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.
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.