The video game adaptation has proven a particularly alluring siren for Hollywood over the years. The medium is stacked to the gills with beloved, household name properties with huge fanbases of teens absolutely filthy with disposable income. But, like any siren, it’s probably best to assume that the relationship is not going to end well and skedaddle before you run aground on the jagged rocks of box office disaster. Oh yes, traveler, many studios have tried for the successful video game adatation.
So what’s the problem? Why can we adapt frickin’ LORD OF THE RINGS successfully but not Super Mario Brothers? Well, because your typical video game adaptation is working towards two mutually exclusive goals. On the one had, and apologies for this harsh and mind-blowing truth I’m about to drop on your poor innocent sensibilities, but studios don’t greenlit video game adaptations because the muse demands that they bring Dead Or Alive: Beach Volleyball to the big screen so that the story can be truly appreciated as God intended. They don’t care about the material, they just know these games have large fanbases, and they want those fans to buy tickets in droves. But those fans will rebel and stay away if the studios change too much about the source material. And here’s the big problem: 99% of the time, if you don’t change the source material, you’re not getting a good movie.
That’s because video game plots are like dreams. They’re wonderfully exciting and immersive when you are the one experiencing them, but to an onlooker (or anyone you describe the dream to) it’s alienating and deeply dull. And that’s because people play games and watch movies for very different reasons.*
For example, right now I’m playing Darkest Dungeon. Again. After a month since my last playthrough where I probably sunk the guts of fifty hours. I am rather partial to that game like methheads are rather partial to meth. The premise is, you arrive in a dilapidated hamlet cursed with ancient evil and have to lead waves and waves of heroes into the titular dungeon to finally defeat the Lovecraftian horror that dwells below. And your heroes die. A lot. They get sick, they go mad, they get murdered in countless unspeakable ways. It’s a gruelling, grinding quest where you face constant failure. But every so often, you defeat a significant monster or earn enough to upgrade one of your buildings and it all becomes worth it. The grind and the tedium are what make it satisfying because you, personally, are achieving something. But, much as I love Darkest Dungeon, if I hear that anyone is trying to make a movie of it I will frame that person for murder because that is a terrible, awful idea and would make a terrible, awful movie.
So it’s not simply that video game adaptations are being handed off to talentless hacks. I mean, obviously, that does happen (see everything Uwe Boll has ever done or touched). But, as I hope I’ve demonstrated there are real structural reasons why video game adaptations almost never work.
So, how the hell did Detective Pikachu pull it off? Well, it probably helps to have all the money in the world.
Here’s a riddle. What do you get if cross Star Wars with the MCU? Something that still makes less money than Pokémon. I didn’t actually realise going in to this review just how big Pokémon is. It is, bar none, the single most profitable multimedia franchise in human history. It dwarfs all. It looks at Disney’s vast holdings and goes…
Beginning in 1996 with the first game, Pocket Monsters Red and Green (Pokémon Red and Blue in the West), Pokémon depicts a world where human beings breed, battle, study, work and live with colourful monsters called Pokémon. And to be clear, that is all they do. No piece of Poké media has ever just come out and admitted that anyone who’s just not that into Pokémon in this world gets ratted out by their family and taken away by the government in the dead of night but it’s a frankly inescapable conclusion.
Since then, the game has spawned over 20 sequels as well as numerous spin-offs. And of course it birthed an animé series that is still running to this day and has amassed over 1000 episodes, as well as 23 animated films. Soooo if computer games are so difficult to adapt to non-interactive media, what the hell is Pokémon doing differently?
Well, I’d suggest that it’s because plot has never been overly important to Pokémon. I mean, sure, the games have plots, basically one child’s journey to master Pokémon battling while taking brief hiatuses to fight terrorists. But the story has never been the series’ main appeal. It’s all about the mons, finding them, catching them, training them and pitting them against each other in brutal legalised cock fights but it’s okay because they love it, honestly.
So you don’t need to be faithful to the Pokémon games necessarily, you just need to be faithful to the Pokémon themselves. I think Pokémon fans would watch a legal drama about a lawfirm of Scythers as long as the pokémon in it were rendered faithfully. I probably would. Who am I kidding? I definitely would.
This means that, while the main Pokémon games follow a formulaic plot so strict they make Legend of Zelda look like freeform jazz, the wider Pokémon universe is actually pretty versatile in the kind of stories that it can tell. Take Detective Pikachu, a 2016 spin-off for the 3DS which features the player character teaming up with a deerstalker-hat wearing Pikachu to track down his missing father. While well received overall, one of the common criticisms of the game was that it was a little too plot heavy, and might have worked better as a film. And so here we are.
The movie begins with a young insurance assessor named Tim Goodman being taken on a Pokémon hunt by his friend Jack because Tim isn’t into Pokémon and Jack can only cover for him for so long before the government vans arrive in the dead of night. They find a Cubone wailing pathetically in a field and Jack tells Tim that it’s the perfect Pokémon for him because its mother is dead and it’s miserable, just like Tim.
But just because Cubone is emotionally vulnerable, doesn’t mean it’s ready to climb into to any rando’s Pokéball and the Cubone chases them away. Tim tries to convince Jack that he’s not even really into Pokémon and is perfectly happy working in insurance which is a filthy lie as everyone who works in insurance longs for a quick death and an unmarked grave to hide their shame. Tim then gets a voicemail from the Rime City police department telling him that his Dad has died in a car accident.
Heading into Rime City, Tim watches an infomercial about how the city was founded by eccentric billionaire Howard Clifford (Bill Nighy) who loved Pokémon so much that he wanted to build a place where humans and Pokémon could live together without battles or Poké balls. I actually think this is the first time any piece of Poké media has even obliquely hinted that Pokémon battling is kinda fucked up and immoral. I mean…if this place is supposed to be a paradise for Pokémon…and Pokémon battling is illegal there…that kind of implies that Pokémon don’t actually like being converted into energy, stashed in a tiny ball and forced to fight for every second of their conscious existence. Am I crazy?
So, as I said before, I think if you’re doing a Pokémon movie and you get the Pokémon themselves right, you’re pretty much home and dry at least as far as the fanbase is concerned. And when it comes to rendering the Pokémon, this movie knocks it out of the park. These critters look great.
They manage to have a real sense of weight and texture and solidity while still remaining appealingly cartoony. And they manage to look real while staying out of the uncanny valley. And lastly, they manage to be instantly recognisable and faithful to the video games and animé despite those designs being two-dimensional. That’s like threading three needles simultaneously.
In fact, I’ll go even further. The scene where Tim Goodman arrives in Rime City for the first time and we see all these beautifully rendered creatures living and working in the city filled me with the same kind of wonder I usually get from Studio Ghibli. This scene feels like live action Miyazaki and I do not say that lightly.
Tim arrives at the Rime City police department where he meets his father’s friend, Detective Yashida played by Ken Goddamned Watanabe because Pokémon owns half the world and if they want Ken Goddamned Watanabe for a small supporting role in a kid’s movie who’s going to stop them? You? Yeah, that’s what I thought. Stay in your damn lane.
Yashida tells Tim that his Dad was a hell of a detective but he and his Pikachu partner died in a car accident and there definitely was nothing deeper going on there. He tells Tim that, even though they were estranged, his father loved him and he always spoke about how Tim wanted to be a Pokémon trainer. He asks where Tim’s Pokémon is and Tim explains that he’s just not into them.
Tim brushes off Yashida’s attempts to talk to him about his father and simply asks for the keys to his father’s apartment so that he can clear out his stuff. In the hallway he’s accosted by a mysterious woman and her Psyduck companion. In another example of this movie absolutely refusing to phone it in this scene has some really nice staging and lighting
Actually, all the night time scenes in the city have this really cool neo-noir ambience which, combined with the surprisingly excellent score, make me feel like I’m watching an all-ages Bladerunner. So this dame is Lucy Stephens, a wannabe reporter who feels that her skills are squandered writing Top Ten Cutest Pokémon listicles because “they’re all cute”.
She says that she’s investigating Harry Goodman’s murder because she’s convinced he was killed as part of a coverup but he tells her he can’t help her. After she leaves, he searches his father’s apartment and finds a vial containing a mysterious purple substance. He opens the vial which releases a mysterious purple gas that drifts out the window and gets inhaled by some Aipom, which makes them decidedly less chill.
Exploring the apartment Tim finds the room that his father had prepared for him in case he ever wanted to move in. See, Tim’s father left for Rime city after Tim’s mother died, leaving him with his grandmother because he just couldn’t deal with the terrible grief of losing his wife and raising a child. Tim was never able to forgive his father for leaving despite many efforts by his old man to bring Tim to Rime City so they could be a family again. Obviously, that’s a bit of a heavy moment but fortunately Tim discovers his father’s Pikachu hiding in the apartment and he’s wearing a little deerstalker hat and this is a good, good world.
So the conceit of Detective Pikachu, both game and film, is that this Pikachu can actually speak and be understood, but only by Tim Goodman. In the games, Pikachu speaks with a gruff, world weary voice for the obvious comedy of it and, when this movie was first announced way back in 2016, the internet decided that there was only one possible actor who could do justice to the role.
Danny deVito. Danny deVito! Perfect! Genius!
And the internet sprang into action!
Petitions were launched which garnered hundreds of thousands of signatures!
There were articles, fan campaigns, marches and protests!
“GIVE US DANNY DEVIKACHU!” cried the internet with one voice. “OR GIVE US DEATH!”
And Danny DeVito heard the people cry, and saw that they wanted, more than anything, for him to play Pikachu.
And Danny De Vito said:
“What the fuck is Pokémon? No.”
Not all stories have happy endings, children. Time you learned that.
Anyway, Pikachu is voiced by Ryan Reynolds and that’s great too.
Tim is understandably freaked out that this Pikachu is saying things other than its own name repeatedly but he has to put his mental breakdown on hold as the apartment is invaded by rabid, purple-eyed Aipom who chase him and Pikachu out into the street before seemingly returning to normal.
Pikachu takes Tim to get a coffee and tells him that he was Harry’s partner but that he’s suffering from amnesia and doesn’t remember anything from before the car accident. Nice little bit of characterisation here: in the café Tim takes out his phone and holds it to his head while talking to Pikachu so that the other patrons think he’s on a call and not crazy. So many movies have the protagonist who can talk to a ghost or a magic cat or whatever just talking away without any regard to how crazy they look. The pantomime with the phone makes Tim seem smart and canny, it’s a nice touch.
Pikachu tells Tim that all he knows for sure is that he’s a detective and that he has to find Harry Goodman and Tim tells him that Harry is dead. Pikachu refuses to believe that because the cops never found a body and…yeah, that’s an excellent point. If they don’t have a corpse the police absolutely should be treating this as a missing person case. Anyway, Pikachu offers to help Tim find his father and Tim’s all “nah, it’s fine I wasn’t even using it” but eventually he relents.
Another thing about this movie that really is better than it had any right to be is the script, which has a delicious strain of dark humour running through it that stays just on the right side of family friendly to avoid being nasty and mean-spirited. One of my favourite scenes is where Tim and Pikachu interrogate a Mr. Mime for info by threatening to burn him alive…through mime. It works because the absurdity of the situation undercuts the inherent brutality and also because it’s Mr. Mime and fuck Mr. Mime.
The trail leads them to an underground Pokémon battling ring where they end up getting arrested by Yashida, who is no doubt very relieved that Tim is into Pokémon now and won’t be sent to the Happiness Camps. Tim tells Yashida that he’s looking for Harry because he think’s he’s still alive and Yashida shows him footage of the crash, saying that no one could have survived it. Which yeah…if he was in the car.
In which case there’d be a body. But there was no body. Sooo…who the fuck is in charge of these cops?
Anyway, Tim takes Yashida’s extremely circular logic to heart and finally accepts that his father is dead.
He goes and sits on a bench and has a quiet, heartfelt conversation with Pikachu about his father and all the missed opportunities he had to rebuild their relationship that he never took.
And I don’t know what happened here guys but it’s good. It’s just really good, beautifully acted and well written human drama. I mean…I am genuinely moved by this young man’s loss and it’s a video game adaptation about a lightning-farting yellow rodent (I can say that, I’m a rodent).
It just seems that everyone involved in this refused to phone it in and brought their A-game. More power to ’em.
Anyway, it’s about this time in a noir mystery when then hero is brought to lair of the mysterious sinister millionaire who seems to be a potential ally but will inevitably be revealed to be the real villain behind this whole thing.
Howard Clifford reveals that Harry was working a case for him when he went missing, investigating the source of “R” the mysterious purple gas that turns Pokémon feral. He says that Harry uncovered that the R was being manufactured by Clifford’s own company, at the behest of his son, Roger, who hates Pokémon and but has managed to avoid being put to sleep because his father owns the police, media and local government (bloody 1%). Tim tells Howard that Harry’s dead but Howard shows him footage of Harry’s car being attacked by Mewtwo, who teleported Harry away. Pikachu exclaims that Mewtwo is the most powerful pokémon in the world which, c’mon, this isn’t Gen 1. Mewtwo ain’t exactly in the top tier of powerful Pokémon anymore.
Clifford gives Tim his next task: find Mewtwo and find his father.
Tim and Pikachu team up with Lucy Stevens and her Psyduck and investigate the lab where Mewtwo was being held. They discover evidence of pokémon experiments and R manufacture but are chased away by Greninjas. Pikachu is badly injured and Tim desperately asks a passing Bulbasaur to bring him to a healing Pokémon. I mean, he could bring him to a Pokécentre but they’re free and Tim would presumably die rather than allow his friend to fall into the clutches of socialised medicine.
The Bulbasaur brings him to Mewtwo who heals Pikachu and reveals that it was Pikachu who set Mewtwo free. before he can explain any more, however, Mewtwo is captured by Roger Clifford and taken away. Tim wants to head after him but Pikachu believes that he must have betrayed Harry and gotten him killed. He says he can’t risk the same thing happening to Tim and so he calls it quits.
Desolate, Pikachu wanders the roadside, tearfully singing the Pokémon theme tune…which he knows…somehow…and he arrives at the scene of the crash. By examining the scene, he realises that it was the Greninja, not Mewtwo, that attacked Harry and that Howard Clifford was lying to him and Tim.
Back in Rime City Clifford puts his plan into action and honestly, this is my least favourite part of the movie. His plan is to transfer his mind into Mewtwo’s body to escape the disease that is slowly killing him and live forever as a giant cat. Okay, bit weird but I’ve been on the internet long enough to know there are definitely plenty of people who would be into that. But then, he’s going to flood the city with R and use Mewto’s power to…merge people with their Pokémon. It’s certainly the kind of climax I would expect from a Pokémon movie but that’s why it’s disappointing. This movie was exceeding my expectations and to just fall back on a big CGI climax resulting from a super villain plot that is, and let’s be fair here, slightly silly. Well, I’m not mad. But I am a little disappointed.
Anyway, Tim discovers that “Roger Clifford” is actually Howard’s own Pokémon Ditto, a shapeshifter that can turn into humans as well as Pokémon.
Pikachu arrives in the nick of time and he and Tim manage to free Mewtwo from Clifford’s control and save the city. Mewtwo reveals that he actually saved Harry by stuffing his consciousness into Pikachu’s body and that the real Dads were the Pikachus we made along the way. Or something.
Anyway, Mewtwo reverses the process and Tim is reunited with his father. And the movie ends with Tim decided to stay in Rime City and join his father and Pikachu as a detective.
How did Detective Pikachu manage to break the curse for Western video game adaptations? I think it helped that the game it’s based on had a plot that fit more neatly into the requirements of a three act structure than most video game plots. But ultimately, I think it just comes down to good film-making fundamentals. Why is Detective Pikachu good? Because the performances, script, special effects, cinematography, music and special effects are all good to great. Sometimes, it’s just a question of hiring the right people and getting out of their way.
They did it, the mad bastards.
Justice Smith brings his A game to what could have been a rote role and manages to find some real layers to the character of Tim Goodman. And Ryan Reynolds needs to do more voicework.
I’ll never be sad to see Bill Nighy arrive but if I’m honest Clifford and his whole scheme are probably the weakest element of the film. Not bad, but a little rote and silly for a movie that otherwise manages to blow past expectations for what a movie like this should be. That said, hearing Bill Nighy say the words “Pikachu”and “Mewtwo” with absolute sincerity never gets old.
Supporting Characters: 16/20
Kathryn Newtown is bringing her best Nancy Drew energy to the part of Lucy Stevens and is utterly charming. The Pokémon themselves are so wonderful that for the first time I can actually buy that the whole world would be obsessed with these critters.
Henry Jackson’s score evokes a kind of Vangelis lite which perfectly compliments the Bladerunner lite vibe of the film.
FINAL SCORE: 77%
NEXT UPDATE: 14 April 2022
NEXT TIME: There’s no way it can be worse than X-Men 3 right? Right? RIGHT?!
*Obviously there are exceptions to this. There are video games that have very filmic plots and would work well as movies with very little adjustment. It’s part of the problem of using the same term “video game” to encapsulate everything from Elden Ring and desktop Solitaire. The term is so broad as to be practically useless.