How Pikachu And Sonic Conquered The Video Game Movie Curse

Hollywood has been trying for a very long time in earnest to make video game movies work. This really dates back to the "Super Mario Bros." movie in 1993, which did not go particularly well, with "Mortal Kombat" following a couple of years later in 1995. Remarkably, it took literal decades for studios to even begin to crack the code on how to bring video games to life on the big screen in an effective, well-rounded manner. Yes, the "Resident Evil" franchise did quite well working as mid-budget action/horror films, but they rarely ever received any kind of acclaim from critics. It would be tough to say they fully accomplished the well-rounded meaning of success. At best, they served as an example of the video game movie curse, which is that most movies based on games simply couldn't be accused of being very good. 

In recent years, however, a couple of true bright spots have emerged that signal certain studios have begun to hammer down a formula for success here. Namely, both "Sonic the Hedgehog" (as well as its sequel that is currently in theaters) as well as "Detective Pikachu" have managed to find success both critically and commercially. So how did they do it? What did these movies have that other video game movies didn't have? What lessons might future adaptations be able to take away from them? We're going to extract what we can, as best we can.

A lack of specific story to be married to

One problem that comes up from time to time in adapting video games into other mediums, particularly movies, is that these stories can often be dense, specific, and they rely a lot on play interaction to get the most out of them. Look at Tom Holland's "Uncharted," for example. The movie has done well enough at the box office but it hardly even scratched the surface of the games themselves and served more as a prequel to the adventures of Nathan Drake, rather than telling the actual stories of the games themselves. "Halo" eventually became a TV show because the story was too tough to crack as a movie, and even as a show, it has its problems in the eyes of many fans and critics. The list goes on.

Where we are seeing the most success in game-to-movie adaptations is in the freedom to craft a story from a relatively simple idea. Sega's "Sonic the Hedgehog" games are wildly popular and have been for a very long time, yet they are not packed with dense mythology or specific storylines. This allowed director Jeff Fowler and the rest of the filmmaking team to make the "Sonic the Hedgehog" movie into something that served the medium without much compromise. That is how the first film made more than $300 million at the box office even with a truncated run due to the pandemic. And that is why "Sonic the Hedgehog 2" was able to nab the biggest debut ever for a video game movie.

Similarly, "Detective Pikachu" was, on the one hand, married to the "Pokemon" universe. On the other hand, director Rob Letterman was given a little gift in adapting this simple, little-known video game as to not be beholden to stories from the various shows or animated movies. Again, they could craft a story in this world in a way that suited the medium of cinema without making fans angry. That's how you get to $431 million at the global box office, second only to "Warcraft" ($438 million) in terms of video game movies all-time. Though "Warcraft" was not met with kind reviews and only made $47 million domestic, with the vast majority of its money coming from overseas. As such, "Detective Pikachu" is probably the most singularly successful video game movie to date.

Enough critical acclaim to get by

Critical acclaim isn't everything. Audiences and critics disagree on things all of the time. "Venom" serves as an excellent example of critics and moviegoers being very far apart on something. That having been said, a little positive buzz never hurt anyone. To that end, only five video games in history have ever earned a "fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and we've already talked about three of them. You guessed it! "Sonic the Hedgehog" (63%), "Sonic the Hedgehog 2" (68%), and "Detective Pikachu" (68%). The only other two are, amazingly enough, "The Angry Birds Movie 2" (73%), and the indie horror/comedy "Werewolves Within" (86%).

For general audiences, video games on their own are not must-see franchise fare, and it seems any level of buzz can help marry the brand awareness and the motivation for someone to actually buy a movie ticket. A complete lack of this kind of buzz might also explain why the likes of "Need for Speed," "Assassin's Creed," and "Doom," among many others, failed to connect entirely. That bit of critical praise unquestionably helped to get these movies an edge over the competition.

Aiming for the perfect audience

Another key factor in these cases seems to be that both the "Sonic" movies and "Detective Pikachu" were aiming for the right combination of audience members. These were both firmly family-friendly plays, which helps to cast a wider net. There is absolutely nothing wrong with "Resident Evil" as a franchise but it's not one you're going to take the kids to on a Saturday afternoon, generally speaking. Warner Bros. and Paramount Pictures, respectively, made a smart play in going for families in these cases.

The other element to consider is that nostalgia is going to play a part with slightly older audience members here. Picture people in their 30s who, even if they don't have kids, grew up playing "Sonic" or watching "Pokemon." Nostalgia is a powerful tool that Hollywood exploits regularly. Marry that to something that it is safe to take the whole family to and what do you have? The numbers would suggest a formula for a hit. In some ways, this is not rocket science with the benefit of hindsight.

Are animals the real key?

We've established how "Sonic" and "Pikachu" set themselves apart from many other video game movies in the past, but is there a simpler trend to follow here? For example, "The Angry Birds Movie" made $352 million at the box office and its sequel is one of the best-reviewed video game movies ever made. Another recent example is Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson's adaptation of the arcade favorite "Rampage." Though it did not fare particularly well with critics, it did earn a very solid $427 million globally. So, is anyone else seeing a pattern here?

This may be a little reductive but all of these movies center on animals in some way. Pokemon are fictional creatures, but animals nonetheless. Hedgehogs don't talk nor are they blue, but we're still dealing with animals. "Rampage" saw big angry mutated animals but again, still animals. "Angry Birds" is self-explanatory in that department. Correlation does not always equal causation but if future Hollywood suits want to potentially grab at some low-hanging fruit, this may be something worth considering. Though, as I often argue in my Tales From the Box Office column, I caution any studios from taking the wrong lessons away from something's success, and this could be an easy trap to fall into here.

In any event, as Hollywood remains incredibly dependent on franchises, video games could be the wave of the future. But that relies on being able to successfully take these stories to another medium and, while many have tried, few have succeeded. It is, amazingly enough, "Sonic the Hedgehog" and "Detective Pikachu" that have carved the path for others to follow.