Pokémon Detective Pikachu’s writers have discussed what makes a good video game movie. The growing consensus is that Detective Pikachu is a fun and charming story that largely bucks the trend of video game adaptations being disappointing for both general audiences and fans of the source material.
Detective Pikachu is based on a puzzle game of the same name for the Nintendo 3DS released in a truncated version in Japan in 2016, then worldwide in a completed form two years later. The game’s story is largely comparable to that of the film, featuring a protagonist named Tim searching for his missing detective father with the help of an intelligent and inexplicably talking Pikachu in a deerstalker hat. There are other parallels, several of which are more spoiler-heavy plot details that we won’t go into here.
As part of our interview with two of the writers of Detective Pikachu’s screenplay, Benji Samit and Dan Hernandez, the pair discuss the ‘curse’ of video game movies and how they went about ensuring that the film was something audiences of all ages could enjoy.
SR: This is a video game movie, and those are famously hard to get right. But Detective Pikachu works so well that you don’t even question if it’s from a video game or not. So do you have any advice about how to approach this kind of movie and how to ensure that it stands on its own merits?
Benji Samit: When we approached this, that was not at the front of our minds. Like, ‘Oh, there’s this video game curse that no one’s ever made a video game movie that was well-reviewed, that’s so much pressure on us.’ We just tried to make what we love about the story and the world, and just sell the best story we could. I think having a love for the property which you’re adapting goes a long way. We cared about all of these Pokémon, we cared about this world, we took it seriously. We didn’t view it as a sort of cash grab, we approached as fans first.
Dan Hernandez: I think that you have to write the story that excites you, and if you can write that story whether it’s Pokémon or My Little Pony or LEGO, really approach it with respect and embrace what people love about it. I think sometimes with these adaptations, there’s a tendency to think that the reason it won’t work on the big screen is because of some inherent property of the thing itself, and I reject that completely. I think that if you embrace idiosyncratic things, embrace the weird things you’re writing about, you’ll also find those are the biggest strengths as opposed to the biggest weaknesses.
Adaptation of games are notorious for being considered low-quality imitations of their source material that fail to capture what makes them special. The subgenre had inauspicious beginnings in 1993 with the trainwreck of Super Mario Bros. Some of the subsequent highest profile efforts were Double Dragon, Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat and Wing Commander, each of which for the most part had a negative reception from audiences and critics. These movies helped cement the perception that any movie based on a video game would inevitably be of poor quality. Even films that have enough to recommend them, such as the action of the early entries in the Resident Evil franchise, the eerie horror of Silent Hill or the demented histrionics of Takashi Miike’s Ace Attorney, have done little to sway general opinion.
Going by the positive reactions towards Detective Pikachu, it seems that Samit and Hernandez’s philosophy has paid off. Their passion for the property is clear in the script. The world of variously cute animals living alongside humans is presented as matter of fact rather than something laughable or out of the ordinary, and audiences are able to take it seriously as they did. The fleshed-out manner in which all of the Pokémon are realized, both visually and in terms of their characteristics and nature certainly ties in with Samit and Hernandez having a passion for what they’re writing about. It’s unlikely this would have come through in the finished film had the writers not been as adoring of their subjects as they claim. Also, the original game is a somewhat mediocre effort, so directly transposing its game play into script form would have resulted in a film just as maddeningly dull. In actuality, the story of Detective Pikachu as told by Samit and Hernandez is one richly described and with boundless potential, confirming just how much affection the pair have for its characters and their world.