There's a lot to say, almost all of it negative, about the announcement that a live-action Naruto project is being kicked off at Lionsgate. The most obvious place to start is that this is a terrible idea, and on so many levels it's hard to appreciate them all. Less obvious is why what seem like terrible ideas to us don't seem like such terrible ideas to those throwing money at them, and why such terrible ideas die so hard. Underscoring all of that is the simple fact that such a project is unwise, not because Naruto is a bad property or because it's unpopular, but because everything that makes it great and made it resonate with audiences aren't things that can be "remade".
First, the people involved. The biggest name attached is Avi Arad, the producer responsible for a major chunk of Marvel's cinematic and TV slate since the 1990s. His work in that vein is still ongoing, but he also recently undersigned his name to the live-action Ghost in the Shell project starring Scarlett Johannson and set to drop sometime in 2017.
I complained about that project for the same reasons I groused about the idea of a live-action AKIRA: the story and its venue are difficult if not impossible to disentangle from each other. Moving the bare events of the plot to another locale would decouple them from everything that gave them resonance and make them interesting. You can't take the front end of just any story and plug it into the back end of just any culture. Yes, you can take something like Seven Samurai and turn it into The Magnificent Seven, or for that matter take Unforgiven and remake it in Japan's own past (Yurusarezarumono), but that's only because of strong similarities in the two settings that allow a parallel story to be constructed in each one.
AKIRA and Ghost in the Shell don't really work like that. Naruto most definitely does not work like that. Everything that makes Naruto special — everything that makes it Naruto, really — is bound up inextricably with its cultural origins. The story is its setting, and you can't blithely Westernize it without making it into a minstrel-show version of itself.
Why do producers seem to consistently pass over so many other Japanese properties that might well stand a far better chance of surviving a jump across the ocean, and without needing to be tinkered with? Constant readers know I've been documenting more valid possibilities for some time now: Black Lagoon, Soul Eater, Claymore, Fullmetal Alchemist. All of them are A-list anime or manga titles that would, if anything, benefit from being revisited in the West, and certainly wouldn't lose anything. Why, barring issues with licensing or rights, do the easy ones never seem to get this treatment?
My theory is that the people doing the licensing and production of these films see something very different from what we do. Where we see something we love and cherish, they see a property with some name recognition attached to it. The name recognition means everything, because that makes it easier to sell — not to audiences per se, but to the distributors that funnel things to audiences. Those folks are geared to see a name-brand property as having some inherent value, somewhere. But brand recognition is the wrong metric to apply to this kind of property. The more broadly known anime and manga titles aren't all the more transplantable just by dint of being broadly known. More marketable, yes, and maybe the assumption is that marketability will trump everything else. It's a poor rationalization.
A live-action Naruto is not by itself impossible. It's just that, like the other titles I outlined above, it would have the best chance of working if it was conceived and executed for a Japanese audience first. The live-action Rurouni Kenshin might serve as a good model for how to execute such a project — and you wouldn't make a Western Naruto for the same reasons you wouldn't make a Western Kenshin; the very idea is a categorial absurdity. If the live-action production has an Asian cast but just ends up being in English, that wouldn't be too bad, but I have little hope they will be even that faithful to the material.
I don't think the people hatching these plans are cynics who just see Naruto as a money-printing machine. For all I know, they sincerely love the material and want to bring it to a broader audience. But mere affection for something is no proof that you know what's best for it. You don't widen the appeal for something by distorting, or destroying, what made it interesting in the first place.
Live-action anime is never an inherently bad idea. Good movies can come from any number of places. But it's also never an inherently feasible one, and not every anime or manga out there is a suitable candidate for being reworked as a Western property. I fear the only way for that to become clear is at the cost of creating such things and having them fall flat on their faces.