I like to think we’re already pretty familiar with the Pokémon franchise …
… “Gotta Catch ‘em all!”, $90 billion franchise (worth nearly $30 billion more than the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Harry Potter franchises combined!), Video Games, mobile apps, manga, merchandise, trading cards, toys, anime, Pikachu, Kawaii, Cool Japan … yeah, you know it.
In 23 years, we’ve seen the franchise transform and influence just about every sector of the entertainment industry.
With the release of Pokémon Go we saw it appeal to absolutely everyone as the most-downloaded app back in 2016, starting a “franchise renaissance” (so to speak).
For transmedia enthusiasts, there is a lot to unpack here. Being a Media Mix franchise, growth was rapid in Japan. In the first year alone, we got a three-pronged co-ordination of video game, trading cards, and merchandise alone – with occasional Manga strips and magazines showing up later.
To say it was a phenomenon is an understatement.
And now, we have their first big “Video Game Blockbuster” with big stars like Ryan Reynolds attached as Detective Pikachu alongside Justice Smith as Tim Goodman.
So, for this post, we’re going to look at what Detective Pikachu means for the franchise, the film industry, and how it fits into a broader media landscape.
A SOLID VIDEO GAME BLOCKBUSTER
I think it’s first important to explain my personal difference between a video game ‘movie’ and a video game ‘blockbuster’, and why I use these terms.
Online, there’s been a lot of talk about how this is the first great “Video Game Movie”, which I don’t think is fair. Pokémon has now got over twenty movies, with Pokemon: The First Movie, Mewtwo Strikes Back hitting the silver screen back in 1998. That was a good video game movie.
There have been other good ones which further tie into franchises: Yo-Kai Watch, Digimon, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney the Movie, and so on. Japan has loads of these, and they’re considered as good video game movies.
Often in media mixes they’ll expand or develop the universe in another way.
The Professor Layton movie is a great case study, as it works not only as a good video game adaptation, but as an integrated part of the Professor Layton story. Upon playing Level 5’s prequel trilogy, the events of the film tie into a greater mystery which is only revealed in Professor Layton and the Azran Legacy for the 3DS – a true transmedia narrative if ever there were one.
What I’m saying is, Detective Pikachu is a video game “Blockbuster”, it has a big budget, Western stars attached, a cinematic release, and appeals to a mass audience.
The movies I listed are “Good video game movies” but they’re predominantly designed to cater to the Japanese market, don’t have that broad cinematic appeal that blockbusters try to achieve.
That was just an explanation of why I consider Detective Pikachu as more of a “Video Game Blockbuster” to separate it from what’s come before.
WHAT IS DETECTIVE PIKACHU?
Before the film we had Detective Pikachu for the 3DS.
This was a spin-off game where you solve basic mysteries with some of the blandest plot and human characters imaginable. The biggest saving grace is the coffee-drinking electric rodent. It’s an … OK game, but it’s pretty basic. It’s definitely targeted at the ‘little kid’ side of the fandom.
The only thing of note for collectors is that the Amiibo is larger than others and unlocks content in the game … that’s really it. It’s a spin-off game from the main-game series and should be considered as such.
That said, that speaking Pikachu is easily the best thing about it – it’s almost worth it just for that.
As for the movie, it is technically an adaptation of the game – same locations and character names – but much better. There’s more story, comedy, character development … y’know, like a movie!
DETECTIVE PIKACHU: GAME-TO-MOVIE!
Game-to-Film adaptation isn’t easy. The story structures are different, the pacing is different, and the narrative is different. Perhaps most importantly, the characters are different.
In the games you play as a nameless, voiceless, protagonist to project yourself onto. How do you create a character arc for that?
As for the movie, in terms of story, world-building, lore, and exploring a new live-action area for the franchise, it really works.
The short answer is, it doesn’t treat the property as a ‘video game’ movie. It serves as another branch of the 23-year-old franchise.
It’s smart not adapting the main game series, or with a live-action All-American Ash Ketchum (Satoshi) going on adventures. That’s always proven disastrous for western production – whether it’s Death Note or Dragonball Evolution.
Instead, the events of the movie take place in Ryme City – which looks like New York, London, and Tokyo spliced together (New Londokyo?).
Even the language and the fonts used look like a hybridisation of English and the Japanese Katakana – fitting as this movie feels like a combo of West and East.
Most importantly, this city exists within the already established Pokémon world. The two most noteworthy things are:
- There are posters in Tim Goodman’s room of tournaments in Johto and Sinnoh (the video game regions debuting in Pokémon Gold and Silver (1999), and Diamond and Pearl (2006) respectively.)
- A scientist states that they captured a Mewtwo who escaped the Kanto region over 20 years ago (keeping it in line with video game continuity).
Naturally, there are other Easter Eggs, but these are the two big ones that cement the film’s story in another corner of the world.
Truely, a great example of transmedia world-building across multiple platforms.
COMEDY AND META-NARRATIVE
Pokémon is many things: Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Adventure … but it’s really an RPG video game series first. Character isn’t really there because you’re projecting yourself onto the blank pixels of the Pokémon Trainer.
Another smart move for Detective Pikachu – making it a comedy.
We really haven’t seen that much comedy in Pokémon – at least not snarky, post-modern, meta comedies which are thriving in the West.
But it does give you time to just enjoy the world as well and the fantasy/sci-fi stuff as well. There’s also a mystery element to it as well, which is also nice and gives the story a clear three-act structure.
It’s a tight, well-structured movie.
I should also note that they use the nostalgia very well – it is both genuine and sometimes meta.
The Pokémon that get the most focus are the Gen I Pokémon from the original Red and Blue – the ones that most of the parents are familiar with. You have your Pikachu, Jigglypuff, Psyduck, Charizard, Mewtwo – of the 809 available-to-catch Pokémon, they knew who to put front-and-center.
They also have Ryan Reynolds sing the original theme song from the first season, Tim Goodman has Pokémon posters, Pikachu bed and a Pokémon trading card ring binder – which just about every kid could relate to.
It’s also interesting that Tim Goodman wanted to be a Pokémon trainer (like all kids) but life got in the way. I imagine this was also for the older fans and parents who grew up with Pokémon, who also inevitably gave up on trying to be the very best like no-one ever was for a more stable job and life.
Junior reporter, Lucy Stevens (Kathryn Newton), probably has one of the funniest jobs writing listicles on the “Top 15 Cutest Pokémon – Spoilers, they’re all cute!”
So, it’s nice to see the film acknowledge their kid and adult markets in the story – with the franchise promoting itself as being for everyone.
WHAT THE BOX OFFICE SAYS
Looking at the box office, this film is considered a success – projected to rake in a cool $75 – $90 million opening weekend.
I mean, yeah, it lost out to Avengers: Endgame – but that’s already made $2 billion and looks like it might overtake Avatar as the highest-grossing movie of all time.
But what this means is significant – we have a successful Japanese video game blockbuster in the West. Arguably the first one ever!
As for the critics …
64% is certainly a decent score, but it was really the audience they had to win over. With 84% who liked it, that’s a solid pass for a live-action video game blockbuster!
MULTI-PLATFORM META MARKETING.
The marketing for this was very interesting – especially when comparing how it was sold in America to Japan.
First. Ryan Reynolds. Fresh off the heels of Deadpool, we have him as the big sell to the western audience, and this was played up a lot – with some exclusive Ryan Reynold’s content.
He has his “wink to the audience” moments now and again, and even “leaked” the entire film – which was really nothing more than a dancing Pikachu for over an hour … it got 18 Million views.
But it wasn’t just the Ryan Reynolds factor – although that was heavily played up. But we also got “Pokémon auditions” showing off the live-action designs in marketing-exclusive footage … and adding a weird authenticity to the film.
As for the more traditional media mix tie-ins, you had your usual stuff like Detective Pikachu dolls and trading cards – some given out as a promotional event if you saw the film at certain cinemas.
The only other thing of note is the Pokémon Go tie-ins. From the 7th to the 17th of May there were certain movie-exclusive events that happened in-game.
Pokémon featured in the movie were more likely to appear, you could catch your very own Detective Pikachu (with the hat and everything), and you could customise your video game avatar with a Detective Pikachu merchandise.
For a game still played by millions, it’s a good marketing ploy – not a bad tie-in by any means.
A LESSON IN ADAPTATION
This movie had two hurdles – Game-to-Film adaptation and Japanese-to-Western adaptation. I think it cleared both of them.
When it comes to Japanese to Western adaptation, it boils down to adopting philosophy of Pokémon.
I’ll try not to go too heavily into Japan’s history or Shinto beliefs about Yo-kai or anything like that, but there are certain philosophies which influenced the franchise from the beginning – the human/Pokémon partner relationship, a oneness with the natural world around you, animism (the idea that everything, animate or inanimate has a ‘spirit’), etc.
Surprisingly, idea of a ‘spirit’ (translated in this case to 精神 seishin) is very prominent in this movie.
I was honestly a bit shocked. Not that it was a bad thing – seishin shows up all the time in Japanese anime. It certainly ties into the core philosophy of Pokémon, but I’ll be interested to see how it’s received by Western filmgoers who just wanted to see a fun film with that guy who played Deadpool.
It didn’t feel mainstream, but that was OK. It was neat to see what I thought was just going to be metahumor and CGI action have a surprising amount of depth to it.
After our last video game blockbuster was Rampage that was bizarrely refreshing.
THE NEXT BIG CINEMATIC UNIVERSE?
Detective Pikachu isn’t just a blockbuster, it’s a proof of concept for a larger Pokémon universe.
The Pokémon Company got their answer to whether they could do live action films – and it was a resounding “yes”.
We got cool battles in live-action.
We got an expansion of the world.
This is also the first time we’re seeing Pokémon in live action, and I think it was wise they waited. CGI can be tricky when translating 2D anime into 3D renderings.
The Pokémon featured were a pretty small amount. But it showed that the franchise can work in live action and may incentivise fans to try and spot their favourite Pokémon make its debut in later instalments.
There is potential to either have Ryan Reynolds and Justice Smith return, or we could get other big-name stars to enter the franchise and explore another corner of the universe separate from the main-series games.
Potentially, we could even build up to a tournament or something. Introducing other characters and their own stories, before they meet for some grand, epic CGI battle?
That could be a clever way to incorporate a spherical storytelling narrative structure into their Cinematic Universe, and better than directly adapting any of the 1000+ episodes of the anime.
As it stands, Detective Pikachu was a very clever way to expand the universe and evolving a 23-year-old Japanese franchise into a mainstream Hollywood blockbuster.