As the only literate Reject, it’s my duty to find the latest, the greatest and the untouched classics that would make great source material for film adaptations. I read so you don’t have to. This week, Print to Projector presents:
Calvin and Hobbes
by Bill Waterson
“We’re so busy watching out for what’s just ahead of us that we don’t take time to enjoy where we are.”
A creative, curious young kid has huge adventures (and battles against the harsh injustices lobbed on him by parents and stinky girls) with his trusty tiger best friend.
Not too long ago, author and artist Bill Waterson gave a rare interview and gave the answer that everyone was expecting to the question people had been dying to ask. Why did he quit writing “Calvin and Hobbes” at the height of its popularity? The answer, of course, is what’s come to be known as The Seinfeld – it’s better to go out on top. While I agree wholeheartedly, and I also agree that one of the worst sins perpetrated on fans of any serialized story is when the story outstays its welcome, I also think that the time is ripe for Watterson to come out of retirement in a huge way.
There’s no denying that the comic strip might be the single most influential strip of my generation. It’s heartfelt, ridiculous, captures the heart of youth and wonder, and it has the equal ability to make you think, laugh, cry, or want to go blast some aliens in your spaceship.
The strip was an instant success, and it’s no surprise why. It connects directly with almost all audiences – from the young to the young at heart.
One of Watterson’s primary concerns when he retired was the pressure to commercialize the property, an action, he thought, that would rip the soul right out of it. He’s correct. The difficulty in bringing these characters to life would be many. For one, there’s a lot riding on them – the memories and nostalgia of millions of fans. Those expectations. But at the core of these is the necessity of making sure that the film is done in the right spirit, in a spirit of the art and the story telling, and absolutely not done to sell Burger King Kid’s Meals.
I see no way to do this live action. Proof? They’re doing Marmaduke live action, and even though that comic is so far below the quality of Calvin and Hobbes that they don’t belong on the same newspaper page, it seems clear that the jump for it was done in pure commercial spirit.
Simply put – make Calvin and Hobbes animated or don’t make it at all. Make it with the utmost care for the material or don’t make it at all.
There is no question that the script has to be written by Bill Watterson. I think even the strongest writers would struggle to capture the tone, and no one knows the characters as well. He mentioned at his retirement that he felt he was done with the constraints of the daily grind and the panels – here’s a chance for him to expand characters he clearly loves into a larger world that can inhabit 24 panels per second.
Here is where it gets tricky. I racked my brain for days trying to come up with the right combination of skill and reverence, and no one seemed to fit perfectly. There were names that had skill in telling children’s stories, but not in capturing adaptations. There were names great at doing both, but with no animation experience. It’s a difficult position to be in because it would require either Watterson doing everything himself, or a director helping him with the feature length structure, or a team of animators learning to give birth to a stuffed tiger.
In the end, there was no perfect name – but like anything dangerous, it will require a leap of faith. I was incredibly tempted to stunt cast Spike Jonze after his phenomenal showing with Where the Wild Things Are, but at the end of the day, I think more and more that the job would have to go to Andrew Stanton with the caveat that Stanton would be working outside of Pixar and outside the normal Pixar look and feel.
The movie would have to evoke the style of the comic strip – that means traditional animation.
Rightfully, Watterson has claimed that seeing the animation could possibly be magical but that hearing Calvin and Hobbes speak would be scary. It would be. It’s perhaps the most precarious element of the entire work – the actors that would breathe life into beloved characters that we’ve heard speak in our head for decades. They’d suddenly be concretely shoved into our brains and the chances of getting it absolutely right involve a camel and the eye of a needle.
That’s why my only idea is an iron-clad rule: No celebrities. No movie stars. Professional voice actors are the only chance that this movie has of any authenticity. Hire veterans like Paul Rugg or Rob Paulsen or Billy West and have them create something new and fresh. It would be difficult no matter who gets hired, but I would lose my mind if I heard Jack Black or Will Smith’s voice hiding behind Hobbes’ face.
I’ve never walked out of a film before, but that might just be enough to do it.
Who Owns It:
I realize this is a hard position to defend. There are 1,000 versions of this film that are atrociously bad and 1 out there that is transcendently fantastic. It’s the chance for that one brilliant burst of creativity, the possibility that the right talent could come together in concert with Watterson to build a film that would satiate rabid fans and become a modern classic. It’s that chance that matters.
It’s a long shot, but that’s partially what this column is about: my stupid dreams and the bright future of phenomenal films that currently only exist in my mind. It’s my sincere hope that Watterson still has Calvin and Hobbes running around in his – that he’ll eventually get the itch to bring the characters back to life and to do so in the biggest way possible.
The audience is out there, and we’ll be waiting.