather than sing. Henry Selick’s frequently nightmarish James and the Giant Peach (1996) leans into this crossover as something uncanny and macabre by combining live action with stop motion, as its young protagonist eats his way into another world, meeting mechanical sharks and man-eating rhinos. Sally Jane Black describes it as “riding the Burton-esque wave of mid-’90s mall goth trends and blending with the differently demonic Dahl story”.

Science-classroom staple Osmosis Jones (2001) finds that within the human body, the internal organs serve as cities full of drawn white-blood-cell cops. The late Stephen Hillenburg’s The Spongebob Squarepants Movie (2004) turns its real-life humans into living cartoons themselves, particularly in a bonkers sequence featuring David Hasselhoff basically turning into a speedboat.

David Hasselhoff picks up speed in The Spongebob Squarepants Movie (2004).
David Hasselhoff picks up speed in The Spongebob Squarepants Movie (2004).

The absurdity behind the collision of the drawn and the real is never better embodied than in another of our highest-rated live/animated hybrids. Released in 1988, Robert Zemeckis’ Who Framed Roger Rabbit shows off a deep understanding—narratively and aesthetically—of the material that it’s parodying, seeking out the impeccable craftsmanship of legends such as director of animation Richard Williams (1993’s The Thief and the Cobbler), and his close collaborator Roy Naisbitt. The forced perspectives of Naisbitt’s mind-bending layouts provide much of the rocket fuel driving the film’s madcap cartoon opening.

Distributed by Walt Disney Pictures, Roger Rabbit utilizes the Disney stable of characters as well as the Looney Tunes cast to harken back to America’s golden age of animation. It continues a familiar scenario where the ’toons themselves are autonomous actors (as also seen in Friz Freleng’s 1940 short You Ought to Be in Pictures, in which Daffy Duck convinces Porky Pig to try his acting luck in the big studios).

Daffy Duck plots his rise up the acting ranks in You Ought to Be in Pictures (1940).
Daffy Duck plots his rise up the acting ranks in You Ought to Be in Pictures (1940).

Through this conceit, Zemeckis is able to celebrate the craft of animation, while pastiching both Chinatown, the noir genre, and the mercenary nature of the film industry (“the best part is… they work for peanuts!” a studio exec says of the cast of Fantasia). As Eddie Valiant, Bob Hoskins’ skepticism and disdain towards “toons” is a giant parody of Disney’s more traditional approach to matching humans and drawings.

Adult audiences are catered for with plenty of euphemistic humor and in-jokes about the history of the medium. It’s both hilarious (“they… dropped a piano on him,” one character solemnly notes of his son) and just the beginning of Hollywood toying with feature-length stories in which people co-exist with cartoons, rather than dipping in and out of fantasy sequences. It’s not just about how the cartoons appear on the screen, but how the human world reacts to them, and Zemeckis gets a lot of mileage out of applying ’toon lunacy to our world.

Bob Hoskins in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988).
Bob Hoskins in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988).

The groundbreaking optical effects and compositing are excellent (and Hoskins’ amazing performance should also be credited for holding all of it together), but what makes Roger Rabbit such a hit is that sense of controlled chaos and a clever tonal weaving of violence and noirish seediness (“I’m not bad… I’m just drawn that way”) through the cartoony feel. And it is simply very, very funny.

It could be said that, with Roger Rabbit, Zemeckis unlocked the formula for how to modernize the live-action and animation hybrid, by leaning into a winking parody of what came before. It worked so perfectly well that it helped kickstart the ‘Disney renaissance’ era of animation. Roger Rabbit has influenced every well-known live-action/animation hybrid produced since, proving that there is success and fun to be had by completely upending Mary Poppins-esque quirks. Even Disney’s delightful 2007 rom-com Enchanted makes comedy out of the idea of cartoons crossing that boundary.

When a cartoon character meets real-world obstacles.
When a cartoon character meets real-world obstacles.

Even when done well, though, hybrids are not an automatic hit. Sitting at a 2.8-star average, Joe Dante’s stealthily great Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003) is considered by the righteous to be the superior live-action/animated Looney Tunes hybrid, harkening back to the world of Chuck Jones and Frank Tashlin. SilentDawn states that the film deserves the nostalgic reverence reserved for Space Jam: “From gag to gag, set piece to set piece, Back in Action is utterly bonkers in its logic-free plotting and the constant manipulation of busy frames.”

With its Tinseltown parody, Back in Action pulls from the same bag of tricks as Roger Rabbit; here, the Looney Tunes characters are famous, self-entitled actors. Dante cranks the meta comedy up to eleven, opening the film with Matthew Lillard being accosted by Shaggy for his performance in the aforementioned Scooby Doo movie (and early on throwing in backhanded jokes about the practice of films like itself as one character yells, “I was brought in to leverage your synergy!”).

Daffy Duck with more non-stop banter in Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003).
Daffy Duck with more non-stop banter in Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003).

Back in Action is even more technically complex than Roger Rabbit, seamlessly bringing Looney Tunes physics and visual language into the real world. Don’t forget that Dante had been here before, when he had Anthony banish Ethel into a cartoon-populated television show in his segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie. Another key to this seamlessness is star Brendan Fraser, at the height of his powers here as “Brendan Fraser’s stunt double”.

Like Hoskins before him, Fraser brings a wholehearted commitment to playing the fed-up straight man amidst cartoon zaniness. Fraser also brought that dedication to Henry Selick’s Monkeybone (2001), a Roger Rabbit-inspired sex comedy that deploys a combo of stop-motion animation and live acting in a premise amusingly close to that of 1992’s Cool World (but more on that cult anomaly shortly). A commercial flop, Back in Action was the last cinematic outing for the Looney Tunes for some time.

Nowadays, when we think of live-action animation, it’s hard not to jump straight to an image of Michael Jordan’s arm stretching to do a half-court dunk to save the Looney Tunes from slavery. There’s not a lot that can be fully rationalized about the 1996 box-office smash, Space Jam. It is a bewildering cartoon advert for Michael Jordan’s baseball career, dreamed up off the back of his basketball retirement, while also mashing together different American icons. Never forget that the soundtrack—one that, according to Benjamin, “makes you have to throw ass” —⁠includes a song with B-Real, Coolio, Method Man and LL Cool J.

Michael Jordan and teammates in Space Jam (1996).
Michael Jordan and teammates in Space Jam (1996).

Space Jam is a film inherently born to sell something, predicated on the existing success of a Nike commercial rather than any obvious passion for experimentation. But its pure strangeness, a growing nostalgia for the nineties, and meticulous compositing work from visual-effects supervisor Ed Jones and the film’s animation team (a number of whom also worked on both Roger Rabbit and Back in Action), have all kept it in the cultural memory.

The films is backwards, writes Jesse, in that it wants to distance itself from the very cartoons it leverages: “This really almost feels like a follow-up to Looney Tunes: Back in Action, rather than a predecessor, because it feels like someone watched the later movie, decided these Looney Tunes characters were a problem, and asked someone to make sure they were as secondary as possible.” That attempt to place all the agency in Jordan’s hands was a point of contention for Chuck Jones, the legendary Warner Bros cartoonist. He hated the film, stating that Bugs would never ask for help and would have dealt with the aliens in seven minutes.

Space Jam has its moments, however. Guy proclaims “there is nothing that Deadpool as a character will ever have to offer that isn’t done infinitely better by a good Bugs Bunny bit”. For some, its problems are a bit more straightforward, for others it’s a matter of safety in sport. But the overriding sentiments surrounding the film point to a sort of morbid fascination with the brazenness of its concept.

Holli Would (voiced by Kim Basinger) and Frank Harris (Brad Pitt) blur the lines in Cool World (1992).
Holli Would (voiced by Kim Basinger) and Frank Harris (Brad Pitt) blur the lines in Cool World (1992).

Existing in the same demented… space… as Space Jam, Paramount Pictures bought the idea for Cool World from Ralph Bakshi as it sought to have its own Roger Rabbit. While Brad Pitt described it as “Roger Rabbit on acid” ahead of release, Cool World itself looks like a nightmare version of Toontown. The film was universally panned at the time, caught awkwardly between being far too adult for children but too lacking in any real substance for adults (there’s something of a connective thread between Jessica Rabbit, Lola Bunny and Holli Would).

Ralph Bakshi’s risqué and calamitously horny formal experiment builds on the animator’s fascination with the relationship between the medium and the human body. Of course, he would go from the immensely detailed rotoscoping of Fire and Ice (1983) to clashing hand-drawn characters with real ones, something he had already touched upon in the seventies with Heavy Traffic and Coonskin, whose animated characters were drawn into real locations. But no one besides Bakshi quite knew what to do with the perverse concept of Brad Pitt as a noir detective trying to stop Gabriel Byrne’s cartoonist from having sex with a character that he drew—an animated Kim Basinger.

Jack Deebs (Gabriel Byrne) attempts to cross over to Hollie Would in Cool World (1992).
Jack Deebs (Gabriel Byrne) attempts to cross over to Hollie Would in Cool World (1992).

Cool World’s awkwardness can be attributed to stilted interactions between Byrne, Pitt and the animated world, as well as studio meddling. Producer Frank Mancuso Jr (who was on the film due to his father running Paramount) demanded that the film be reworked into something PG-rated, against Bakshi’s wishes (he envisioned an R-rated horror), and the script was rewritten in secret. It went badly, so much so that Bakshi eventually punched Mancuso Jr in the face.

While Cool World averages two stars on Letterboxd, there are some enthusiastic holdouts. There are the people impressed by the insanity of it all, those who just love them a horny toon, and then there is Andrew, a five-star Cool World fan: “On the surface, it’s a Lovecraftian horror with Betty Boop as the villain, featuring a more impressive cityscape than Blade Runner and Dick Tracy combined, and multidimensional effects that make In the Mouth of Madness look like trash. The true star, however, proves to be the condensed surplus of unrelated gags clogging the arteries of the screen—in every corner is some of the silliest cel animation that will likely ever be created.”

There are even those who enjoy its “clear response to Who Framed Roger Rabbit”, with David writing that “the film presents a similar concept through the lens of the darkly comic, perverted world of the underground cartoonists”, though also noting that without Bakshi’s original script, the film is “a series of half steps and never really commits like it could”. Cool World feels both completely deranged and strangely low-energy, caught between different ideas as to how best to mix the two mediums. But it did give us a David Bowie jam.

Space Jam: A New Legacy is in cinemas and on HBO Max now.
Space Jam: A New Legacy is in cinemas and on HBO Max now.

Craft is of course important, but generally speaking, maybe nowadays a commitment to silliness and a sincere love for the medium’s history is the thing that makes successful live-action/animation hybrids click. It’s an idea that doesn’t lend itself to being too cool, or even entirely palatable. The trick is to be as fully dotty as Mary Poppins, or steer into the gaucheness of the concept, à la Roger Rabbit and Looney Tunes: Back in Action.

It’s quite a tightrope to walk between good meta-comedy and a parade of references to intellectual property. The winningest strategy is to weave the characters into the tapestry of the plot and let the gags grow from there, rather than hoping their very inclusion is its own reward. Wait, you said what is coming out this week?

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