We have looked previously in our Review #7 at how the movies adopted from video game franchises can fail. Now, we look at what makes such movies tick. For this purpose, we examine the success of Detective Pikachu. This movie has been singular in the fact that it captured both the hearts of the video game fans and the adoration of the movie critics.
One of the greatest things about games is that feeling of control; games sell gameplay, after all. This gameplay allows the story to build as the player progresses, and for many, the story beats and how we get there is a story of effort, heroism (in the game) and often times, skill level. A good example is the game Dark Souls.
The story of Dark Souls is scattered, with the player on a quest to return their soul or some Sacred Flame, or just for Glory. The story is pieced together from interactions with characters around the world, a few books and inscriptions, and the environment. These moments are punctuated with difficult combat, where timing, stance, movement and power make the difference between life and death. Death, however, is very different; the player can come back and reclaim ‘souls’ they collect. If they fail a second time, these are lost. Death is frequent too; for the heroes and villains are extremely tough and pose a great challenge. The players start out quite basic, but become a legend in their own right.
While Dark Souls does all this well from a gameplay perspective, a movie would fail trying to capture that sense of dread going up against an undead king or a white dragon, or the triumph of finally beating a difficult opponent. Dark Souls sells gameplay, not story. A movie about Dark Souls would have to be creative indeed, as it would have to capture an audience that is there for an interactive experience, not a passive one.
Many Factors are behind success
No lone factor is responsible for the collective failure of video game-inspired movies and, in truth, many of these movies suffer from a lack of quality across the board, but there are a few common pitfalls that have reared their ugly heads repeatedly over the years. Perhaps the most significant is deviating too far from the original source material. Often, video game movies will take some base inspiration from a video game franchise and fill in the gaps with original ideas, much to the disappointment of the game’s existing fan base. Prime examples include Silent Hill and Max Payne, both of which were accused of missing the essence of their respective video games in favor of a more generic approach.
Bad Design can spell an early grave for a movie
Sonic the hedgehog suffered the consequences of not learning this action, with its unfaithful (and frankly, bad) design leading to crunch level last minute changes, and the real world settings being mocked along with the mix of bad publicity. Many times, it isn’t always possible to remain faithful to designs and the lore of source material. The games sell gameplay, an interactive experience that is, well, experienced rather than watched passively. Some games today may have lost this philosophy, but the result is clear: games usually do not contain enough story to, well, make the meat of a movie plot. Artistic license is therefore taken to fill the gaps.
Fan movies; They nail it (within budget)
A good example of this is the way fan movies work: they take the source material and add the missing pieces, dialogue, and the events in such a way as to make a very good looking and feel good movie. Fallout Red Star is a fan film that manages to capture the magic of New Vegas while retaining the quality and faithfulness to the original material.
There are, however, many traps, pitfalls and slippery slopes in the movie-making creative process. Video? producers typically view video games as mindless formula flicks of extreme action and a weird unneeded romance thrown into the mix for good measure. Subtlety and nuance are gone, found only like moisture in a desert. Movies such as Resident Evil and Hitman Agent 47 are good examples; they take the tension and plot and swap it for action heavy pieces with little plot.
Where this trend thankfully differs is with the resounding success (for a video game movie) of Detective Pikachu. The movie attained commercial success while also earning the praises of both critics and fans. While overshadowed by the Avengers: Endgame at the time, Detective Pikachu earned a healthy opening weekend ($103 Million). It even beat 2001’s Tomb Raider for best opening weekend ($48 million).
While financial take is not the most important, it is very telling that Detective Pikachu enjoyed success like this, as few video game movies have achieved this mantle. Positive responses were given for the movie’s strong emotional core and characters, with special mention to Ryan Reynold’s superb performance as the wise cracking Pikachu.
So, what can we learn from this movie?
Strong central performances count for a LOT
Ryan Reynold’s performance managed to appeal to a lot of the audience because of his popularity and familiarity from other media. His wisecracks reminded people of Deadpool, albeit toned down to be kid friendly. The character came alive, instantly channeling both the original snark of the Detective Pikachu from the games and the style of Ryan Reynolds himself. He just has that charm that works on so many people, of all ages.
Intelligent Genre Selection
Detective Pikachu did not gear itself to gamers; instead, it went for a different genre, that has a traditionally very large and popular appeal. Family movies hit all the right spots- and so did Detective Pikachu. By marketing itself as a family movie, it reached a much larger audience and achieved the right appeal. By appealing as a family film, it automatically netted all the needed audience markers for success. Furthermore, a family movie allowed other elements that video game movies do not normally possess, such as a focus on family and worldbuilding. By the time the introduction is finished, the audience is already invested in the main character Tim/ the subsequent reveal of Pikachu and connection to Tim only cements that connection.
This is a curious and interesting move, as this is a rather exceptionally good move. The recent movie Doom: Annihilation barely spends any time establishing the stakes of the characters before throwing them into a sub-par action movie. By not injecting the tropes of other genres, the characters become little more than glorified action figures.
If, for example, the director has added other elements, such as a thriller plot, it would have net a wider audience. The gorefest could have been tweaked, as the visceral action was over the top instead of actually gratuitous; it served to show guts for the sake of it.
Getting the Look and feel right: A delicate balance of Realism vs Authenticity
Too often, movies do not succeed at capturing the aesthetics, both in visuals and atmosphere, of locations/monsters/characters/items from video game franchises.
Sometimes, however, this could simply be a matter of cost and sacrifices have to be made in terms of scope, detail and length of time.
However, Detective Pikachu managed to nail the balance. The Pokémon look diverse enough to be recognizable, but also grounded and realistically belonging to the world.
Some critics at the time did not like the hyper realistic tone of the Pokémon, but the counter argument has been that had the design been more cartoon/unrealistic, it could be out of place and hence caused problems.
Story beats done right
By tying the story to a lesser known franchise, the story had enough room to stretch and roam as it pleased. This blend of original ideas tying into an established but somewhat obscured plot made the new story that much more interesting; the world is interesting, mysterious, and there are lots of clues that showed much more going on than meets the eye. It also allowed for novelty and a sense of surprise and anticipation, something impossible to achieve with a well-known plot thread.
All In all, Detective Pikachu succeeded in capturing the spirit of both the titular game and the franchise itself. It showered us with the messages of trust, friendship and teamwork, as well as exploitative tendency in humanity for powerful artefacts. Detective Pikachu encapsulated that feeling of hurtling headfirst into the unknown with your faithful partner on your shoulder.
However, there are many things that lead to this achievement, and the movie is far from the norm of success, in relative terms. Rather, it is an exception to the rule. The movies Tomb Raider, Rampage and Warcraft have all missed the mark and it shows that it takes a critical mass of the right factors to hit gold.
We must acknowledge that it is extremely difficult to translate an interactive experience into a passive experience. The people who work on movies are talented, but unfortunately corporate meddling, directorial interference and sometimes plan bad ideas take hold and take the movie in a direction that ultimately fails to work for one reason or another.
Video game movies may be rare, but that should be ample excuse to spend a longer time developing all the proper parts, because the biggest impediment is that lore is often lost in translation. It paid for Detective Pikachu to patiently work through rigorous control on each and every aspect with stellar direction and effects, and it paid well. This kind of success isn’t impossible, but perhaps more attention should be given to the franchise rather than how to make a quick buck at the box office.