The Pokémon franchise has been around for over two decades. Trading cards and videogames featuring over 800 adorable “pocket monsters” as they’re called in Japan (the birthplace of Pokémon), have enchanted both kids and adults. More recently the augmented reality game Pokémon GO, played on a smart phone, has captivated the world and continues to increase in popularity.
Now the franchise’s first live-action movie, Pokémon Detective Pikachu, has delivered the highest opening weekend of any videogame movie of all time.
I had the chance to talk with Benji Samit and Dan Hernandez, the writers of Pokémon Detective Pikachu, to find out how they managed to tackle such a huge franchise and turn it into a record breaking movie the entire family can enjoy.
Samit and Hernandez met while attending Brown University in 2006. “We wrote theatre together and came out to LA,” says Samit. We’ve done a lot of TV but written movies as well.”
The writing partners have worked on shows like The Tick and did three seasons of the recent reboot of One Day at a Time.
Samit says the producers of Pokémon Detective Pikachu were looking for the nerdiest writers they could find. “And we got the call,” he says.
Samit and Hernandez were thrilled to get the job. “The kids who grew up with Pokémon are now adults, some of them have kids of their own. It was pretty exciting to write something that so many generations could all enjoy,” says Samit.
Hernandez agrees. “Pokéman is one of the big millennial franchises – it’s kind of specific to that time and place. For people our age and maybe a little younger, it’s something that’s been in our lives for over 20 years and a live-action Pokémon movie has been the golden goose. People have really hoped could it could be brought to the screen in the right way.”
The screening I attended in Los Angeles was a mix of press and Pokémon fans who were mostly adults. I had to admit to Samit and Hernandez that I was surprised at how enthusiastic the audience was – they whooped, hollered and applauded through the entire film.
“I’m not surprised people were so excited,” says Hernandez, “because allowing yourself to tap into those feelings of excitement and enthusiasm from when you were young – it’s a very powerful feeling. And of course the younger generations are experiencing it for the first time. I think it’s a very cool moment for a movie like this.”
So how do write a screenplay based on such a popular franchise and not disappoint “generations” of fans?
“For us,” says Samit, “the key to cracking this entire story, this movie, was really focusing on those emotional relationships. Pokémon is a world that is so huge and fantastical and over the top that we found we needed to constantly be grounding it in something real. We honed in on this father son story that was sort of the emotional anchor to the whole thing.”
In the film, human teenager Tim (Justice Smith) discovers his estranged father is missing and employs a talking Pikachu (Ryan Reynolds) to help unravel the mystery. A junior human reporter, Lucy (Kathryn Newton), and a handful of Pokémon join in on the fun.
Samit and Hernandez say they were given the freedom to pick and choose which Pokémon to include in the story. Considering there are hundreds to choose from, they knew they needed to find ones that had a clear emotional core and were relatable to people.
“We brought a fan’s enthusiasm to create this material but as far as the selection of the Pokémon themselves, we really gravitated to characters that had intrinsic emotion,” says Hernandez. “For instance Psyduck carries around a lot of anxiety, a lot of psychic drama. When he gets too upset, he has an explosion. Well, that sounds like a writer to me!”
Hernandez adds that Psyduck also has a strong comedic point-of-view and he knew he could be the comedic breakout character in the movie. He was right.
Overall, the writers say that when you’re looking to adapt such a big and beloved franchise like Pokémon, you really need to accept it for what it is.
“Sometimes with big franchise projects like this, things can go off the rails and I think that’s because they don’t embrace the idiosyncrasies or weirdness of the thing itself as a good thing – rather than a negative thing,” says Hernandez. “It’s really important to embrace what is unique and strange about whatever it is that you’re going to write – whether that’s Pokémon, My Little Pony, Star Wars or Marvel.”
Hernandez cites The Lego Movie as a good example. “That’s something that people probably thought, ‘How can you make a movie out of that?’ But they crafted an extremely emotional story and they used what was great about Legos to help tell that emotional story. So don’t run away from the weird, don’t run away from the things people love about what you’re writing. Try to understand what is good about it and use it as a strength.”
Pokémon Detective Pikachu is currently playing in theaters.