New Screenwriters Inspire Promise for Detective Pikachu

Legendary’s new hires rejuvenate a previously hopeless movie franchise.

Let’s be real here. I had a lot of contempt for the Detective Pikachu announcement. After YEARS of waiting for a live-action Pokémon movie, I get a version of this?! No Ash. No Professor Oak. No Pokémon catching. Just a thunderbolt-less Pikachu in a Sherlock trailer knock-off. Watch the trailer and tell me the music doesn’t sound like this recurring theme from the BBC hit. They also have the same hat.

Okay, I’m being a tad harsh. After watching the first 9 minutes of the Detective Pikachu game (in Japanese, you’re welcome), I could see the foundation of a unique story in the Pokémon universe. Of course, I was still skeptical. That was until Variety reported that Gravity Falls creator Alex Hirsch and acclaimed screenwriter Nicole Perlman are in negotiations to write the film. Though I have some reservations about the concept, Hirsch and Perlman are skilled enough to compensate for its flaws and, assuming that Legendary hires a solid director and cast, deliver an amazing experience for the screen.

The source material, Great Detective Pikachu, comes with its own set of challenges, but some of these weaknesses may reveal themselves as strengths. According to Kotaku, the game was released on February 3, 2016 as a Japanese exclusive. Its central characters are Tim Goodwin, a typical (read: white male) audience surrogate teen, and the titular Detective Pikachu. Tim ventures to Rhyme City in search of his missing father and meets the fuzzy flatfoot soon after his arrival. The one crucial detail: Tim can understand Detective Pikachu as if they were speaking the same language. Tim’s inability to converse with Pokémon creates the game’s dual mechanic; each character communicates with his own species to investigate crimes. It’s a cute premise that delivered a decent game. However, Perlman and Hirsch will face a variety of obstacles while adapting this property.

First and foremost, there’s the matter of expectations. Pokémon is a worldwide phenomenon unlike any other. The series has sold 279 million video games worldwide with 21.5 billion cards shipped to 74 countries. The animated show has 19 seasons. If you were a child or teenager at any point after the brand’s introduction in 1996, there’s a high probability you or one of your friends engaged with one or many of those pop culture outlets. And this is all without considering the App Store record-breaking release of Pokémon Go this summer. The breadth and depth of the world’s love for Pokémon will be key to the movie’s financial success, but it will also raise the bar for the movie’s quality. After loving the series’ first animated films, fans grew dejected as the quality of subsequent entries in the series diminished. Pokémon movies haven’t been released in U.S. theaters since Pokémon Heroes bombed in 2002. As we’ve seen with films like The Force Awakens, the largest hurdle is often atoning for the mistakes of previous entries and winning over long time fans. Plus, with a fandom as dedicated as that of Pokémon, mob mentality problems like those endemic to comic book movies are a near certainty upon this film’s release.

The problem with the way Detective Pikachu relates to fan expectations, and the second major challenge it faces, is that the story is completely unrelated to many of the series’ key tropes. As I alluded to in this article’s introduction, Detective Pikachu does not battle. Even if he wanted to, he lacks the ability to generate electricity that is central to any previous depictions of a Pikachu. And he talks! Besides a few legendary Pokémon in the animated films, Pokémon do not speak. The love trainers and their Pokémon share, despite the lack of language, is a widely regarded staple of the series. I could go on about this forever, but the message would stay the same. There will be backlash towards the choice to forsake these mainstays of the Pokémon series. However, in other ways, the Detective Pikachu’s subversion of the brand’s tropes improve its chances of appeasing the fandom. Instead of attempting to deliver on expectations and failing, game adaptation provides an opportunity to sidestep the problem of expectations altogether. Without preconceived notions of the Detective Pikachu story arc and how it “should” be portrayed, fans will be more likely to take the new film at face value. Sure, there will be a lot of preconceived notions anyway, but there will be far fewer than if they decided to produce a straightforward adaptation of a Pokémon game, for example.

The third concern is a practical one. Depicting Pokémon in a live action setting is a nuanced and difficult task. The filmmakers will have to make a choice in regards to the manner they present Pokemon on the screen: will they remain the cartoonish versions shown in recent commercials or will they attempt a more realistic rendering of the creatures? My bet is on the former, as most attempts to portray Pokemon as they would exist in the real world are downright terrifying. Even so, look no further than the dragons in the early seasons of Game of Thrones for examples of the difficulty inherent in mixing live action with computer generated graphics. Making sure that CG items have a sense of weight and creating realistic interactions between them and actors are two of the many considerations that will complicate the creative process for this movie. Moreover, talking animal movies are hard enough to produce without feeling stale and derivative. For reference, take a look at my review of the recent Kevin Spacey feature, Nine Lives, where he plays a businessman stuck in a cat’s body.

Nine Lives Review: This Ain’t Garfield

Despite these concerns, Alex Hirsch and Nicole Perlman have the prowess and experience to make Detective Pikachu into a stellar film.

Mabel (Kristen Schaal), Grunkle Stan (Hirsch), Dipper (Jason Ritter), and Soos (Hirsch)

Hirsch’s strengths are best exemplified in his work on Gravity Falls, the Disney XD sensation that ended its two-season run this February. He created, starred, and wrote for the series that focuses on 12-year-old twins, Dipper and Mabel Pines, as they spend their summer vacation with their great uncle (grunkle) Stan in the fictional town Gravity Falls, Oregon. Over the course of the series, they uncover a mystery greater than they could have ever imagined. The show is hilarious, endearing, riveting, and everything else in between. I consider it one of the best television series of the last few years, not just one of the best cartoons. The show demonstrates an aptitude that makes him a perfect candidate for writing Detective Pikachu.

His first strength is his comedic sensibility. Since it’s hard to convey comedy in this medium, check out this clip with some of the best gags in the first season of the show. Along with his talented writers, Hirsch used throw away jokes to lampoon a variety of television cliches and deliver some great laughs at the same time. His ability to write comedy will prove a huge benefit on a project that concerns a wise-cracking Pikachu who would rather talk to girls than battle other Pokémon. Effective humor will be necessary to keep absurd parts of the set up from wearing on the audience, so his skills are essential.

Even more impressive than his comedic proficiency is the ease with which he transitioned genres to create his first series. Sometime after his graduation from the California Institute of the Arts in 2007, Hirsch was given the opportunity to pitch to the Disney Channel. In an interview with Vox, Hirsch explained how that lead to conception of Gravity Falls:

I thought, okay, I’d love to just make a straight-up, balls to the wall comedy but I’ll never get away with half of the jokes that make me laugh on other networks on the Disney Channel. So if I can’t just be a pure, crazy comedy for comedy’s sake, maybe I need to be one part comedy, one part mystery, one part sweet, family adventure. I come from comedy, and all the other ingredients in the show are the departures. Those are the things that I’m actually not familiar with that I’m inventing as I go along.”

And yet, some of these aspects are the most lauded parts of the show. Specifically, many have praised the show’s world-building and its ability to maintain mystery over two seasons of (generally) standalone episodes. One of the best characterizations of his attention to world-building is from a WIRED article that praises the show’s intelligence:

“A hallmark of the modern intelligent television cartoon series is environmental cohesion ‐ when Friendship Is Magic introduces a minotaur or Regular Show throws in ghost truckers you accept it as part of the expanding story-world ‐ but Gravity Falls instead relies on a complex system of foreshadowing and callbacks that, in retrospect, seem to have been firmly in place since its inception. When an unexplained background character that inexplicably popped up in various pivotal scenes turned out to be Time Anomaly Removal Agent Blendin Blandin [Justin Roiland] attempting to eliminate in-show paradoxes, I wasn’t exactly surprised but I was no less impressed.”

Though these references are astounding in their complexity, they pale in comparison to the depth of the Pokémon universe. With 772 species of Pokémon, an untold amount of fictional technology that relates to them, and years of revisions to the series’ canon, Hirsch and Perlman have their work cut out for them. Along with satisfying fans, a major challenge will be creating a world inhabited by Pokémon that feels like an actual reality. Hirsch’s time developing his own alternate universe, with its complicated set of rules and conventions, will make this process significantly easier in the long run.

The other benefit of his predisposition to mystery-writing involves the plot of the new movie. Considering the film is a detective story, engineering a satisfying set of clues and revelations is crucial to its success. Audiences want to be able to follow along with the mystery while also reveling at the prowess of the on-screen detectives. Fortunately, Hirsch has some history with puzzles and clues. Besides the elaborate sets of cryptograms sprinkled throughout Gravity Falls, Hirsch recently engineered a global scavenger hunt for fans to find a statue of the show’s primary antagonist. With clues hidden in Japan, Russia, and across the United States, the Cipher Hunt was one of most intricate television tie-in projects I have ever seen. And this all occurred after the final episode of the show aired. The hunt not only speaks to his ability to craft a cohesive, satisfying mystery, but also it reflects his commitment to engaging with his fans, a sentiment legions of Pokémaniacs are sure to appreciate.

via Forbes

Perlman’s expertise is also well-suited for this adaptation. Her most renown credit is for co-writing Guardians of the Galaxy with writer/director James Gunn. Though Gunn ultimately rewrote her script, according to WIRED, Perlman spent two and a half years combing through back catalogs and learning the history of Guardians characters. During the writing process, she had to change her expectations for the scientific reasoning for plot points in the film. In a true testament to her love for the scientific world, Perlman got her start by submitting her first screenplay, which chronicled her idol Richard Feynman’s time investigating the Challenger explosion, to The Black List in 2006. Taken together, both experiences speak to a keen ability to examine the “physical rules” of both real and fantasy universes. In combination with Hirsch’s world-building skills, this will allow Perlman to develop the “rules” for the live-action Pokémon universe in a manner that will satiate even the most scrutinous observers.

Furthermore, Perlman has demonstrated talent for distilling the underlying core of concepts from a canon without being too precious with specifics. Her 2014 BuzzFeed profile speaks to the role she played in reshaping elements of the Guardians comics for the screen. As I alluded to before, Gunn has publicly downplayed the Perlman played in the creation of the final Guardians script. An article from Slate addresses the topic with more depth than is required here, but I wanted to reaffirm that her groundwork was evident in the movie’s final script. She was responsible for deciding upon the composition of the film’s team, a group that ended up balancing each other perfectly, from the lengthy list of options in the comic series. She also retooled some individual character stories. Peter Quill, aka Star Lord, was originally an astronaut who “has an encounter with an otherworldly celestial being.” She removed this blatant Deus Ex Machina and instead centered the story on a group of “ne’er-do-well outlaws thrown together into a partnership of convenience.” Gunn followed her lead and shaped Yondu (Michael Rooker) into the smuggler and father figure to Quill that we saw in final film. It was their partnership, the combination of her knack for structure and his outré sensibility that made the film into an astounding success.

The Guardians of the Galaxy: Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Rocket (Bradley Cooper), Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Groot (Vin Diesel), and Drax (Dave Bautista)

Her attention to the finer aspects of storytelling is also apparent in her newest project, drafting the screenplay for Captain Marvel with Inside Out screenwriter Meg LeFauve. Quoted in WIRED, Perlman addresses the complications of writing Marvel’s first movie with a female superhero as its central figure:

“‘We should just tell the best story and build the best character.’ And then we have this constant back-and-forth about how to tell a story that is compelling, entertaining, moving, kick-ass, and fun, and also be aware of what those larger implications might be.”

Though this doesn’t speak to specifics in the movie, her script with LeFauve was good enough to attract recent Academy Award for Best Actress winner Brie Larson to the starring role, so I am confident in its quality. She has a fantastic disposition for a film like Detective Pikachu, where there are so many countervailing concerns that the characters could become lost in the writing process. And don’t forget, Guardians and Captain Marvel are both films with heavy amounts of CG images. Her experience accounting for the additional complexities of such a film will be another key strength in the production of this Pokémon movie. If her work on these projects is any indication, then Perlman’s collaboration with Hirsch, a creator with a unique comedic perspective like Gunn’s, will yield fantastic results.

Writing a live-action Pokémon movie is a near-impossible task. Writing a live-action Pokémon movie based on Great Detective Pikachu seems like an even harder one. Alex Hirsch and Nicole Perlman will have to appease hoards of fans, struggle with complex technical concerns, navigate an astounding canon, and write for a talking animal. In other hands, the movie would be on course for a disaster. Instead, with these two at the helm, it seems like the film could turn out well. I have no idea how they’ll address these countervailing concerns or how they’ll decide to structure the movie. But hey, they have the job for a reason.

Detective Pikachu will begin production in 2017.