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The Pop Culture Wing of Hot Corner Harbor

Monday, June 6, 2016

The Strategy for Adapting a Live-Action Pokémon Movie

Rumors have been swirling around Nintendo wanting to adapt their franchises to movies, and one of the first franchises attached to this news was none other than Pokémon. I’m not sure what to think of this news yet; it’s exciting to see something that were such a large part of both my formative years and my life as a whole getting a big adaptation, but there’s so much room for things to grow horribly wrong. And unlike, say, comic book movies, which have sort of always just been a part of my life since I was young, this will mark totally new ground.

So, since the news broke, I’ve been thinking: what could a Pokémon movie look like? How can you adapt something like that to a movie? And almost as importantly, what exactly is it that made me like Pokémon? Because that last question especially will be important in adapting the work into a new medium for a larger audience.

With that in mind, I’d like to propose my hypothetical list of dos and don’ts for adapting Pokémon to the silver screen.

Do-Take advantage of the world built into the game
This is the single biggest advantage Pokémon has over literally every other video game that will be adapted to film over the next: the only thing a movie needs to become a Pokémon movie is Pokémon.
This sounds really obvious, so what do I really mean? Well, almost any other time you’re adapting things, you need to hit a certain list of things for it to actually capture the spirit of the original. Otherwise, you end up with…well…*
Most other games have characters or worlds or stories that are integral to the experience. For example, any Mario game that fundamentally changes Mario or the Mushroom Kingdom is obviously working uphill. Meanwhile, Pokémon recasts and relocates itself between every iteration. The Pokémon themselves are the biggest (really, the only constant) factor in making something part of the Pokémon franchise. It’s how the franchise can support spin-offs as tonally and mechanically disparate as Pokémon Snap, Mystery Dungeon, and Colosseum, and it’s a massive advantage. That’s a lot of room to work with.

*Disclaimer: I actually enjoy the Super Mario Bros Movie a great deal, but mostly for reasons that other video game movies should not be striving for. See: Exhibit A.

Don’t-Adapt the games exactly
Yes, it’s super easy to make a story into a Pokémon story, but the easiest story to write in this case isn’t necessarily the best. We could just take the basic plot structure that’s given to us in each main entry in the franchise: get a starter, travel around beating the eight gym leaders and training new species, stop some criminals along the way, beat the Elite Four, be the very best (like no one ever was).
However, that story doesn’t seem to lend itself well to a movie. It’s very episodic in its structure, with each gym leader serving as functionally similar check points in your quest to become a Pokémon Master. In a movie, it’s going to come across very similar to doing the same basic plot eight times in a row, which is an absolutely horrible flow and way too repetitive considering there will only be about two hours to work with. Unlike in the games, we will actually need to spend time learning about the characters, meaning a narrower focus would be beneficial.

Don’t-Take the basics for granted
Building off of that idea: why not take advantage of that need for a narrower focus? We’ve never seen Pokémon battles, so why not focus on them? In so many other stories we could do in this world, Pokémon battles will be a means to an end, either providing another gym badge or stopping the evil team or something else. Narrowing the focus will also be a great way to avoid starting to big.
Too many movies raise the stakes to such absurdly high levels that it’s easy to lose focus and interest. That was one of the great things about Deadpool; in a genre where every conflict is becoming global-level threat, it was nice to see a superhero movie where the stakes were instead relatively intimate. If things work in the first Pokémon movie, there will be time to go back and explore the world in depth, the Pokémon league as a whole, the complex mythologies and legendary monsters, the frequently-apocalyptic plans of the villains, and so on. In the meantime, why not make something focusing on a character or two in this familiar-yet-distinct world, maybe over the course of a few battles? Say, something like a Pokémon League tournament, the type of things that close out the seasons of the TV show? That could work.

Do-Mix genres
Like I said earlier, Pokémon is flexible enough to easily accommodate a wealth of stories, similar to superhero movies borrowing elements from other genres. Which is good, because it helps to get a sense of direction for what will probably be a relatively straight-forward narrative.
For a story like I’ve proposed, focusing on a few battles in a tournament, are there any other genres that naturally lend themselves to that? I would argue that looking to boxing’s rich cinematic history would be a good place to start. Really, it makes a lot of sense; in both cases, we’re essentially looking at a rather violent sport of combat, framing the trainer and the Pokémon as partners similar to a boxer and trainer seems like a good way to introduce this relationship in a shorthand that people will get, and it shows us how to center a story around a few major conflicts.
Now that we’ve hammered out a basic framework, there are a lot of ways this can go. Specifics on characters will depend on what each individual writer (or fan) wants to see.

Do-Look for what makes it different from those genres
If you write the best boxing movie since Rocky and transpose it to the world of Pokémon, most people will not be angry with you. Heck, if you were to just adapt Rocky but for the Pokémon world, it’s not necessarily an issue. There’s a proud tradition in writing of taking good basic story ideas and tweaking them slightly to make something new.
But the best ideas will probably do something unique, something that just a boxing movie or just a crime drama or just an adventure blockbuster couldn’t do. Whether that’s a new angle, or a twist in the way the story unfolds, or what, it’s something to look for. Some of the obvious things to address for this story would be the relationship between trainer and Pokémon (and how a world with many sentient species would function), or the possibility for a disparity in competitors (say, in age: maybe don’t have ten year old trainers like in the games, because child actors can be a problem to work with, but you could definitely pull off a younger character versus middle age in a way a boxing movie can’t as easily; or in strategies, given that the characters competing are more the strategists and can represent a different variety of things; or so on), or even how a world that lets younger children venture out on their own to become Pokémon trainers would look like, and how it might affect a main character.
That’s a lot on plot to work through, and a lot of remaining questions will be more geared towards specifics, so I’d like to move to some other areas next.

Don’t-Strive for photorealistic Pokémon
I’ve seen people wonder about how to achieve Pokémon that look real, and how that would go. I’m going to be honest here: I think it’s a horrible idea, and in translating the creatures to screen, it would be better to stick to their original designs. Trying to make them look “real” means you risk hitting an uncanny valley, or using designs that look worse overall.* The existing monsters became popular for a reason, and changing that just to chase different aesthetic seems like a lot of effort to solve something that isn’t really a problem.
I think this Super Bowl commercial from earlier this year is a good guideline of what to strive for, visually. I wouldn’t want that exact appearance for a feature-length movie; either the models need to be darkened (they look a little too bright), or the world it’s set in needs to take on a slightly more fantastical appearance to match a little more. Maybe a little texture could be added so they don’t all look plastic-y and smooth (it makes sense for Magnemite, not as much so for Lucario), but don’t go overboard. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel.

*Especially considering that some Pokémon designs just shouldn’t be made to fit into the real world. Ones that are more based on inanimate objects are just going to come off looking silly.

Don’t-Worry about how vast the game’s world is
This is the big one. If a fan is writing the script, it can be easy to get carried away. There are so many things from the years and years of games, and it feels natural to want to show them all off.
Don’t. It can be fine to hint at other interesting aspects of this world. But after a certain point, if you just keep telling us about all these other cool stories or characters in this world that you could be telling us, it’s natural for the audience to wonder: why aren’t you just telling us that instead? If you do a good enough job of showing everyone why the world you’re showing us and the story you’re telling us are interesting, they’ll naturally want to find out more about it all on their own.

There are a lot of directions you could take with a Pokémon movie, and whoever gets to write the first one (because there will inevitably be more) will have to fight the urge to be pulled in a thousand different directions. The important thing to keep in mind, though, is that it will need a story just like any other movie, and to focus on the fundamentals. I think following my basic framework is a good way to do that.


  1. These are all great points, but I feel like if you really wanted to make Pokemon work visually, the world and colour would need to be brought in line to Pokemon aesthetics (We all live in a Pokemon world, after all). This would mean heavy CGI sets but rather than adding layers of detail a has been the standard since Avatar, embrace a more simplistic, perhaps almost cartoony feel.

    What are your opinions regarding an emphasis on classic gen 1 Pokemon (for maximum nostalgia) versus a more holistic cross-generational representation?

    1. That's a fair point. I'm still hesitant to recommend that visual approach, because I feel entirely-CGI sets still look fake too often to use reliably, but The Jungle Book is making me think that it may be more feasible in this day and age than my instinct is giving credit for. I'd like to see maybe one more movie really nail it before I personally feel really comfortable with it, but I can definitely see that as an option now.

      The strongest opinion that I have on generational representation is that a mix would be the best, but I understand any leaning towards specific Pokémon. It would give whoever is writing the most freedom, and it allows for more visually-interesting options (especially if someone wants to use a Dragon type, or a Ghost type, or Steel or Dark... those are some of the most interesting types on average, but have next-to-nothing in Gen I; actually, Gen I is overall solid, but I'd say a lot of the best designs in each type came later).

      In any case, I fully expect any real movie to lean most heavily on Gen I, but I feel like as long as they aren't completely cutting off every other Pokémon from appearing, it's fine. I've sort of taken on the mind set I do when an X-Men book is assembling a team; yeah, they're probably going to use Wolverine (or Pikachu/Charizard/Blastoise/etc. here), but even though the popular choice is over-exposed, it's still popular for a reason. Focus on what you like about those characters, and as long as it doesn't force every other choice out of the picture, it's fine.

    2. It would probably be a great hook for fans if there was an element of Where's Waldo (Where's Walrein?) to spot the cameos from non headliners. Sure my homeboy Sawk isn't going to get his time in the spotlight, but a couple of frames with him flanking a Martial-arts themed trainer is going to make my day.
      It's not an inspiring comparison, but the Transformers franchise works in a similar way for fans - they want to see Grimlock, even if he is translated into the ugly aesthetic of a movie they don't like.

  2. This is a great framework that is the first thing to make me optimistic about the potential adaptation. Like "Die Hard in an X" it's pretty much the suffixed version of that; "X with Pokémon" Which because the world is so wealthy with culture, could be anything. Practically every profession IRL is a kind of Pokémon trainer, or at least a role in that world: construction worker, athlete, office worker, cop, firefighter, clown, farmer, park ranger, archaeologist, backpacker, doctor... so any kind of story can work "with Pokémon".

    If I were writing/directing/producing these films [and obviously as an understanding fan and an aspiring filmmaker I think I should be] I would approach a whole slate of films that can focus on a handful of characters at a time, traverse different genres and even regions in the games [I like how in the games since Gen III there's been some NPC who mentions that they're from another region] and, like the fertile, mostly unexplored "cinematic universe" now presents as an option, I'd have characters from one film pop up in another, as long as it makes sense (say, two films take place in the same region [or across the Kanto/Johto area, which IIRC Sinnoh also borders to the north...], or if a character is an adventurer).

    For a first film, I don't know exactly what I'd do, but I know it'd be cool to see a movie about someone becoming a gym leader, or make it a father/son story about, for example, Brock taking over his retiring father's gym. (I'd assume, for all the original characters that should be created for these stories, that characters from the games should be cast when setting a story in their region, like the gym leaders, Elite Four members, bad guys, Looker, etc.)

    Another idea I'd like is kinda like the easiest story you mentioned, but changed for working as a film. It's a coming-of-age "with Pokémon" story, about kids who go out into the world/wilderness with starters and have some kinda adventure that takes them through arcs and stuff. Not all trainers need to challenge gyms, or the league, so that doesn't even need to be a factor. Or maybe it does end with a gym challenge, but it's the first gym and it took them an hour and a half to get to that town or something. But basically I think you can really pull off a great MOONRISE KINGDOM-esque story "with Pokémon". When kids go into the woods, and those woods have Pokémon, it kinda outlines itself.

    As for the specific Pokémon to use, obviously some Gen I's have to get major screentime, because because. I love all Pokémon; I agree with the idea to let the writer have freedom to choose. I'd like it if the region it takes place in uses the Pokémon found in that region in the games, but that can still be given some wiggle room. (Also, the movies could make movie-specific regions, too, right? Precedent’s there: the spin-off games do it, and the Anime has the Orange Islands. Heck, the Anime makes up towns and cities in regions beyond the ones in the games. Although, if they make an original region I’d hope it comes later; there’s so much world already in the game regions.)

    I think it's simply building a given story around the fact that Pokémon exist in the world, and utilizing the most fitting ones for the stories you want to tell. I don't think I really want like, trilogies or sagas or sequels as much as I want different films *set in* this world. These regions.

    1. [Continued]
      Having characters that show up in more than one film, even if it's not their sequel, is all you need beyond having them set in the same world to pull it off. Sure, have one gang of trainers from Johto meet another movie's trainer[s] from Unova to battle Team Rocket or something, for your AVENGERS-style team-up. After all, this is what Marvel does; different movies, different characters/stories, occasionally teaming up. Although where Marvel specifically (from IM1) builds-up-towards the team-ups, that doesn't need to be the goal of any Pokémon films. Superhero comics have cross-over event arcs that bring all the heroes together because that’s part of that medium; the Pokémon games don’t have that, even with legendaries that are quite cosmic.

      Different movies, all set in the same world. That's a successful "cinematic universe" that lives up to my understanding of that phrase. It's a little part of why I'm excited for the FAST&FURIOUS spin-offs and the A STAR WARS STORY films, but even that doesn't get to the same level I'm talking about here.

      Pokémon and their world as a setting for multiple movies isn't something that's really been done before. Millions of movies are set here on Earth, but we don't think of them as being "in the same universe" but the Marvel movies have "Marvel Earth [and Galaxy]", one big playground for many different films. And I think ultimately that's the difference between a 'cinematic universe' and 'sequels'.

      Sorry if I'm rambling or needlessly repeating myself there, the space to write it is so small I can't really look at my whole post without scrolling up and up. I just haven't really articulated or meditated on my thoughts about this, which of course I have many. I really like this piece and agree with it whole-heartedly. Hopefully the right people read it [and/or hire us].

    2. Totally agree on the Marvel comparison. For all of the proposed "shared universes" that I've seen, the only one that comes close to Marvel/DC in potential is Pokémon, I think (Nintendo overall is probably a close second, with Smash Bros serving as their Avengers, but it just doesn't allow for the level of connectivity that a Pokémon movie universe would). And I think they'd have even more freedom to play with genres than those two. I would totally see a Pokémon coming of age story, or family drama! And if you really wanted, you could do a noir or crime drama centering around Team Rocket or something, and save the team-up movies for the groups like Team Plasma or Team Galactic that are trying to harness legendary Pokémon (I don't know that the movies would be able to hold off for very long on, say, a big action-movie plot about a team summoning Dialga and Palkia to destroy the world, but I think holding off the big things like that for a few special movies could really go a long way in giving the legendaries awe-inspiring status while also making everything about the movies feel like an event).

      And a good point on the regions, I actually hadn't thought of that, but the spin-offs definitely serve as precedent for creating a region to suit your needs if the story needs it. And I feel like the variety of stories and ability to be flexible on using characters or creating new ones would allow a studio to assemble an amazing cast, whether through building them up across numerous movies or occasionally going all-out with large ensembles.