With its unashamedly over-the-top visuals, story and characters, Detective Pikachu was an absolute joy to watch. For long-time fans of the franchise, the countless references and (unsurprisingly) Pokemon which Rob Letterman managed to cram into what was a fairly short film helped mitigate the sometimes-stilted dialogue. Ryan Reynolds and Justice Smith worked well together in a strange genre mix of buddy cop, coming of age and fantasy. It did not offer the same grin-inducing joy for those either not acquainted with, or holding a dislike for, Pokemon. But, unlike Warcraft, Doom, and other video game tie-ins, its position as a charming kids film means it doesn’t alienate all but the franchise’s most rabid fans. While it is hardly a cinematic masterpiece, Detective Pikachu’s inarguable success begs the question:
Does this mean that good video game films are possible, after all?
Based on the past and future of video game films, putting aside Detective Pikachu for the moment, I’m not too convinced that live action will ever work as well as people hope. With Sonic’s trailer looking more like a poorly put together parody than something the average cinema-goer will want to see, the future is uncertain to say the least. Something about live action film and an absence of player interaction strips the characters we all love of their charm, resulting in reliably terrible finished products. That being said, the success of anime films and short films in the form of video game cutscenes breed hope for video game films having a place in animation. If you remove the need to suspend your disbelief to the nth degree, we could be on to something.
“The strengths of the Mario series, alongside other classic successes like Donkey Kong Country, derives from their gameplay and simplicity”
Let’s go back to the beginning. Here we find what video game Youtuber Videogamedunkey referred to as the tone-setter for all subsequent films of the genre: Super Mario Bros from 1993. Many people aren’t aware of this abomination and, honestly, I apologise to anyone reading this for exposing them to it. For Super Mario Bros, you could give it some leeway for being the first film of its kind. You could, but really, really shouldn’t.
With a budget of over $40,000,000 it made a twenty million dollar loss and has some of the most bizarre costume and narrative choices in cinematic history. It attempted to be strange and comedic, but ultimately suffered from being simultaneously detached from Nintendo’s unique charm and attempting to replicate the Mario video game narrative—which itself is not the game’s strong point. Shigeru Miyamoto himself was no fan of it, possibly accounting for an absence of a sequel or remake in over two decades.
“Success comes from the no-fuss, simplicity of it all as opposed to the sophistication of the main characters”
This example is illustrative of a common charge made against video game films as a whole: an incompatibility in media fulfilments between the active (video games) and passive (film, novel) mediums. The strengths of the Mario series, alongside other classic successes like Donkey Kong Country, derives from their gameplay and simplicity. In Super Mario World, for example, there is a simple-yet-effective plot and a vibrant set of characters. Its protagonists (Mario and Yoshi, mainly) certainly have character and recognition in their gameplay style, short catchphrases and appearances.
Success comes from the no-fuss, simplicity of it all as opposed to the sophistication of the main characters. Thus, when translated to film the approach which made the game good does not a good film make. Giving Mario and Luigi voice lines beyond their usual 1-5 word catchphrases feels just plain wrong, and there’s no compelling gameplay or interaction to carry this through. This same problem can be found in many other instances, too, such as the aforementioned Doom film.
Another, albeit slightly less catastrophic, flop from the past was the infuriatingly terrible Warcraft. Blizzard’s attempt to step into cinema had many issues, but unlike Super Mario Brosit was not due to an unbridgeable gap between game and film. The Warcraft franchise, the most prominent facet of which is World of Warcraft, has bred many successful and acclaimed novels which build Blizzard’s fantasy world fantastically. In this case, the main issue was that it was just a terrible film with poor writing, direction and racist casting.
Duncan Jones’ team lacked the creative spark which the creators of World of Warcraft’s award-winning cinematic cutscenes show off in a short-film fashion. Cringey line delivery mixed with a weak choice in plotline led to a predictable failure. To the uninitiated, it looked like a bad Lord of the Rings spin-off; to the long-time Warcraft fan, it was a Frostmourne to the face.
“There is certainly something uncanny, and un-immersive, about seeing well-known actors (who often know nothing of the source material) deliver lines from video games”
Even in Detective Pikachu, as good as it was to watch, there were countless moments where the live action actors really took viewers out of the film. When even an actor as consistently talented as Bill Nighy delivers lines talking about Mewtwo with a dead-serious facial expression, and audience members giggle at the cringey spectacle, it’s a sign something is wrong. A similar line in, for example, one of the many Pokemon anime films feels much less out of place. Live-action film requires too much effort on the part of the audience to enjoy them in this case.
Similarly, watching known actors talk about the Horde and warlocks in Warcraft just feels… wrong. But, the same lines in a novel or World of Warcraft cutscene brings about a much more positive response. There is certainly something uncanny, and un-immersive, about seeing well-known actors (who often know nothing of the source material) deliver lines from video games. Of course, if screenwriters just avoided regurgitating lines from the games it would be better: high fantasy works in film, something already proven.
This same problem can be seen in the trailer for the upcoming Sonic film. While many are, understandably, focusing on the body horror that is the titular character’s 3D model, the presence of Jim Carrey as Dr. Eggman/Robotnik is troubling. His performance, as far as the trailer reveals, will suffer from the same issues as Warcraft and, to a lesser extent, Detective Pikachu. In a similar vein, the upcoming Witcher Netflix series looks promising, but fans are fearing that it will suffer from the same issues.
Looking ahead, then, a change in direction away from live-action attempts at video game films would undoubtedly help. That, and a choice in games with characters and extended universes where filmmakers don’t need to rely on the game plotlines:
A Pokémon Diamond film? Terrible. Standalone, separate Pokemon anime films? Wildly successful.
A Skyrim film? Terrible. An Elder Scrolls film? Potentially good.
Perhaps good video game films are possible, but at the same time maybe it is time to ditch live actors in favour of anime or 3D animation. Video games have some of the best narratively-driven universes in any form of media, but their successes are different from those of films. Spin-offs should remain spin-offs.