Almost thirty years since the debut of Yukito Kishiro’s influential Manga series Battle Angel Alita, 20thCentury Fox is releasing Robert Rodriguez’s Alita: Battle Angel, an adaptation of the series that’s been gestating under the aegis of filmmaker James Cameron for over a decade.
Thirty years ago, Manga was still fairly niche among American readers and the same was true for Anime with American moviegoers, though the popularity of both mediums has grown exponentially over the past few decades as younger people discover it. Anime conventions have gotten so big they’ve broken off from the main Comic-Cons where Anime was often included almost as an afterthought, leading to well-attended events. If you go to your local library, you’re apt to find a section solely for Manga. Kids just eat the stuff up, to the point where burgeoning comic artists look to Japan for influence and inspiration.
Due to that growing popularity, it’s far from surprising that Hollywood continues to try to get into the Anime business even after Paramount’s 2017 Ghost in the Shell movie, starring Scarlett Johansson, tanked in the States. Much of the reason people didn’t bother seeing that movie could have been credited to the vocal backlash towards the movie casting a non-Asian actor in the lead for a story that clearly takes place in a futuristic Japan. The backlash grew louder when people saw the movie and realized that a Japanese teenager was transplanted into Johansson’s Caucasian robot body, creating even further cries of “whitewashing.”
Regardless, that movie did substantially better overseas, opening #1 both in China and Japan, those two countries contributing $38 million to the $129 million the movie made internationally, but Americans’ love for Anime only goes so far. (Adam Wingard’s Death Note was another 2017 Anime remake, one that streamed on Netflix, which was received just as poorly among critics and fans.)
Clearly, the love for Japanese Anime comes with an equal stigma towards American studios trying to recreate some of the brilliant visuals and worldbuilding being done by the original Japanese creators. Even with stars like Scarlett Johansson or Charlize Theron – who starred in Paramount’s earlier Aeon Flux remake – it’s still hard to convince American moviegoers unfamiliar with the source material to give these movies a look, and that is likely the greatest challenge facing Alita this coming weekend.
Originally, Alita was going to be released in December in a similar move to how Cameron’s Avatar was released in December 2009, becoming an enormous holiday hit as it grossed $2.7 billion worldwide. Avatar was an original concept, while Alita has its source material in fairly well-known comics, at least in Manga-reading circles. Alita is not generally known to the populace at large, so presumably Cameron and Rodriguez were trying to make a movie that could interest people in reading the original Manga or just reading Manga in general.
Whether Alita might turn things around in terms of changing opinions about live action Anime adaptations, it’s not solely about the quality of the movie. In the interest in staying faithful for fans of the original source material, who clearly are beholden to the movies/comics they already love, filmmakers often lose sight of reaching other audiences. In some ways, this is why these things tend to falter, because like other superhero and comic book adaptations, true success for a Manga-based movie will only by crossing over to the non-fans.
Almost exactly ten years ago, Fox released a live action Dragonball Evolution movie directed by James Wong that bombed so badly even Chow Yun-Fat couldn’t save it. It made less than $10 million domestically, which is roughly what the animated Dragon Ball Super: Brolly made its opening weekend last month. What can we learn from this? That the people who enjoy sci-fi and fantasy often find the animated format to be an easier medium in which to digest those genres.
What Alita has going for it is that it’s the work of filmmakers who have been making movies for a very long time, including Robert Rodriguez, who fashioned his own Austin-based Troublemaker Studios into a grassroots film industry where he has all the tools to create the CG work for movies like the Spy Kids series and two Sin City movies. Pairing him with Oscar-winning FX specialist Joe Letteri and WETA FX — who oddly, have done more work with Peter Jackson including the FX for the recent Y.A. flop Mortal Engines — certainly seems like a step in the right direction.
Current CG technology is also well up to the task of creating elaborate science fiction worlds from comics and Anime. Even so, Luc Besson’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets– based on a French series of comics, rather than actual Manga — didn’t fare much better than Ghost in the Shell did State-side. That movie certainly found its fans, because it was a funny movie that looked spectacular. Alita is in a similar boat where it has to get moviegoers interested mainly due to the visuals, but it will only win them over if the story and characters are up to snuff.
Warner Bros. has been trying to make a live action version of Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira for almost two decades now with no luck in finding the right actor and director able to recreate Otomo’s visuals within a reasonable budget. The CG-work on Alita: Battle Angel is promising for a potential Akira movie, but I can guarantee you that the execs at Warner Brothers, including the company’s CEO Kevin Tsujihara, will be watching the performance of Alita this weekend, as well as how it does internationally before greenlighting that Akira movie. (I have a lot more to write about the Akira situation, but I’ll save that for a separate piece.)
I’ve already seen Alita: Battle Angel, and reviews so far are mixed at best, though they’re still better than the reviews for Ghost in the Shell. There’s even more added pressure on Alita, being one of Fox’s last movies with James Cameron as he makes anywhere between two and four Avatar sequels, as well as the Disney takeover that could potentially sideline future Fox productions currently in development. (Latest reports predict Alita will be losing money due to its $150 to 200 million production budget, which mostly went to the CG-work one imagines.)
I’ll have more to say about Alita in this week’s box office preview posting on Wednesday, but I’m curious to hear what true Anime and Manga fans reading this might think of the potential for the movie, at least from what they’ve seen so far. Feel free to use the comments below to share those thoughts with us.
Edward Douglas has been writing about movies and other forms of entertainment for over 25 years, so he’s probably older than you.