The live action remake seems to be the hot new thing in Hollywood these days. Or at least it is at The Walt Disney Company. The studio has seen amazing commercial success at remaking the animated features of the Disney Renaissance era as live action films. There are still plans for more in the future, but the films have been met with some severe criticism on occasion. On top of being labeled as lazy these remakes, The Lion King especially, have been accused of being soulless and lacking the magic of animation. Oddly enough, there was one film that actually handled the transition well that flew under the radar in the grand scheme of things, that being Pokémon Detective Pikachu.
Pokémon as a brand needs no introduction. While it hasn’t maintained the same world dominating hype that it did in the late 90s and early 2000s, it remains the highest grossing media franchise in history. It has made its mark in the world of video games, anime, trading cards, toys, manga, and now a live action blockbuster film. Pokémon, no matter the medium, has always kept practically the same art style, a highly stylized fantasy world of colorful monsters. The games, cards, and of course the television series maintain that anime style. Warner Bros had a unique challenge in bringing that very specific universe into the real world.
Creating realistic Pokémon is hardly a new thought experiment. Fans on the internet have been creating and uploading this kind of art for years and years. Many artists will try to approach these fantastical creatures as real animals. Take a Pokémon like Bulbasaur. It’s a fairly simplistic design of a dinosaur or frog like creature crossed with the bulb of a plant. In standard Pokémon media, it’s highly stylized but many artists try to make it look as realistic as possible, with some quite literally just being a frog with a bulb slapped on top of it. This is an oversimplification, with many artists taking more of the fantastical designs and creating interpretations that could feasibly exist as real creatures. It’s a fascinating, if sometimes off putting collection of work. Certain Pokémon make the transition well, others truly end up fitting the name of pocket “monster”.
This type of art must have been popular with someone at Warner Bros. It had been initially used as a reference point by artists on the film who eventually recruited RJ Palmer to the team, a renowned artist on DeviantArt who specialized in these types of pieces. The artists behind Detective Pikachu chose a different path however. They sought to make the most faithful designs possible in a live action space. At a certain point, tweaking Pikachu to look too much like a real mouse makes it stop being Pikachu. As hilariously simple as it sounds, the solution was just a matter of hardly changing Pikachu at all and simply giving him realistic fur. Sometimes the simplest solution works best. Especially with an icon like Pikachu. The audience already has a very specific idea of what he should look like and it’s important to adhere to it.
What Detective Pikachu does with Pokémon is not to change them radically, but to faithfully adapt and expand upon. Instead of focusing efforts into making Pikachu look like a mouse, more time was spent to subtly weave the characteristics of a mouse into his behavior. The Pokémon do subtle things that they should logically do but don’t in the more simplified and stylized world of the anime and games. The group amphibious Greninjas leave slime and ooze from their outstretched tongues. The colossal Torterras have entire ecosystems growing on their forested backs. Ludicolo leans even more into the duck portion of its design and is given downy feathers. They’re not revisions of the old Pokémon, they’re expansions. Some Pokémon are even in their purest form. This is the first time the franchise has truly sold Mewtwo as the genetic freak of nature it was always meant to be.
Animation is a beautiful, powerful medium that Detective Pikachu clearly has a love for. Too often these types of big studio adaptations are pumped out with little care to the original source material. It’s very clear that the team behind Detective Pikachu has a love for Pokémon. Jigglypuff looks like Jigglypuff, Snubbull looks like Snubbull, and so on and so forth. It doesn’t feel like something trying to be Pokémon, it just is Pokémon. Funnily enough, around the same time Detective Pikachu was in production, another live action video game adaptation was in the works, Sonic the Hedgehog. It reached infamy within minutes of the first trailer’s release for its much maligned design for the titular Sonic. It was rapid departure from the traditional Sonic design and as a design on its own it was criticized for being just plain ugly. The backlash was so bad that the film was delayed and entirely reanimated with a new, more accurate Sonic design. Studio interference from higher-ups caused the change, thinking the more realistic design would be a bigger hit with audiences, which clearly didn’t end up being the case.
This isn’t even a problem exclusive to live action adaptations of animated works. TriStar’s 1998 Godzilla film was in part despised by hardcore Godzilla fans for being a radical departure from the traditional design. The iconic upright silhouette, nigh invulnerability, and atomic breath were swapped out for a raptor like design, no special powers, and a defeat at the hands of basic artillery all in the name of “realism”. Godzilla fans hated this just like Sonic fans hated the initial movie design. Hollywood’s obsession with realism has come at the expense of truly fantastical and inventive stories. There’s the belief that stylized things are for children and adults will enjoy things made to be as realistic as possible. Circling back to Disney, the 2019 Lion King was justly criticized for the sheer lack of life and personality within its characters. Realism will always have its place but to rely on it as a crutch undermines just how versatile film can be. Film is not beholden to the mundane of our real world and should take the opportunity to depict things and tells stories we simply can’t see or do in our everyday lives.
Some may look at fantastical costumes in the musical Cats or the outlandish designs of the Japanese Godzilla films and claim that they can only work in mediums like the stage or low budget films to try and justify Hollywood’s attempts at realism. Detective Pikachu however challenges that notion to say it absolutely is possible to make stylization work in live action, you simply have to trust your audience to enter into a fantasy world. Pokémon is a world in which creatures with nearly human levels of sentience are able to control the elements and battle one another. An entire culture is crafted around a world inhabited by humans and Pokémon. Of course such a world is not bound to our ideas of realism.
Detective Pikachu is not a perfect film, but it’s one that relishes in the fact that it’s adapting a fantastical video game and anime series. It doesn’t make a big deal about having fantastical creatures within its world, it simply does. This combined with the clever expansion of the Pokémons’ natures crafts a film that is simply fun to watch for any Pokémon fan, or anyone with a wild imagination.