How Hollywood Didn't Screw Up The Detective Pikachu Movie

Image: Warner Bros.

It seems like a miracle. As a rule of thumb, Hollywood’s video game adaptations have been subpar. But Pokemon Detective Pikachu is the exception to the rule. The movie is good.

“Did you have trepidation about adapting Pokemon?” I asked director Rob Letterman late last month in Tokyo. “I still do! I’m very nervous,” Letterman told me. “Are you kidding me? I don’t want to disappoint. This is a hardcore fan base.”

One of the most difficult things about adapting games is the close relationship players have with the characters and the worlds they inhabit. A big part of what makes Pokemon Detective Pikachu work is that it’s Pokemon, but not the mainline series or the anime.

Image: Warner Bros.

“There’s pressure, but I felt like that because we were playing characters who weren’t like pre-established. I know that Tim Goodman is a part of the Detective Pikachu game, but he’s not like Ash Ketchum,” Justice Smith told Kotaku.

“So, you kind of feel some liberty to create your own person inside of this universe. So, I felt I had more freedom than I would if I was playing someone everyone knew.”

The decision not to make a cinematic version of an iconic game such as Red and Blue or adapt the anime was made by Legendary Pictures and The Pokemon Company before Letterman was hired to direct. “I’m glad that decision was made,” said the director, who previously helmed the Goosebumps movie.

According to Letterman, it was the choice of doing a Detective Pikachu movie that got him hooked. “It’s the human story, the emotional story,” he says. “You could see this journey the character Tim Goodwin goes through really translates to a movie.”

Adapting the spin-off gave the filmmakers and the actors a foundation that allowed them to pay closer attention to fleshing out the world of Pokemon and making it feel right. Often with video game adaptations, it feels as though the filmmakers go off and do their own thing, much to the surprise of fans and even the original game creators.

Image: Warner Bros.

“We worked closely with The Pokemon Company, and the original creators and original designers,” Letterman said. All concept art was sent to Ken Sugimori, who drew the original Pokemon and still oversees the art director.

“We got notes, feedback — I mean, very detailed notes [from Sugimori]. We collaborated with them directly on this movie,” said Letterman, “because we want to get it right.”

They weren’t only getting notes. The Pokemon Company had a Pokemon expert who helped out during filming. “Every day on set, there was a Pokemon expert,” explained Kathryn Newton, who plays Lucy in the film. “Every day, making sure we didn’t mess up.”

Mess up how? I asked.

“One time, I called Bulbasaur ‘he’ in a scene, and he [the Pokemon expert] said, ‘Actually, you can’t call him a ‘he’, He’s ‘it’. Genderless. Psyduck is a he. So, there are these really specific things that we cared about, and we hoped that Pokemon experts and just fans [care, too].”

Image: Warner Bros.

It wasn’t only gender pronouns they were trying to get right. In several scenes, Newton’s character carries her Psyduck around in a backpack, and a real Psyduck would weigh around 20kg. “Right!” said Newton. “And they actually weighed it down... it was very heavy when I was doing my stunts when we were running through the Highlands of Scotland. It was no joke! Psyduck is not light.”

There’s more going on here than just The Pokemon Company working closely with the production. The generation that grew up with Pokemon is now coming of age in Hollywood. Just as comic book movies started getting really, really good once people who cared about them started making movies, the same is true for video games.

“I had all the original cards, and I used to play them with my sister and we’d make up our own rules because we were too lazy to read the actual rules,” Justice Smith told me. “But, I also had Pokemon Gold, my first game for Game Boy Color. I watched the anime. I was a huge Pokemon fan growing up.”

Moments later, Smith pulled out a Totodile plushie. It’s his favourite — though, he added, Gengar and Snorlax were close runners-up.

“I didn’t realise it, but the millennial generation in their 20s and early 30s grew up with this,” said Letterman. “They really take a lot of pride in Pokemon and have a lot of care for it. They really want it to be done right.”

Every day on set, it wasn’t only The Pokemon Company expert hoping that the filmmakers got things right, but the cast and crew. “If you’re not a fan, I think the film is for you, too,” said Newton. “But Pokemon fans in general, we did this for you.”

Photo: Brian Ashcraft, Kotaku

Comments

    It definitely shows onscreen. Saw it yesterday. Honestly? Best movie I've seen this year and yeah I enjoyed it more than Endgame :) The Pokemon fan in me was in absolute heaven. See it asap. Theres some massive secrets in the movie you don't want spoiled. Such a good movie :)

      Oh wow. Coming from Weresmurf that's actually a GREAT endorsement.
      I was gonna clean the house, but now I'm gonna finish this post, buy some tickets online, get nicely stoned, and then drag my wife to the cinema.

        My son and I sat in the cinema grinning ear to ear through the whole thing. Is it perfect? Probably not. But it's a brilliant Pokemon movie with a great cast and a hell of a tight little mystery story. Ryan Reynolds is on point and it's *so much fun*.

        I guess I'm possibly a little tired of watching so many superhero films as well, where they're all starting to blend now, that something as refreshing as this, was a really good change :) Hope you enjoy it.

    Bulbasaur is genderless? I don’t remember that from the games.

      Someone would have, and it would have been internet chaos on reddit.

      Seems to be a case of avoiding any gender identification rather than saying its genderless.

      Im getting a kick out of the revelation that there's actual Pokemon Experts.
      Who are they, how do you get that job, do they have to wear Ash outfits?!

      I wanna see the posts where people melt down over that fact lol

    So I have a 9 year old daughter who is a Pokemon nut but I have some concerns after seeing trailers for this because the story seems to involve some adult themes. Is this movie appropriate for a 9 year old or is is targeted at an older audience?

      Nah there's no unsuitable adult themes in the story. Everything is perfectly family friendly :)

        Well, what I mean is, the main character is dealing with the death of his mother and much of the plot centres around him investigating the disappearance and presumable death of his father. That right there is not a kid friendly setup and I know it's probably not something my 9 year old would deal with very well. That's the kind of thing I'm talking about.

          There were kids way younger than 9 in my session who had no problems with it.

          Your 9-year-old will be fine. :)

            I've sat in plenty of MA15+ movies with kids way younger than nine. A lot of parents are shit and make shit decisions for their children.

          Honestly it seems like you've already made up your mind. As for his mother, she died in it around a decade beforehand, he's a young man of 21, whose father is involved in a mystery and he has to investigate his apparent death. You don't see anyone die in the movie, you don't see anyone killed. The movie *is* kid friendly as a setup and no offense, you haven't seen it, so proclaiming it as 'not a kid friendly setup' isn't something you can't truthfully claim, as you don't know the context.

          Is Red Riding Hood a kid friendly setup? Hell no. A wolf devours an old defenseless woman, then gets boiled to death in hot water by a young girl.

          Is Three pigs a kids friendly setup? Not at all. Three young pigs build their own houses, and two of them are promptly home invaded and eaten by a psychotic wolf, torn apart and feasted upon...

          Or you know, not. Because it's the context that matters and we know those are kids stories and we wouldn't dare tell them that way. The same as Detective Pikachu doesn't present the story that way.

          Honestly, it alarms me I even have to have that sort of conversation about Pokemon...

          Up deals with age, death, loss, acceptance and moving on..It is one of the most moving Pixar films and one of the best childrens animations in recent cinema.

          Inside Out also deals with a lot of adult concepts like emotion, memory and again death. Again a great kids film.

          A good kids/family film can tackle some very adult concepts even loss

    I thought it was one of those films you really need to see a few times just to take in all the references and the world in general. Every scene is filled with Pokemon or game/manga references that it's hard to take it all in while watching the main plot.

    I was one of those people who firmly (and still believe) that Danny DeVito should have been Pikachu, but Reynolds is a good second choice. Other than the twist being predictable after about 20 seconds after character introductions, it was an alright film that I'll happily buy on Bluray when it comes out.

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