The cult comic book as a movie? It could work, but it would take work.
We3 is Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s utterly bananas miniseries starring a covert ops team of lost pets used for America’s dirty work. After their final job, they are scheduled for termination- they escape and chaos ensues. It is a masterfully crafted comic, a great example of what only comics can do, how comics parallel film but play with time in a way no other medium can. The series is a cult legend and did it in three issues. And at its heart is our compassion for animals. It works because imagining animals in these situations doesn’t just tug the heartstrings, it eviscerates. I think a large part of this is in the reading, your imagination animates every character on the page, it makes their speech real and keeps their plight real. Can it be done on a screen? It was optioned out years ago and stalled out years ago, as they do.
Last year, Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó cast 250 untrained street dogs in his film White God. A girl and her mixed breed dog are separated- and, after escaping death and worse fates, the dog leads an army of strays on a mission of revenge. Mundruczó expressly chose to work with as little CGI as possible (mostly to add blood “because of course”). He felt the film hinged on “being close” to the animals. The audience empathizing with the true experience of the dogs and the dogs having their chance to tell you how they feel, unmuddled by intervention. Animals can tell their tale if we let them, with their eyes.
But We3 can talk. They even have catch phrases (UH-OH). How to do words and get it to come across? Signs point to animation.
For me, no animated movie makes animals more human than The Secret of NIMH. Mrs. Brisby is the autonomous female lead so frequently lamented in modern cinema- she is a strong mom looking out for her kids, but she also goes above and beyond to do what she thinks is right and help the rats of NIMH. One of the hallmarks of Don Bluth cartoons is each character in the story is unique and full of life. Mrs. Brisby is amazing, but every member of the cast shines. Hayao Miyazaki is another director whose movies are particularly powerful because of being full to overflowing with memorable, dynamic characters.
Mice are merely a hook, the story in NIMH is about obsession and power and family (and science and magic). Mrs. Brisby’s bravery is true bravery, being scared and doing it anyway. Human issues.
All Dogs Go to Heaven, The Rescuers, Kiki’s Delivery Service… the list of animated movies that straddle that weird line between animal and person goes on and on. We all have favorite examples, but almost all of them, the same issue as NIMH. The characters are too much people and not enough animal. They get the humanity to work because they are essentially humans dealing with human problems with the trappings of animals. We3 isn’t that. Pets with pet problems.
Plague Dogs goes much, much closer. Though they can talk to each other and other animals, it doesn’t change the quality of their doggyness. Dog problems. Like the rats of NIMH, products of experimentation. But, in the case of Plague Dogs, some dark V for Vendetta experimentation (though Alan Moore has nothing to do with it- Plague Dogs was penned by Richard Adams, who also wrote Watership Down). Rowf and Snitter- I know, right?- are on the lamb from the death house and the countryside is literally convinced they are carrying the plague. Abused animals who, despite it all, are still searching for home and the security of companionship. Dog problems. This movie may be as close as we’ll ever get in the feels to We3.
Quaking Ambrosius. Snarling Fizzgig. The Thought Lion. With a fold of the face Jim Henson could make us fall in love with a frog. Does any creature living have the skill to breathe life into the unreal like Jim did? As tempting as animation is, as fitting as it seems to be for the story that needs to be told, I still think the superior way to make We3 a film would be to make it with real animals. Is there a director out there who is capable of making miracles?
George Miller is actually the perfect guy to make We3. The man knows how to make a chase movie. More importantly, he knows how to make a real animal movie with motherfucking gravitas. The great Roger Ebert said the animal cast of Babe: Pig in the City “seem more real than the characters in many realistic movies.” If there is a director out there who I believe is capable of nailing the emotion and the action that make up the two halves of the We3 story, it is definitely Miller. And arguably using the best model, real animals and CG mouths. I mean, they’d look better now, right?
Then again, why bother? Not talking worked for Chance, Shadow, Sassy, Milo, Otis, Wishbone, etc. The We3 pets are in tiny fuchikoma, little personal mechs wired to their brains. Skip the lips and install a sound card and some speakers in the robot body. Speaking without speaking, no weird CG mouth movements taking us out of the moment. Wait, why am I even doing this? A living animal’s head digitally inserted into a CGI armor body, why bother indeed? Even GM couldn’t make that work (actually, he probably could). I guess you could further compromise the aesthetic and make little Tron suits for all the pets and at least get to use real pets. Although good luck getting a rabbit to act?
So it seems like the obvious way to go is to go cartoon. The plot is a robot chase. Marrying the real to the unreal isn’t impossible in a live action movie, but it is burdensome (and expensive). What kind of performance can one expect from a dog head added in post, real or not? Animators not only have the freedom to go anywhere visually, they understand the beauty of movement better than anyone. A good animator lives for motion, how to make a chase scene dynamic and make sense is patently in their wheelhouse. But is a mech chase what makes We3 so good? Nah.
It’s the pets. It’s us. Our love of animals. Our imagination’s ability to breath life into the comic characters and have them be like White God wants them- real. I think that is the lynchpin- We3 is in so many ways about the gap being bridged between man and beast. You don’t get better than Mrs. Brisby re: examples of animated animals being able to be totally human- but We3 is magic because it is about both animals being human and animals being animals. It needs to be real because it needs be both. Nothing compares to the power of looking an actor in the eye. Even if that actor is a pig, as is the case in Beasts of the Southern Wild. Or a dog. The vitality captured in a look can make or break a scene. The climax of Beasts is the standoff, Hushpuppy facing the aurochs who have chased her throughout the movie. We look into one child’s eyes, then another, and draw our own significance. That’s cinema reaching its full potential. Since We3 does this with comics, it is the treatment it deserves in theaters.
When I say the full potential of comic book storytelling, Grant Morrison understands. In We3 there are multifaceted characters who go through both high intensity action sequences and existential crises and are also animals. But the typical stuff, the fight scenes, the exposition, it is all also handled in a way that is dynamic, exciting. These are the frequent moments in We3 where comic layout trumps story told. Moments of violence, bullets or blood-drops frozen in time. Or milliseconds dragged out across pages. Framing and timing and many things that movies can do too but done in way movies can’t, that no other medium can, playing with the power of the static image. Comics only stuff. So another large piece of We3’s magic is the format itself. Not just the impossible story but the telling of it.
Which to me says maybe the solution is leave it alone if it can’t be done right. The animal angle is difficult and making a movie that plays out in the multifaceted and temporally dilated style of the source material is nigh-impossible. Let’s skip telling only a piece of the tale and enjoy the comic for the perfect thing it is.