OPINION: Live action remakes of classics lack the spirit of the original

Dove Cameron, Chloe Bennet, and Yana Perrault will play the pint-sized superheroes Bubbles, Blossom, and Buttercup from the 1998-2005 cartoon ‘The Powerpuff Girls‘ in the CW’s upcoming live action remake ‘Powerpuff.’ Promotional artwork courtesy of the CW.

Nearly 20 years after the original Cartoon Network series The Powerpuff Girls first came out, the CW has found its modern Powerpuff Girls — or rather, Powerpuff Women — for Powerpuff, their upcoming live action remake of the original cartoon.

The first official look at the live action reboot was released earlier this month on April 12th, showing off the CW’s picks to play America’s pint-sized superheroes in the series: Chloe Bennet as Blossom, Dove Cameron as Bubbles, and newcomer Yana Perrault as Buttercup. The show will tell their story in a more modern context, exploring their lives as “disillusioned 20-somethings who resent having lost their childhood to crime fighting.” Needless to say, the darker take on the originally bright and colorful cartoon isn’t unexpected.

The original cartoon, The Powerpuff Girls, was created by animator Craig McCracken and ran for six seasons from 1998 to 2005. It told the story of Blossom, Bubbles, and Buttercup: kindergarteners by day and crime-fighting superheroes who protected their beloved Townsville by night. Conceived via a science experiment gone wrong, the girls’ superpowers come from the accidental addition of “Chemical X” to a mixture of “sugar, spice, and everything nice,” as the old adage goes. But despite the seemingly sweet and feminine catchphrase and presentation of the characters, head writer Amy Keating Rogers refused to focus on the girls’ femininity, opting instead to focus on common childhood experiences: losing a tooth, wetting the bed, having to listen to your parents, etc. The Powerpuff Girls were superheroes, but they were still bound by the rules of childhood.

This was exactly what made the Powerpuff Girls so special: in a world full of sexualized female superheroes, here were three young girls fighting crime while also navigating the various ups and downs of childhood.

The original ‘The Powerpuff Girls’ cartoon remains a classic program for Cartoon Network. Promotional artwork courtesy of Cartoon Network.

Cut to the CW’s upcoming live action remake and very little of what the original show stands for is present. We’re likely back in the realm of sexualized female superheroes. At least this time they’re actually adults, unlike most current teen dramas that insist on sexualizing young characters and getting away with it by casting adults for the roles. Whereas the original cartoon was meant to be light, fun, and childish, the remake plans to instead focus on trauma and resentment. It undoes everything that made The Powerpuff Girls so revolutionary and iconic, essentially stripping it of its very essence.

Recently, there’s been a trend of creating remakes, especially live action reboots of children’s cartoons or books. The main selling point for most recent reboots is that audiences get to see their childhood favorites adapted to fit a more mature lens. Oftentimes, they adopt darker, more serious themes and/or more inclusive and progressive messages in an effort to match an older and more modern audience’s tastes. But who’s to say audiences even want these mature takes on their childhood classics? I mean, what happened to art and media being used as a form of escapism?

Fine. I’ll play devil’s advocate for a bit and say, sure, maybe audiences do want these remakes to become yet another trauma fest (as if dealing with the real world isn’t enough). And sure, the vision and intention of creating more mature remakes are fine on their own. But even then, the execution of such ideas is, unfortunately, usually disappointing.

Take Fate: The Winx Saga for example, Netflix’s 2021 live action reboot of the cartoon Winx Club. There are some things (though few in number) that are commendable about the show and its modern take on the cartoon. For one, the shift to co-ed schools is a much appreciated deviation from the set up of Winx Club. In the original cartoon, Alfea is a girls-only school, and Red Fountain, the school for specialists, is strictly for boys. Fate: The Winx Saga gets rid of this separation, instead creating a world where boys can be fairies and girls can be specialists. Blurring traditional gender roles in this way was nice to see and a step in the right direction towards achieving diversity. On a similar note, the show attempts to be more inclusive of body types, introducing Terra, a plus-sized character. Seeing as how the original cartoon doesn’t do a very good job of promoting body-positivity — instead setting unrealistic expectations that are only acceptable and achievable in animation — the intention to break this image is applaudable.

However, that’s about where the positives end. The creators of the show stressed several times that it was meant to appeal to a more diverse and modern audience, but past co-ed schools and attempts at body-positivity, it’s difficult to see this intention executed well in the rest of the show. For one, there are several homophobic comments throughout the show, and while they come from an unlikeable character, there’s never really any punishment for these actions. That’s coupled with the fact that there’s a lack of LGBTQ+ characters on the show, with the only characters hinted at being queer being villains.

Now I’m not saying you have to read into that, but the association of queerness with antagonists and evil does beg questions of what the show is trying to say about the LGBTQ+ community in real life.

Then, there’s the issue of whitewashing that needs to be addressed. In the original show, three of the six main characters (Flora, Musa, and Aisha) appeared to be people of color. Musa’s home planet and clothing took much inspiration from East Asian culture. In addition, each of the girls were inspired by pop culture icons of the time: Bloom as Britney Spears, Stella as Cameron Diaz, Flora as Jennifer Lopez, Tecna as Pink, Musa as Lucy Liu, and Aisha as Beyonce. Based on this information, it’s fair to say that Flora, Musa, and Aisha took inspiration from and were meant to reflect women of color. Fast forward to Fate: The Winx Saga in 2021, and most of that work has been undone. The show has completely erased Flora’s character, replacing her with Terra (an obvious stand-in). And aside from Precious Mustapha, who plays Aisha, all other cast members are white or white-passing. You’d think that in a 2021 remake, representation wouldn’t be so difficult to achieve, especially in a show that markets itself on diversity.

Fate: The Winx Saga isn’t the only live action remake with bad casting choices and sloppy writing, nor will it be the last if the trend continues.

Time and time again, creators of live action remakes have blatantly disregarded what made the source material so special. If we revisit Fate: The Winx Saga, we’ll see that it isn’t spared either. The theme of the original cartoon is clear: friendship above all else. Despite each of the girls coming from vastly different worlds and cultures, they eventually come together to form an unbeatable team against life’s ups and downs and the occasional supervillain. In the remake, the girls don’t even seem to like each other for the better half of the show, sometimes only spending time together just because circumstance forces them to. Not to mention, most modern reboots of children’s films, shows, and novels fall victim to the same teen drama tropes in order to make the show more “edgy” and “fit for a modern audience.” 

I’m looking at you, Riverdale.

Sure, these remakes have been fairly successful, at least in terms of profits. Disney’s current live action remake spree is clear evidence of this. In 2019 alone, it released four live action remakes of classic films: Dumbo, Aladdin, The Lady and the Tramp, and The Lion King (if animated photorealistic animals can be considered “live action”). These remakes appeal to a generation of people who grew up on its animated films, garner packed theaters, and make billions of dollars in the box office — emphasis on that last part.

Why dedicate time and resources to creating a whole new story with new characters and new themes when you could profit off of your audience’s nostalgia?

After all, isn’t that what’s happening here?

The sad truth is that those of us who grew up on animated shows and films have reached an age where animation isn’t considered socially acceptable to enjoy anymore, yet we crave for the nostalgia of classic animated films, cartoons, and books from our childhood. These live action remakes feed into the stigma that older audiences can’t or shouldn’t enjoy animated material. And that’s a notion that, quite frankly, demands a debate of its own.

Oftentimes, animation is frowned upon and considered childish, as if to suggest that it isn’t as respectable of an art form. Suffice to say, that’s not true at all. There’s a reason animation is so effective in fantasy: it allows you to create things that you wouldn’t be able to make in real life. There’s a certain magic about drawing something into existence, created solely for the purpose of telling your story. In animation, nothing needs to abide by the rules of reality. It’s the perfect medium through which to tell tales of fantasy and the unknown. But despite animation’s suitability for telling such stories, it’s treated as immature and without prestige. It’s as if the older an audience is, the less they are allowed to immerse themselves in made up worlds, even for the sake of art and entertainment. As a result, we turn to these live action remakes to satisfy our nostalgia, despite the fact that they never quite hit the spot.

That’s not to say that live-action remakes can never be done successfully. There have been several shows and films that have been extremely successful in this pursuit — that are able to present an adaptation that meets viewers expectations while maintaining and successfully presenting its own artistic vision. For example, Netflix’s take on A Series of Unfortunate Events is truly commendable. There’s a certain whimsical nature to the show, reflecting what made the books so special in the first place. It doesn’t sacrifice these seemingly childish ideas to make room for more adult and modern ones, even establishing a narrator character so as not to lose the charm of Lemony Snicket’s writing. In shows like A Series of Unfortunate Events, there’s recognition and respect for the original work that most other remakes simply don’t have.

Done right, these remakes are a way to renew the original works’ magic and even pass them on to younger audiences. However, the remakes do very little when it comes to introducing new ideas or telling the same story from a different angle. In fact, most of them are near identical retellings of the original films, begging the question of why these live action films are even necessary. In terms of artistic value, most of these remakes shouldn’t have been made in the first place. 

Neither approach — the darker, more mature reboot nor the carbon copy replica remake — brings anything interesting or of value to the table. It’s as if with each new unimaginative, uninspired live action remake comes a sting of disappointment that creators seem to much prefer to make quick profits off of nostalgia-baiting over the desire to tell genuine, innovative stories.

But what can I say? Clearly, nostalgia sells.

So I guess we’ll be stuck with these remakes for the next decade or so until creators have run out of source material to ruin. Who knows? Maybe they’ll even move on to making remakes of the remakes after that.

Sriya Veeramachaneni is a columnist for Oswego East High School’s online news magazine the Howl

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