The Animal Crossing Movie: Adapting From Nothing – Cartoon Boy #1

It’s safe to say there’s never been a good movie adaptation of a video game. Hollywood has tried deviating from the source material in Super Mario Bros. (1993), to replicating so hard it hurts in Doom (2005). The video games that remember for the story marry that story so well to the game that separating the two would be to lose most of what made it great in the first place. Everyone wants to see Zelda as a film, but the plot of Zelda is collecting a bunch of things to defeat a big baddie, and that doesn’t sound like a movie, it sounds like a game. Okay, so what about a game where the plot is almost inconsequential to the mechanics? How do you make a movie out of a game with almost no story at all?

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Animal Crossing, or Animal Forest as it’s known in Japan, was first released in 2001 for the N64 and has since seen success in sequels, most recently on Nintendo 3DS. It’s a game where you play as a human who moves into a town of anthropomorphic animals. You fish, you catch bugs, you pay your mortgage, you make friends… and that’s pretty much it. The game gives you very little objective, very little motive and there is no concrete plot or ending. It goes on forever. And I’m not talking about The Sims, where it goes on forever if you do everything right. In Animal Crossing there’s no winning, there’s no losing, there’s just… tree shaking. So how do you make that a movie?

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The Animal Crossing movie was released in 2006, not long after the release of Wild World and follows that game the closest.

“Animal Crossing movie? That’s dumb as shiiiit!! What’s it about a person who gets a house and makes deliveries to pay off her dumb house and eats cherries and shit??” -You, The Reader

Yup! The first act of the movie, that’s exactly what it’s about. Ai is a girl who moves into the Animal Village and takes on the role that would be filled by the player. She gets a house and does work for Tom Nook who asks her to meet everyone in town. That part in Animal Crossing where you just want to explore the village and start living your life but the Raccoon/Tanookie is like “You work for me now!” and ‘Meet everyone in town and don’t come back till you do.” And then you think you did and then you come back but you missed one person so you run around everywhere trying to find them and it’s super frustrating and boring. That’s the movie. Well, that’s the first ten minutes of the movie.

If we take the game and split it into acts, the tutorial would obviously be the first act. This is where we get a setup of what the game is about, helping your animal friends out and paying off your loan. But when directly translated to the film it doesn’t work. They set up that Ai needs to pay off her loan but it never comes back in the film later on. We now know she works for nook and there’s a cranky mayor and a pelican that works at the post office but there’s no payoff. In the game all these characters serve purpose and introducing them with distinct personality is a way of making the town real. In movie it’s useless and boring.  It’s like watching someone play the game. Any entertainment value comes from a “Wow, remember that part in the game?” factor, and “That’s just like in the game!” Aside from the look of the film which is very pretty with its water color backgrounds and adorable characters. A 3D to 2D style change can be difficult as we’ve seen with most Pixar merchandise, but the filmmakers pull it off.

Like, what is this?
Like, what is this?

But back to the story. Introducing all the shop owners and various NPCs in the game opens the world up. You feel like you’re part of a living town with lots of personality. You could make the argument that this serves the same point in the movie, which would be great if the movie were about the town, but, oh no it isn’t!

Here’s the plot of the movie broken down into the three basic parts

1. Sally and Ai’s Friendship

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This is the part of the movie the filmmakers got 100% right. In the beginning of the movie Ai meets Sally, an elephant that Ai bonds with over Sally’s ambitions of making clothes. Two things you can attach yourself to emotionally as someone who’s played the game. We’ve all had villagers that we like whether it’s their personality or character design, we get it. We all have favorites and Ai’s favorite is Sally. Also, Sally likes designing clothes, an activity you can actually do in the game. Making designs was never my thing but people love it and we can understand why this Sally would love it too. And then Sally moves away without telling Ai, something that happens in-game a lot. Ai is super upset about her favorite villager leaving and the audience gets to sympathise with Ai. It’s a nice emotional moment that the game can’t capture because this idiot always has a dopey ass smile on his face.

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You just lost your best friend and he feels nothing! But Ai’s emotion validates our own. It takes elements of the game we know and builds on them in the new medium in a way the game can’t. That’s great video game adaptation.

Too bad the rest of the movie wasn’t like this!

2. The Romance

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This one might be more of a personal point but I really did not enjoy watching these adorable animal characters talk about each other’s sex lives.

In the game, friendship is a huge theme. Making friends with the villagers is pretty much the whole thing. And even though there might be a huge demand for it online, you can not fuck the villagers. So, it’s really unsettling when all the villagers in the movie gossip about the wolf character and the eagle character’s former relationship. I think this stems from the fact the animal crossing is somewhat of a utopia simulator. It’s a perfect place to hang out and help make more perfect. Adding drama that really throws off the mojo of the game.  It’s unnerving to know there’s some secrets in this town. I wanna be friends with everyone and help each other out, not live in Twin Peaks where villagers are fucking behind each other’s backs and you don’t know what’s what. Not to mention the this story has no conclusion really. It’s referenced here and there and I think is supposed to be a world building device. It’s just not the world they should be building.

3. Aliens

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Kind of the biggest storyline in the movie is… aliens. And I have a feeling there’s a large portion of people who’ve maybe played an animal crossing game but did not play Wild World so I’ll explain the best I can. In the game Gulliver, who’s usually a sailor that gives you treasure, is an alien. Or at least thinks he is. It’s not exactly clear. It’s a side quest. He shows up sometimes, you find his things, you give them back, he sends you a new item for helping him out. It’s in no way what anyone would describe as a finale or a conclusion to Animal Crossing, even though it is the end of the movie. That would be paying off your house or having a perfect town. Goals that take a long time and that you set yourself. But in the movie, after Sally leaves to fulfill her dreams Ai starts searching for her own purpose in life because she realizes that she has no real interest or ambitions and she’s wasting her life, but it’s explored through this adorable cherry pie metaphor or something. And that’s when aliens send Ai a map of where to plant trees in her town, and Ai decides that this is definitely her destiny and we’ll all just pretend we buy that.

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This did remind me of an existential crisis you might have if you’re playing Animal Crossing for the first time. If you’re going in fresh, and you’ve never played an open-ended game or a simulation game, I would probably tell you to pick a project. Decorate your house, collect fish and bugs, design your town or make clothing. You have to make your own fun in the game, which seems to be exactly what Ai is looking for. So one character’s “cherry pie” is designing clothes, and the other’s is Close Encounters.

This means something.
“This means something.”

If you take a step back and look at this movie it seems good. It looks like Animal Crossing, the music is right, the art is right, it’s got all my favorite characters doing all the things I like them to do. But, just like any other adaptation, the faithfulness to the game ultimately doesn’t mean the story will translate to a different medium. With no concrete plot, you’re mostly adapting tone, which is hard to achieve when every player’s experience is unique.

Real quick here, when I started writing this post Animal Crossing was the only adaptation I had seen of a video game with no plot, and then I found Pac-Man and the Ghostly Adventures.

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It’s… incredible, in the worst kind of way. Pac-Man is in high school and behaves much like Poochie. It’s action sci-fi/horror/terrible hack comedy. And as the theme song tells us, “Pac-Man yo, Pac extreme He’s a chowing down machine Ghosts, monsters, ghouls And only one can stop them Pac-Man rules”

So I guess my final thought here is, thanks Animal Crossing for not being as bad as you could have been.

One thought on “The Animal Crossing Movie: Adapting From Nothing – Cartoon Boy #1

  1. Regarding video game to film adaptations,
    I mean, I don’t know how “good” the pokemon tv show was, but it was certainly successful/compelling. Also the early 90’s SatAM Sonic the Hedgehog cartoon was amazing.

    Good point about how 3d to 2d often doesn’t work. I had never noticed that and it’s super weird considering that like, drawing pretty much anything is a 2d abstraction of the 3d real world. You’d think it wouldn’t be that hard but it apparently is?

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