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SYFY WIRE Debate Club

Debate Club: The 5 best animated characters in live-action movies

By Tim Grierson & Will Leitch
Debate Club live action cartoons

Welcome to Debate Club, where Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, the hosts of the Grierson & Leitch podcast, tackle the greatest arguments in pop culture.

The concept of combining live-action and animation is hardly new. Disney classics like Mary Poppins and Bedknobs and Broomsticks were incorporating the technique generations ago — and decades before that, Gene Kelly danced with Jerry Mouse in Anchors Aweigh.

But with the release of Sonic the Hedgehog just around the corner, we thought it would be a good time to salute the five best animated characters to appear in live-action films.

What's interesting about this list is that the concept of "animated" has changed over time: some of these characters were hand-drawn, while others were generated in a computer. But in each case, they seem just as real as their actual flesh-and-blood co-stars.

And here's one disclaimer: we're not including VFX-animated versions of superheroes, though Iron Man is just as animated as, say, Sonic.

05. Pete’s Dragon in Pete's Dragon (1977)

The David Lowery film from 2016 is an affecting remake, but we're going with the original with Mickey Rooney, Shelley Winters, and Red Buttons.

It's the energy of the thing that gets us, an upbeat, relentlessly cheery musical with a combination of song, animation and dance that seems to define animated films of the era. And c'mon: Who wouldn't want a friendly, singing dragon?

04. Roger Rabbit in Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)

In our modern age of blockbusters when motion capture is integral to so many films, we can forget that Charles Fleischer was doing virtual performances long before it became fashionable.

"Unlike other voiceover situations which are done in a recording studio, Roger Rabbit was live-action and animation combined," the actor who brought Roger to life once said, "and there was a time factor, so my voice was recorded live on the set. So I'm on the set rehearsing and recording my voice as a performance with the other actors, and they're all wearing costumes, and it made sense to me [to wear a costume, too]."

Fleischer's desire to get into costume helped bring this wisecracking, neurotic rabbit to life, although credit must also go to co-star Bob Hoskins, who had to work alongside a fake character and make it believable. Roger Rabbit zips, zooms and flies around the frame, sending the live-action world around him into chaos; it's an incredible bit of physical comedy from a character who isn't actually there.

03. Bugs Bunny in Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003)

No offense to Space Jam — OK, maybe a little offense to Space Jam — but this is the best Bugs Bunny movie in this category, a meta-comedy in which Bugs and Daffy Duck (second-billed as always, if you'll excuse the pun) team up with Brendan Fraser and Jenna Elfman to stop the dastardly Mr. Chairman (Steve Martin).

Back in Action is goofy and, by design, a throwback to the old Warner Bros. cartoons. It's a Joe Dante film, and a direct refutation of the more "modern" Space Jam; it's basically Gremlins 2: The New Batch with Chuck Jones characters.

02. Jessica Rabbit in Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)

"I created Jessica to be the girl I would have dated if I could have dated a girl. …Getting a date, especially if you were the captain of the checkers team, was virtually impossible."

That's how author Gary K. Wolf described his initial conception of the voluptuous Jessica Rabbit for his book Who Censored Roger Rabbit?, which was the inspiration for Robert Zemeckis' hit film.

Memorably voiced by Kathleen Turner, Jessica is the femme fatale in this sly sendup of film noir and Looney Tunes, and she creates such an impression that neither cartoon nor human men can resist her. Decades later, her most memorable line — "I'm not bad, I'm just drawn that way" — remains a perfect, pithy description of her seductive appeal.

01. Paddington Bear in Paddington (2014)

Saying that Paddington is animated — that Paddington is not an actual, physical bear hanging out with people — almost feels obscene to say out loud: to watch the Paddington films is to know Paddington is real.

The gentle spirit of these films stands out more than anything else, a vision of the world that we can only wish to be as real as Paddington himself. And it's telling that Hugh Grant, even as a bad guy, is as likable as he's been in decades, simply by proximity to Paddington himself.

Paddington is real.