By: Daniel Reynolds
Video games as movies, movies as video games; the translation rarely works. For every well-meaning Star Wars game or legitimate hit like Riddick (thanks Vin!), there are a pile of rushed, cash-in titles foisted on the public in time for a film’s opening weekend. And make no mistake, it’s a two way street! Lest we forget the immortal Super Mario Bros. and Street Fighter films (to mercifully name only a few). But with nostalgia creep and the studio’s continued hunger for brands, video games will still be the next frontier.
Wreck-It Ralph came out this month and while I haven’t seen it (yet!), I’d be lying if I said I was not already enamoured with its potent repurposing of classic video game characters and tropes. Over here at ‘We Can Remake It’ HQ, well, we salute the mining of the classics to create new (successful) entertainments. So, instead of just making another Resident Evil movie (seriously, enough already), it is refreshing to see, at the very least, an imaginative take on retro repackaging. In the spirit of video game translations, I decided to use my own gaming memories for cinematic inspiration and I kept coming back to the same game: Grim Fandango.
Take a look at that picture. Let that marinate for a bit. And, now I will explain how a movie with a talking skeleton travel agent as a main character is going to work.
But first, some history: the 90s (yes, more 90s) saw the rise of numerous trends within gaming as the generous leaps and bounds in technology allowed for more and more expressive styles of game play. For the genre known historically as ‘adventure games’ – the famous text-based and pixelated point-and-click entertainments of yesteryear – however, this meant more lush production design, more involving game mechanics and a proliferation of quality voice acting. For a game designer like Tim Schafer and a studio like LucasArts (now owned by Disney!), it meant a game like Grim Fandango.
The cinematic virtues of Grim Fandango are obvious: it has a movie ready story (with a thematic palette that already borrows from classic noir films and Casablanca) and stars a likeable everyman named Manny Calavera, a travel agent for the dead. You see, in Mexican folklore, a soul must make a perilous journey through the underworld to reach its final resting place. But, who wants to do all that walking now that you’re dead? Enter the Department of Death and its luxurious travel packages for those well-to-do souls who had led virtuous lives. Manny is working on commission, doing his time in limbo to pay off his spiritual debt so he can eventually rest in peace. That is of course until he meets Meche, a beautiful (for a skeleton) and saintly woman who, for reasons unknown at the outset, is denied her ticket on the heavenly Number 9 train into the afterlife. She begins her journey, disappearing into the wilds of the Mexican Land of the Dead, yet Manny suspects something; there is corruption afoot.
From there, the beautiful narrative really sings. Manny befriends a mechanically inclined demon named Glottis (who discovers a penchant for gambling and drinking, after moonlighting as a pianist), he is taken under the wing of an undead revolutionary named Salvador Limones, he battles his eternal nemesis Domino Hurley, and ultimately confronts the evil Hector LeMans. The story takes our hero from the drab city of El Marrow, through the wilds of the Petrified Forest, amid the suave cool town of Rubacava (where Manny briefly becomes a Rick Blaine-like nightclub owner), to the literal edges of the world and back again. Manny’s struggle to find eternal peace grows into a real epic yarn, as he reaches out to accept his true fate in the Land of the Dead, while finding the true love that had alluded him in the world of the living.
Now let me catch my breath. Not to get swept up by the tides of my own excitement, but Grim Fandango also boasts (besides a plethora of beautifully cinematic images and a heroic tale to make Joseph Campbell blush) a delightful sense of humour and a rich cast of characters that would, dare I say it, rival only the lovable cast of Toy Story. Yes, I realize that the majority of the characters are actually skeletons, and yet the subtle design of each brings about a vibrancy that is unmistakable. And to any interested producers, you wouldn’t even have to break the bank for celebrity voice talent, just re-hire all of the originals (assuming they’re available, and they’re probably available).
With studios like Dreamworks (and somewhat depressingly, Pixar) in an arms race to produce bigger and better sequels to their established properties, I think it behooves them to maybe take a look at the narratives of some classic video and computer games like Grim Fandango and others. Perhaps, like the comic book movie before it, some of these cherished characters of old will be given one last moment in the cinematic sun before being consumed by the continuing churn of electronic obsolescence.