This week, two rather different films open: “Tomorrowland” and “Poltergeist.” The first is that rare beast among summer tentpoles —an original property starring massive movie star George Clooney and directed by Brad Bird, whose last film made a gazillion dollars and won him all sorts of critical adoration. The second is a remake of a beloved 1980s horror film that does not seem particularly needed, which stars Sam Rockwell and Rosemarie deWitt, both of whom we love but neither of whom are known to open movies, and is directed by Gil Kenan, whose last film “City Of Ember,” was a bona fide turkey at the box office. These two directors would seem to have little in common, except for one curious coincidence: both Kenan and Bird were animation directors before turning to live action.
And so with their films on the way to cinemas, here’s a quick overview of their careers and those of eight other animation directors who’ve turned to live action —we examine herein the hallmarks of their animation background and seeing how they translated in their live action debuts. With more directors seemingly finding animation a viable route into big-budget live action filmmaking, it looks like Hollywood is recognizing that the storytelling skills directors might hone on via animation could very well equip them for the big, broad-strokes entertainments that our summers are filled with.
Animated titles: “The Iron Giant,” “The Incredibles,” “Ratatouille”
Live action debut: “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol”
With not just one but three bona-fide classic animation features under his belt, it was perhaps not surprising that Bird made his live-action debut courtesy of one of the most massive, big-budget franchises of the past 20 years when he took on the Tom Cruise-led “Mission Impossible” series. He had his work cut out for him creatively: while the JJ Abrams-directed third installment was a significant step up from the silliness of the second, the franchise still suffered from the sense that Ethan Hunt didn’t really have a defined relevant place in the post-Bourne world, and hadn’t moved on the way the same year’s “Casino Royale” proved that James Bond had. Bird’s solution was to split the difference between the glossy hijinks of the earlier installments and the dour grittiness of the new “realist” spy genre to turn in a breathlessly exciting, inventive adventure film that nonetheless invested the hokum with actual stakes and humanized Cruise’s Hunt. Of course, the centerpiece Burj Khalifa scene, in which the mini-heist sequence so beloved of the series takes place around and outside a penthouse suite in the tallest building in the world, is the stunt for which the film is best remembered. But the thing that makes this scene and other action sequences like the sandstorm chase land so well is Bird’s clever punctuating of the impossible action with moments of levity or simple human reaction, which entirely characterized his animation work as well. Just look at how, when Hunt jumps out of a building earlier on, bounces off a car and inelegantly makes his escape, there’s time for the tiniest reaction moment from Cruise, a kind of “can’t believe I made that!” It’s emblematic of Bird’s tremendously invested approach throughout and it gave us one of the best tentpoles in recent memory.
Subsequent work: “Tomorrowland” opens this week, and our expectations could not be higher. Beyond that, Bird has recently confirmed that “The Incredibles 2” will be next, and that he’s been approached to join the “Star Wars” franchise.
Animated Films: “A Bug’s Life,” “Finding Nemo,” “WALL-E”
Live-Action Debut: “John Carter”
One of the major figures in Pixar’s rise, Stanton co-wrote the first “Toy Story” movies and made his feature directorial debut with the unloved, somewhat underrated “A Bug’s Life.” The infinitely more successful “Finding Nemo,” and the equally adored “WALL-E” followed (both films winning Oscars) before Stanton moved into live-action for Pixar’s parent company Disney, with long-gestating pulp adaptation “John Carter” in 2012. Many had attempted to bring Edgar Rice Burrough’s Confederate-veteran-turned-Mars-dweller (Taylor Kitsch, in this incarnation) to the screen, including John McTiernan, Robert Rodriguez and Jon Favreau, but it was Stanton who successfuly lobbied Disney to buy the rights and who was the one to direct. It was a true passion project, and you can’t fault the caliber of talent involved (the script was co-written by Pulitzer-winner Michael Chabon, the cast included talent like Willem Dafoe, Lynn Collins, Mark Strong and Bryan Cranston). Unfortunately, Stanton’s proven storytelling know-how seemed to have deserted him for the project. The film was over-plotted (with a redundant framing device and characters existing purely to set up future instalments), the acting was uneven, it didn’t deliver on either the action or romance fronts, and ended up as a bloated CGI showcase. It also lost Disney a ton of money, halting any plans for future installments.
Subsequent Work: Though he talked up “John Carter” sequels, Stanton’s returned to the Pixar fold, with “Finding Nemo” sequel “Finding Dory” set for release next year. “Sequels are part of the necessity of our staying afloat,” Stanton told the LA Times, suggesting this won’t exactly be a passion project like his last film.
Animated Films: “Horton Hears A Who!”
Live-Action Debut: “Jonah Hex”
Canadian-born Hayward began his career at Vancouver’s Rainmaker Entertainment as an animator on the first ever CGI cartoon series “ReBoot,” as well as making commercials for the company. Hayward soon found his way to Pixar, with an “additional story material” credit on “Toy Story 2” and animation work on “Monsters Inc” and “Finding Nemo,” before defecting to rivals Blue Sky Studios, working as a sequence director on “Robots,” and then landing his own helming gig alongside Steve Martino on the Dr. Seuss adaptation “Horton Hears A Who.” In contrast to “The Grinch” and “The Cat In The Hat,” the film received strong reviews (it’s forgettable but certainly fun), and Hayward looked to have made a name for himself. Across town, “Crank” helmers Neveldine and Taylor had just left the adaptation of DC Comics’ Western hero “Jonah Hex” after creative differences with the studio, and desperate to keep the film’s start date, the studio and star Josh Brolin picked out Hayward, who’d petitioned hard for the gig. It did not go well: the film is one of the worst reviewed and just plain worst movies of the last few years. Following Brolin’s burn-faced Hex as he seeks revenge on the evil John Malkovich, the film ended up having “I Am Legend” helmer Francis Lawrence “consulting” on extensive reshoots, which didn’t help much, with the film weighing in at barely 80 minutes and not making any sense whatsoever, dragging good actors like Michael Fassbender and Michael Shannon down with it. Whether it was the result of an inexperienced director out of his depth or heavy-handed studio interference , the film was no help in launching Hayward as a live-action helmer.
Subsequent Work: He returned to animation, writing and directing Owen Wilson/Woody Harrelson time-traveling turkey tale “Free Birds.” It was a modest success, making more than $100 million worldwide, but Hayward hasn’t formally announced a project since.
Animated Films: “Stalk Of The Celery Monster,” “Vincent” (both shorts)
Live-Action Debut: “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure”
Not every fan of modern cinema’s master of the macabre (or, more recently, master of lousy scripts) is aware that Burton started off in animation, but given the immaculately designed nature of his movies, it shouldn’t come as a huge surprise. The Burbank native studied at CalArts, the home of many of the major luminaries of modern animation (it’s so crucial to Pixar that they have a running joke named after a classroom at the university), before his student short “Stalk Of The Celery Monster” brought him to the attention of Disney. He worked at the studio on films like “The Fox and the Hound,” “The Black Cauldron” and “Tron” before his directorial debut, the stop-motion short “Vincent” in 1982, was funded by the company, who were impressed with his work even while recognizing that he wasn’t necessarily a natural fit with the Disney of the time. Burton followed it up with short “Frankenweenie,” but unlike most films on this list, his first picture was actually his live-action debut, “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure,” a big-screen showcase for Paul Reuben’s children’s entertainer character who sets out on a cross-country journey after his beloved bicycle is stolen. The film is in many ways not what we’ve come to think of as a Burton movie: it’s an out-and-out comedy without much in the way of elaborate design work or Gothic visuals, and it favors silliness above all else. But there’s a subversiveness and delirious comic invention among the childlike wonder, and a rare ability to meld the genuinely weird and the mainstream that suggested that Burton was a major talent: the film remains one of his very best.
Subsequent Work: We’re sure you know it: “Beetlejuice,” “Batman” and its 1992 sequel, “Edward Scissorhands,” “Ed Wood,” “Mars Attacks!,” “Sleepy Hollow,” and several other movies of increasingly diminishing returns. Burton kept touch with the animation world, producing “The Nightmare Before Christmas” and “James And The Giant Peach,” but only made his feature animation debut with “Corpse Bride” in 2005 (“Frankenweenie,” a stop-motion remake of a live-action Disney short he made in 1984, followed seven years later).
Animated Films: “The Triplets Of Belleville,” “The Illusionist”
Live-Action Debut: “Atilla Marcel”
Perhaps France’s best-known animator worldwide (enough so that he’s even been allowed to do a couch gag on “The Simpsons”), Chomet made his name in commercials and comic books before his Oscar-nominated short “The Old Lady And The Pigeons.” The film’s success led to his first feature “The Triplets Of Belleville,” a quirky, sweet and distinctively designed film that proved a hit and was followed (after a brief and ill-fated Hollywood detour with “The Tales Of Desperaux‘) by “The Illusionist,” based on a never-made Jacques Tati script. The film wasn’t quite as successful but was still critically adored, like its predecessor picking up an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature. This led three years later to his live-action debut “Atilla Marcel,” which unfortunately can’t quite be held up alongside its predecessors in terms of quality. The film is a fable about a mute young pianist (Guillaume Gouix) raised by his two eccentric, overprotective aunts, who teams up with a young woman to look into the death of his parents. It’s visually striking (again very much drawing on Tati) and has flashes of the brilliance of Chomet’s earlier movies, but the move to live-action makes it feel oppressively quirky in a sort of sub-Jeunet manner, in a way that “Beleville” and “The Illusionist” never really did. The control of tone feels less assured, switching awkwardly between light and dark and including musical sequences that never really sing. It was an ambitious way to start a feature career, but unfortunately something of a misfire, albeit an interesting one.
Subsequent Work: Chomet’s film didn’t make much of an impact internationally or at home (it’s yet to be released in the U.S), but the director’s moving on with his next movie, a live-action/animated hybrid called “The Thousand Miles.”
Animated titles: “Shrek,” “Shrek 2”
Live-action debut: “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe”
With the sequels adhering so strictly to the Law of Diminishing Returns (in every way except financially, natch), it’s easy to forget that Adamson’s first “Shrek” film was a delight. Mashing up every fairytale trope known to childkind and inverting many of traditional good/evil associations to teach a valuable lesson about not judging people by their looks and being happy with who you are, “Shrek” packed a fresh creative punch. And it was also fizzy and funny for the accompanying adults as much as for kids, thanks especially to some quick, pop culture-savvy quips, buzzy soundtrack cuts and Eddie Murphy, who got his best role in years as the parfait-loving donkey Donkey, the enthusiastic, fast-talking foil to Mike Myers’ irascible troll. So in the post “Harry Potter” scramble to bring every kids’ book ever written to the screen, Adamson must’ve seemed like a good choice to helm the first in a franchise based on the beloved CS Lewis books —after all, the Narnia milieu is not unlike fairy-tales, and some of the curiosity factor would be from the parents who read the books as kids. The finished film fell somewhat short on most of those fronts, feeling surprisingly inert for a kids film and featuring some hesitant child performances and a CG Aslan who never quite attained an appropriate level of magnificence. But maybe the real issue was with the source material simply being old-fashioned, which translates to a rather humorless, fusty vibe in the film and a slightly finger-wagging moralism in addition to its fairly unfashionable Christian allegory. So despite game work from James McAvoy and a perfectly cast Tilda Swinton, ‘Narnia’ just doesn’t hang together well as film. So obviously it made a ton at the box office —close to $300m domestically and nearly $750m worldwide. Adamson was hired for the sequel, which tellingly took less than half its predecessor’s domestic total and the series has since limped to a third instalment, without Adamson’s involvement but with a similar drop in domestic numbers as both sequels relied heavily on worldwide box office to make back their huge production budgets.
Subsequent work: After “The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian,” Adamson moved away from fantasy to make 2012’s minimally seen, tepidly received “Mr Pip,” a riff on the inspirational teacher story based on a bestselling book and starring Hugh Laurie as the white man who brings hope via Dickens’ “Great Expectations” to a group of children in Papua New Guinea. Since then his only directorial title has been “Cirque du Soleil: Worlds Away” in 2012.
Animated titles: “Persepolis” (co-directed with Vincent Paronnaud)
Live-action debut: “Chicken With Plums” (co-directed with Vincent Paronnaud)
In this list as in so many other ways, Satrapi is an atypical choice — she’s perhaps more a live-action filmmaker who happened to start with an animated film than an animator who moved on to live action. Primarily, one gets the impression of Satrapi as an irrepressible storyteller who will find whatever genre and whatever medium she can to express her delightfully skewed, idiosyncratic and offbeat worldview. She did initially it through a graphic novel, with illustrations by Vincent Paronnaud who then went on to be her co-director on the animated adaptation “Persepolis” (our 11th favorite animated feature of the 21st Century). The acclaim and the Oscar nomination she deservedly received for that drolly subversive account of growing up during the revolution in Iran that brought the Ayatollah Khomeini to power introduced Satrapi as an exciting new voice on the world cinema scene, so that there was quite a lot of curiosity and enthusiasm for her live-action debut four years later. But “Chicken with Plums” saw Satrapi, again teaming with Paronnaud, biting off more than she could comfortably chew, to use an appropriate food metaphor for such a buttery, delicious-looking but calorifically empty movie. So whimsical as to become suffocatingly precious, it’s the story of a brokenhearted violinist (Mathieu Amalric) reminiscing about his life and loves in prewar Tehran that includes fantastical elements like a conversation with the Angel of Death, and so it does mark out a kind of territory for Satrapi. But it’s also much more squidgily soft-centered than anything she has done since, and in retrospect, despite all the gloss and beautiful period detailing, feels like a tentative foray into live action for an otherwise bold and individual filmmaker .
Subsequent work: Satrapi’s work after ‘Plums’ has been much better —first there’s the little-seen but pretty hilarious “Gang of the Jotas,” an ultra low-budget doodle starring Satrapi herself as a mysterious woman who may or may not be the target of the titular shady gang and whose adventures turn deadly after her bag gets mixed up with that of a pro badminton player at the airport. And last year’s wildly herky-jerky, candy-colored serial killer tale “The Voices” saw her mining her particular offbeat sensibilities again, this time abetted by a game cast including Ryan Reynolds, Gemma Arterton and Anna Kendrick. Her style is unapologetically garish and not for everyone, but Satrapi has exactly the kind of storytelling self-confidence and wicked sense of humor that we admire hugely.
Director: Gil Kenan
Animated titles: “Monster House”
Live-action debut: “City of Ember”
If Brad Bird is the patron saint of this list, Andrew Stanton its cautionary tale and Tim Burton its third-act tragedy, Gil Kenan may very well be its dark horse. Why his animated treat “Monster House” is so restrospectively undervalued, despite an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Picture, is a conundrum we’ll never understand —it’s a funny, scary and hugely inventive movie that unlike so many of the films in this category in no way panders or talks down to the children it’s so accurately aimed at. It really should have been that generation’s “The Goonies,” and instead had to settle for being 20th on our list of favorite animated films of the 21st century, for squeaking by at the box office (again rescued from ignominy by the international returns) and for ensuring that Kenan was marked out as one to watch. But if anything, ‘Monster House’ was rapturously received compared to Kenan’s live-action debut, which was even more vastly underseen and largely unloved by those who did see it. In any case, starring the supremely sympathetic Saoirse Ronan and Harry Treadaway along with Tim Robbins and Bill Murray in an inspired supporting role as the mayor of the city, “City of Ember,” based on the first book in the tetralogy by Jeanne Du Prau, certainly couldn’t complain of lacking talent in front of the camera. And its story, a Kenan-trademark mix of funny, soulful and genuinely scary, is both dark and unusually inventive in its imagined underground city, where the power is failing and the lights are flickering out. The director delivered that dystopia on a relatively tight budget of $55m, but still the box office take still fell far, far short of that figure, with the film taking only $7m domestically and $17m worldwide, landing it squarely in “disastrous flop” territory.
Subsequent work: Unsurprisingly after the underperformance of both his features to that date, it took Kenan a while to earn his release from director’s jail —when he did, it was with the “Poltergeist” remake. We’re not sure why the original film even needed an update and are a little sorry to see Kenan at work on a remake at all, given the inventiveness of his approach to more original material. But his involvement gives us a reason to check out the film when it opens on May 22nd, and to hope that it does well enough at the box office to break Kenan’s unlucky run and maybe get him back into more frequent circulation.
Director: Kevin Lima
Animated titles: “Tarzan”
Live-action debut: “102 Dalmatians”
For some reason often overlooked in the pantheon of great modern-era Disney titles, Kevin Lima’s “Tarzan” actually did pretty gangbusters business, taking more than $170m domestically and winning the Best Song Oscar that year for the limp Phil Collins dirge “You’ll Be In My Heart.” Aside from that largely unmemorable song, the film deserved its success, because while often not top of mind for all-time classics, possible due to lacking a character as indelible as Robin Williams Genie, a truly standout tune or first-animated-film-to-be-nominated-for-Best-Picture type record like “Beauty and the Beast,” it’s still a great time at the movies and an example of what, until Pixar established their dominance (only for Disney to buy ’em out), the Mouse House did best. Certainly it seems Lima is something of a company man, working his way up the ranks of Disney’s director’s stable as he took the reins for his live action debut (though, again there’s CG involved) on the sequel to Stephen Herek‘s 1996 version of “101 Dalmations.” That first film had been pretty financially successful, if if slightly pointless considering the greatness of the animated original (ironically Lima’s own animated “Tarzan” is the next film slated for the Disney live-action-remake treatment) but widely rejected by critics. So “102 Dalmatians” may have been a slightly poisoned chalice from the off and took less than half the first film’s total, but it was a creative step back even from the first, despite presumably having the license to do something a bit fresher. A game Glenn Close reprising her pitch-perfect casting as Cruella De Vil notwithstanding, “102 Dalmations” is a damp squib misfire that it’s hard to see even the least discerning of young children having any particular love for.
Subsequent work: Lima earned forgiveness many times over for his “102 Dalmations” hiccup with his next live action film (which was also an animation hybrid, if we get right down to it) for Disney. “Enchanted” is an enchanting film, brilliantly cast and winningly acted by Susan Sarandon as the evil witch, Timothy Spall as her grotesque gargoyle sidekick and James Marsden as the deluded prince, but most of all by an unbelievably charming Amy Adams as the Disney princess made flesh and deposited in Manhattan. Displaying a clever balance between affection for the animated Disney titles of old and the reality of 21st century gender politics, it’s a thorough delight and makes us curious for whatever Lima might do next in the live action arena. For his next picture, he’s going back to his animation roots, but this time for DreamWorks with the intriguing-sounding “Bollywood Superstar Monkey.”
Phil Lord & Chris Miller
Animated Films: “Cloudy With Chance Of Meatballs”
Live-Action Debut: “21 Jump Street”
They’re now among the most in-demand filmmakers in Hollywood after a string of unlikely critical and commercial successes, but Phil Lord and Chris Miller came from relatively humble beginnings. Both animation fans growing up, they met at Dartmouth and bonded over a love of Bill Plympton and “The Simpsons,” but only collaborated when an interview with Miller in the college paper came to the attention of Disney head Michael Eisner, who arranged for him to pitch with Disney Television Animation. He brought Lord along, and it was assumed they were a team, with the pair landing a development deal. Nothing they suggested was ever made, but they did make short-lived cult series “Clone High” for MTV (canceled when it sparked protests in India over their depiction of Gandhi), which eventually landed them the hilarious and inventive animated film “Cloudy With Chance Of Meatballs.” The film proved a sleeper hit for Sony, and the studio then gave them another key gig: the reboot of cops-at-high-school show “21 Jump Street.” Like many of their movies, it looked unpromising on paper, but this movie embraced the absurdity of the premise with some unusually effective meta-humor, found unlikely comedic gold in the pairing of Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum, and proved to be the most incisive and secretly heartwarming high-school movie since “Mean Girls.” It even gave Johnny Depp, cameo-ing as his character from the show, his most bearable performance in about a decade. The film was a huge and immediate hit, and launched the duo onto the directorial A-list.
Subsequent Work: The pair returned to animation with mega-hit “The Lego Movie,” bringing their wit and invention to their biggest audience yet (and the Oscars along the way), and followed it only a few months later with “22 Jump Street,” one of the few sequels to live up to its predecessor. They’ve got a number of other projects mooted at the moment, including an animated “Spider-Man” film, writing the story for “The Flash” and novel adaptation “Carter Beats The Devil,” though they haven’t yet picked their next directorial outing.
A few other names to consider in this light are Henry Selick, though “Monkeybone” was more of a hybrid than a real live-action title, and he has subsequently returned to his animation roots. Vicky Jenson, co director of “Shrek” with Andrew Adamson (above) directed the uninspired “Shark Tale” and then made her live action debut with “Post Grad,” a film so woeful we couldn’t bring ourselves to write about it at any length. Karey Kirkpatrick of “Over the Hedge” fame cut his live action teeth on lame Eddie Murphy vehicle “Imagine That.” Ari Folman was another candidate, as he followed up the tremendous “Waltz with Bashir” with “The Congress,” but about half of that film takes place in a wholly animated world, so we felt his inclusion might be premature. Rob Minkoff directed perennial Disney favorite “The Lion King” and then did “Stuart Little” and “The Haunted Mansion.” And if we were really to stretch a point we could technically include Dean De Blois of “Lilo & Stitch” and the “How to Train Your Dragon” movies, but his live action debut was the Sigur Ros documentary “Heima” and so is a little departure from the narrative films we were concentrating on here. Who did we miss? Let us know in comments below.
–Jessica Kiang, Oli Lyttelton