June 27, 2019

Curse of the video game adaptation

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Once upon a time in the year 1993, an abomination crawled out from the darkest depths of the underworld and into the light of our Earth: the first film adaptation of a video game. The movie, “Super Mario Bros.,” turned the villain of the video game series it was based on, Bowser, from a vicious fire-breathing turtle into a grotesque human-lizard half-breed with cornrows, while the loveable dinosaur Yoshi became a raptor from the darkest depths of Satan’s mind.

Gamers were severely wounded by this atrocity, but something else came with it: hope — hope that one day there will be a good feature film based on a video game. And 26 years later, director Rob Letterman came down from heaven and gifted the earth with “Pokemon Detective Pikachu.”

Video game movies have had a long history of being panned by audiences and critics and bombing at the box office, with the biggest culprits being “Super Mario Bros.,” “Doom” and “Mortal Kombat Annihilation.” The best video game movies up until this year were the “Tomb Raider” films: “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” in 2001 and “Tomb Raider” in 2018. They had decent success at the box office but were still critical failures that could not get fresh ratings on Rotten Tomatoes.

But the film “Pokemon Detective Pikachu,” released in May 2019, has finally ended that curse by being the first, and only, video game movie to have a fresh rating on RT, pulling in the largest opening weekend ever for an adaptation at $54 million. Having seen the film myself, I can safely say that the hype was real and “Pokemon Detective Pikachu” was a delight. So what made “Pokemon Detective Pikachu” the first good video game film?

Obviously, being a good film is one of the reasons. The CGI Pokemon creatures blended together brilliantly with the live action actors, the performance of Ryan Reynolds as Detective Pikachu was phenomenal and the script and directing created an energetic and hilarious experience. It’s not perfect — the story was rather dull and predictable — but overall the film was good.

But I think “Pokemon Detective Pikachu”’s success is due to it being not only an enjoyable film, but the first video game adaptation to successfully transfer the world of the series from console to big screen. Too often video game adaptations fail not just because they were poorly made films, but because they didn’t incorporate their source material well into the medium of cinema. Fortunately, the creative team behind “Pokemon Detective Pikachu” managed to overcome many of the trappings that other video game adaptations have fallen into through several ways.

A crucial way that they adapted Pokemon to cinema is through the type of game that they used. Rather than make this film about the main series Pokemon games, such as Pokemon Red, Blue, Yellow, X & Y or the Pokemon anime that most fans are familiar with by now, the team chose an obscure Pokemon spin-off game: “Detective Pikachu.” Unlike the main series games, “Detective Pikachu” isn’t a role-playing game but instead an interactive point-and-click puzzle game, similar to “Professor Layton” or “Phoenix Wright.” “Layton” is about a British detective solving mysteries and “Wright” is about a lawyer solving various court cases.

Much like “Layton” and “Wright,” “Detective Pikachu” placed a greater focus on its story rather than its gameplay. As a result, the team creating “Pokemon Detective Pikachu” had an easier time crafting a script that was engaging but still faithful to the original material. One of the reasons that video game movies such as “Super Mario Bros.” fail is because their source material is more about gameplay and less about story. When the only story your game has involves a plumber jumping on turtles, it simply won’t make for a good movie. There have been story-based games adapted into cinema in the past, such as “Silent Hill” and “Tomb Raider,” but the problem is that those games also place a heavy emphasis on gameplay.

Wheeler Winston Dixon, professor of film studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said that the biggest issue with video game adaptations is simply that they lack player interaction. By taking away the interaction, the video game movie loses information rather than gaining it.

“With video games, the player is really the star of the movie, directing the actors, deciding what plotline to follow — and most importantly for most games, whom to shoot down to get to the next level,” Dixon said. “When this aspect of the game is missing, viewers no longer feel like part of the action.”

Granted, “Pokemon Detective Pikachu” may not let players in on the action, but this is less of an issue when there wasn’t a lot of action in the original game. This means the writers can take the most essential parts of “Detective Pikachu,” the story and the 2D Pokemon, and improve upon them in order to create a visually pleasing film with an interesting and entertaining plot.

But the most important reason why “Pokemon Detective Pikachu” was a great adaptation was in how the creative team behind it designed the 2D Pokemon into a 3D environment. The artists struck a delicate balance between realistic animals and cartoonish creatures to make some well-designed Pokemon.

In an interview with Syfy, “Pokemon Detective Pikachu” artist Ken Barthelmey discussed the struggle behind keeping this balance.

“The problem is when you design it too realistic, it will look creepy, and when you stay too close to the original it will look cartoony. In the case of ‘Pokemon,’ each creature had to look cute and adorable, which made the work even more challenging,” Barthelmey said.

Yet they managed to pull it off. Pikachu has authentic fluffy fur all over his body, but he still has the pointy ears and squishy red cheeks we remember him having. Charizard still has the same proportions as his game counterpoint, but with realistic scales and teeth. Despite looking very realistic, they still retain their fictional 2D appearance to prevent them from looking disturbing. For example, if Pikachu looked like a real-life mouse I don’t think the film would’ve worked as well.

Compare these designs to the horrifying live-action design of “Sonic the Hedgehog” — an upcoming adaptation of the popular video game series involving an anthropomorphic blue hedgehog who travels really fast and foils the plans of an evil scientist — and it becomes apparent just how important it is to keep that balance.

The character design of Sonic is far too realistic — with claws on his fingers and human-like teeth and legs — causing him to come across as super creepy, the realism Barthelmey warned against. In fact, I would argue the design doesn’t even look like the original Sonic, outside of the blue fur. When watching the trailer for “Sonic the Hedgehog,” I thought I was watching the sequel to “Hop” with James Marsden.

The design was so horrendous that the producers announced that they would be redoing the design for Sonic, which in turn caused the movie to be delayed until next year. Hopefully the film will take some notes from “Pokemon Detective Pikachu.”

I hope that “Pokemon Detective Pikachu” won’t be the last good video-game adaptation. Because all I want is to see a proper live-action “Metroid” with Gwendoline Christie playing the iconic Samus Aran, fighting aliens on the biggest screen possible.

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