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From screen to shining screen — Videogame film adaptations are getting better, and here’s why

From Super Mario Brothers to the repertoire of one Uwe Boll, films based on videogames have long since been a curse on the movie industry. Up until recently, they have been critically panned while the box office numbers have gone all over the place (most of them underperform, though there are a few diamonds in the rough). While I do consider a great deal of them guilty pleasures (here’s looking at you, DOA), the past year has given us some great videogame films. While leaving room for improvement, these three films have enraptured the all-ages crowd and are relatively excellent feature adaptations.

What makes a videogame film adaptation good?

There is a wealth of discourse talking about the flaws of videogame film adaptations, and to be fair, I think that there won’t be a perfect way to adapt most games into a watchable two-hour experience. That said, I think the best transitions are for shorter games that rely on individual character stories rather than an overarching narrative. It might be impossible to condense Metal Gear Solid 4’s politically charged narrative into a Lionsgate release, but it’s much easier to do something with a three or four-hour game length.

True, but this ain’t no good movie, either!

A factor of a videogame film’s success is the presence of a big name attached to them. While there’s debate over casting no-names versus A-listers, it really helps that you get at least one famous actor to participate. Each of these films have at least one very noticeable American name, which helps the domestic box office immensely. After all, a mom or dad is most likely going to recognize an actor they see on a television show than a fan who’s more interested in seeing their favorite game series coming to life on the big screen.

Finally, I believe that the best videogame films are… well, films. As much as I love fanservice when it comes to displaying tidbits and Easter eggs, doing that too much means that the uninitiated will lose interest. I came to be entertained, not quizzed on a bunch of trivia I neglected to memorize. The best videogame film adaptations are those that balance the razzle-dazzle of game references and the fundamental aspects of movies.

Pokémon Detective Pikachu

While I’m more of a casual Pokémon fan (I’ve only really played the Gen I titles plus a lot of spinoffs like Pokken Tournament), the moment this film was announced, I was intrigued to see what would happen. Loosely based on the 3DS game of the same name, Detective Pikachu follows Tim Goodman as he tries to figure out the mysterious circumstances of his father’s death.

On the way, he meets an odd Pikachu (voiced by Ryan Reynolds), and the two form an odd team as they investigate the dastardly chemical gas R that’s causing Pokémon to go haywire. Out of the three films, I think this is the one that appeals to adults more than children, as it opts to take cues from film noir and as a result has more mature themes; there are some scenes that can be a bit too frightening for younger children, and *gasp* Pikachu swears! It still manages to get a PG rating, and there’s enough “getting crap past the radar” content that it becomes an enjoyable teen/young adult movie that you can still bring your kids.

That said, the reason this is probably my favorite of the bunch is that the designs of the Pokémon look great; the CGI is amazing, and there are some breathtaking interpretations of the characters represented here. We’ve always asked the question, “What if Pokémon were real?” and with Detective Pikachu, we finally get an answer. Plus wrinkly Pikachu is adorable, and I will defend him with my life.

Look at how adorable he is.

The Angry Birds Movie 2

This is probably the most surprising addition on this list, mainly because Angry Birds is now considered a relic of the original iPhone era. Sure, Rovio’s touch-screen classic still exists today, but it isn’t the juggernaut it used to be. That said, The Angry Birds Movie 2 is surprisingly the highest-rated videogame film adaptation on Rotten Tomatoes, and there’s a pretty good reason for that: It’s an entertainingly great movie that’s the most divorced from its source material. This film forces the birds and pigs to work together when a new foe, Zeta the eagle, threatens to destroy both species’ islands.

This being a sequel to a financially successful 2016 film, The Angry Birds Movie 2 actually diverts from its predecessor’s constant references to the source material and instead creates an original storyline featuring a host of new characters. While the new supporting protagonist Silver was in Angry Birds 2 (the game, not the movie. Confusing, isn’t it?) the other characters introduced were made for the film. The meta context that had Red dealing with obsoleteness as a character and the Angry Birds franchise as a whole was surprisingly deep for a movie that skewed on the younger side for audiences.

This movie also stuffed a lot of known actors into the cast list, from returning cast favorites like Jason Sudekis and Josh Gad to new voices like Leslie Jones and Awkwafina; basically there was someone that the whole audience would say, “Oh hey! I know that voice!” I think the casting here was done exceptionally well, and the performances contributed to the fun, lighthearted mood of the film. The gags were pretty charming too (the bathroom scene being an odd mix of toilet humor and slapstick that had everyone roaring in laughter), and it was a great time for fans of the game and general family moviegoers alike.

It’s definitely what it looks like.

Sonic the Hedgehog

Finally, the most recent film of the bunch and the one that gives fans what they want. While it does take some liberties with his backstory, Paramount does justice with Sonic after the horrible initial design from the first trailer. It was a rather gutsy move as the studio decided to delay the film to give it some polish and a new redesign. Turns out, that’s all that was needed to make this a smash hit.

Well, it also helps that Jim Carrey steals the show in every scene he’s in, with James Marsden and the supporting cast being entertaining as well. Carrey’s loveable goofball character from the 90s shines here, with the mad Doctor Robotnik being a role suited perfectly for him. He just eats up the scenery with every passing second, and I can’t wait for him in the inevitable sequel.

Compared to the other two films, Sonic the Hedgehog goes headfirst with its fanservice, offering up tons of small Easter eggs that don’t weigh down the story in order to show them. Their inclusion is subtle, from Hyper Potions’ Sonic Mania track to a crude Sanic drawing. All of these references work in context, and even if you might not get their significance, they are funny or entertaining enough that you won’t notice.

Perhaps I could talk about guilty pleasure video game adaptations, the “so bad it’s good” kind that you tell future generations about, but for now I implore you to check these films out if you can. They’re wonderful treats that will hopefully change the way we think of videogame films in the future.

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During the day, Elisha is an aspiring businessman, but at night, he's a wacky freelance writer. Born into the world with a fleeting knowledge of rhythm games, he loves shonen manga and still wants Pushing Daisies to have some closure. For any manga/anime/video game inquiries, please contact him at edeograc (at)
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